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Put a Pin on It 

In an era of passionate personal expression, enamel accessory pins from decades past make a fashionable and nostalgic comeback

click to enlarge For Howard, it all started with a skull pin. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • For Howard, it all started with a skull pin.

Wear your heart on your sleeve — quite literally — or on your breast pocket, with an enamel pin.

The accessories movement, hot right now, enables fans to proudly display their love of Star Wars, cats, LGBTQ pride, music, feminism and anything else that can fit onto a square inch or so of molded metal and be affixed to a piece of fabric.

Thanks to another wave of retro nostalgia, enamel pins once popular in the '80s and '90s have resurged over the past few years as an artistically aesthetic, customizable form of personal style across both mainstream and alternative fashion trends.

Unlike a T-shirt emblazoned with one's favorite band/movie/TV show, a political statement or a cheeky slogan, a small lapel-style pin can more subtly express one's personal interests and beliefs, explains local pin designer Kaarin Howard.

"It's really easy to wear a #BlackLivesMatter pin, and to show solidarity that way [rather] than wearing a T-shirt. And it's something you can always have on — you don't have to wear that shirt every day," Howard says. "And then there are people who love [pins] for the nostalgia, and others who have jackets with tons of feminist and political pins, and then people who just have 'fun' pins."

Howard, a professional graphic designer based in Spokane who released her first enamel pin design in early 2016 under her brand Little Braap Racer, has since launched six other designs.

The name was inspired by the braaaap sound her vintage motorcycle's engine makes when revved. She also wanted the name to embody the motorcycle lifestyle, though not all the designs she creates are direct nods to that theme.

Howard's first pin was of a skull, filled in with solid black enamel. Next she made a David Bowie-inspired, blue, red and gold lightning bolt, which she's reissued since in other color combinations; she debuted it right before the pop star's untimely death. A few of her designs, like the "Night Rider" and "Brunch Club" pins, are typography-focused, while a ranunculus flower pin and a motorbike pin feature lots of delicate, fine lines that create a textured contrast between the pin's metallic outline and the shiny enamel surface inside.

As demonstrated by Howard's own diverse offerings, enamel pins made by designers of all genres span cultural influences and design styles: there are pins representing animals, sports teams, celebrities, pop culture symbols, slang words and phrases, emojis, food, plants, nonrepresentational shapes and patterns, and more. Pins can evoke a dark and gothic aesthetic, or glittery, neon retro vibe. Vintage pins from membership organizations, kitschy tourist shops and even corporate promos once given away for free can retail for $20 and up on some sites.

click to enlarge Kaarin Howard - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Kaarin Howard

While the enamel-pin-wearing and -collecting trend has been slower to take hold in the Inland Northwest compared to major fashion-hub cities like L.A., New York and London, where Howard ships a majority of her online sales, she still sees people sporting their pin bling around town.

"It depends on where you go, but you always have that subculture in Spokane who are on the trends, or they're from Seattle and are picking it up quicker than the main populace," Howard says. "If you're down to wear a denim jacket these days, you probably have some pins on it."

One major draw of accessory pins for casual and avid collectors alike is the ease of being able to change them out like a piece of jewelry onto jackets, bags, hats and other pieces in a wardrobe. And while pins fall into the same accessories category as embroidered patches (which have long been popular, yet are also seeing renewed interest), the ability to move pins around is also part of their mass appeal. The metal adornments are also usually smaller than patches, and can be worn solo, in groupings, or adorning the entire front and/or back of a leather vest or denim jacket. This latter approach means that enamel pins can serve as wearable art exhibits, showing off the wearer's hobbies and quirky personal style.

Howard displays her growing personal pin collection, including her own designs, on a well-worn denim vest. Some of her pins are by other local designers, like Jon Deviny's Lightning Deluxe brand piece with the phrase "Be excellent to each other and party on dudes" spreading across the silhouette of Abe Lincoln's bust. She also sports the Bartlett's stylized "B" and a colorful "Pacific Northwest" pin from local brand the Great PNW.

When Howard first observed that enamel pin collecting was coming back several years ago — major fashion blogs note 2014 as the big year for pins' return, and Howard mentions they're now being sold by major fashion retailers like Urban Outfitters and H&M — she knew she wanted to design her own.

"I love when my art is actually physical, since usually it's just digital," she says. "Having something you can hold, I love that, so I was like, pins could be a cool thing for me to do."

click to enlarge Kaarin Howard's Little Braap Racer enamel pins are growing in popularity. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Kaarin Howard's Little Braap Racer enamel pins are growing in popularity.

After watching the trend gain traction for about a year, Howard launched her first design, the skull, and started marketing her brand and its first pin on Instagram. The social media photo app is considered an ideal platform for pin designers and collectors to showcase their wares. (The hashtag #pinstagram is a big one.) In addition to her website, Howard sells on Etsy and in a few Spokane-area stores: the Window Dressing Pop-Up Shop, Kingsley & Scout and Ferrante's.

For now, Little Braap Racer pins will remain a side project for Howard, who says she relishes being able to design on the side free from the client demands of her career. Just this month, she launched her first earring design, a pair of three-dimensional cubes filled with white glitter enamel inside a gold outline.

"Right now, I'm really excited about the earrings and doing more jewelry," she says. "I have no intention of going away from pins, but I'd like to grow into a larger lifestyle brand."

Howard's pins all begin as hand-drawn sketches. She then scans them to create digital files, adds finishing touches and preps the designs for manufacturing, which is done out of state. (The process to make enamel pins is elaborate.) She pays up front for each batch of usually around 100 pins, and sells them for $11 apiece.

As a first-year seller at this year's Bazaar artisan market two weekends ago, Howard says that sales were good, but she noticed some shoppers passing by her booth who seemed to be unaware of enamel pins' trendy comeback.

"I want more people to make more pins," she says. "That helps me and everyone else." ♦

Find Little Braap Racer pins at littlebraapracer.com, on Etsy: Little Braap Racer and on Instagram @littlebraapracer

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