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- 8 Jun 2009
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Commercial Craft

Guy Salter calls for the UK Luxury Industry to regain its Leadership of the Applied Arts.


LONDON — Along with provenance, integrity and intrinsic value, craftsmanship has long been part of the luxury mantra — and never more so than now. In the past, it seems to have had something of a symbolic, almost talismanic quality attached to it; merely intoning the word imbued a brand with ‘deeper luxury values.’ But is craftsmanship truly alive and well within Luxury? It’s clear we must do more than using nice sounding words that ‘tell the story.’

Indeed, to many observers, the luxury industry is at a crossroads where there is an ever-rising competitive advantage, even an imperative, to finding ways of incorporating or increasing craft and hand skills into manufacture. But the question is, how do we do it without cutting our margins or becoming too niche? What are the real issues? Can these be resolved, and how can we prepare to deal with them?


Craft a language for luxury

Once upon a time, the knowledgeable consumer and the craftsman spoke the same language. James Ogilvy of Luxury Briefing says, “this still happens when a customer is buying a bespoke suit in Savile Row,” but there are few such cases nowadays. Rather, like ‘luxury’, the word ‘craftsmanship’ has become over-used and debased in recent years, “tarnished by superficiality,” in the words of Hutch Hutchison of Vertu.


Alastair Hughes of Savoir Beds remarks, “It would be so much better if the consumer knew what made a bed special. The trend of the last fifteen years has been the other way — all the energy goes into selling a ‘Look’ and the ‘Brand’, not what is in it or how it is made. This results in expensive beds and furniture — but with inferior fillings.”

Even other categories in which the role of craftsmanship is more apparent to the consumer, such as watch-making and jewellery, have suffered a noticeable decline of craft. Vartkess Knadjian of Backes & Strauss comments, “Without a doubt, being a Master Diamond Cutter means something. Even with laser technology we still need highly qualified people.” But, says Jorn Werdelin of Linde Werdelin, “too many brands are serving up product that is similar and unremarkable.”

Indeed, not all brands have maintained their standards. Alistair McAuley of Timorous Beasties posits that while “craft has been taken to a new level by people like Tom Dixon, who are very good at making things,” in too many cases, “it is just a label. Hand-made does not mean pushing a button.” It’s not surprising, therefore, that savvy consumers, especially affluent Gen Xs and Ys, are no longer prepared to take things on trust.


The Middle is what matters.

When craftsmanship is discussed, the conversation soon focuses on the very high-end, for example bespoke suits, custom-made shoes or special edition bags. Of course, there is a good business in such things — but it is, and will remain contained. There are few problems with quality in this rarefied space; however, preserving sufficiently high levels of craftsmanship in the middle, between the very top-end and the entry-level, is altogether different.

“Generally speaking, craftsmanship is not in the middle-level of product,” says James Ogilvy “but there could be more.” It is in this middle area in particular that the most corners have been cut. Too many brands are able to get off the hook by talking about their custom workshops or limited edition lines.


Morten Linde and Jorn Werdelin, founders of Linde Werdelin


Jorn Werdelin of Linde Werdelin is especially aware of this dilemma. “As a new entrant we have made the decision to build brand value in the middle-market by delivering very high quality,” he says. “[But] this is very difficult as there is a real cost to us in margin and too many watch brands believe that their customers buy primarily on brand value, not on the movement or how it was made.”

This needn’t be the case. There should be more of an internal debate about deploying technology and some lower-wage economy input to drive down costs, in order to increase the level of craftsmanship that can be afforded on mainstream luxury, without eroding margins.


A Culture of Craftsmanship.

“There is a culture of craftsmanship in every country,” explains Mark Henderson of Gieves & Hawkes, “but in few is it linked to luxury.” And, “maybe this has been acerbated by the ascent of the Designers,” he adds, also commenting that, “just because something is well designed, doesn’t mean it will be well made.”

This sentiment is echoed by Armando Branchini of Altagamma. “Young people want to become fashion designers, not craftsmen.” The problem posed is twofold. First, he remarks that he can “foresee a situation where Italy will be full of unemployed fashion designers but have no capability of manufacturing.” Moreover, there is a lack of clarity in understanding the craftsman’s role in the process of making beautiful things.

Tomasz Nosarzewski of Dunhill’s workshop in Walthamstow does his best to explain, stating: “I am not a designer. I do what the designer or creator asks me to do. But what actually gets produced is my vision of what he wants.”

Hutch Hutchison from Vertu similarly explains that “a craftsman realises the dream design… [For] mass production you have to design for a lower skill-set, whereas a true craftsman enables innovation by finding a way to get the result at the highest possible standard.”

In France, Comité Colbert has long worked to raise public perception of luxury artisans and the work they do. Since 2006, the French Government has recognised certain outstanding luxury craftsmen as ‘Maîtres d’Art,’ a concept based on Japan’s ‘National Living Treasures.’ Altagamma is also working on a similar initiative in Italy called ‘Maestro dell’Eccellenza.’


Etienne Vatelot, Chairman of the Art Crafts Council, Christine Albanel, Minister of Culture and Communication and Christian Adrien, Jeweler at Cartier receiving the honorary “Maître d’Art” distinction on November 24, 2008.


It would be very beneficial if this could be extended to countries like the UK, Germany and Spain, to ensure a broader acceptance of the importance of craftsmanship both for the luxury industry and for culture in general.


New Blood.

Apprenticeship has recently become a hot topic in the UK. Nevertheless, there persists within luxury craftsmanship the problem of dying skills compounded by a limited pool of young people willing to take the time required to learn them. This issue is widespread in Europe, and is especially acute in the UK.

As Robert Ettinger says of the leather industry in Walsall, “it has been dying since the 1970s […] Now there are no colleges in the UK that teach any leather-making skills, so the only way Ettinger can operate is [to] hire young people who then ‘learn on the job.’” Ettinger recently took on three new people who are being trained in this way.

A similar problem existed in Savile Row, which led to the founding of Savile Row Bespoke, an association with the aim to “unite the founding fathers of the Row with the New Establishment tailors to protect and develop a craft practiced in this elite quarter of Mayfair for over two centuries.” As Mark Henderson explains, “when we started, the majority of tailors were either over fifty or fewer than thirty, as the younger ones were leaving after a cursory training to become designers or do something else.”

Alastair Hughes of Savoir Beds echoes this, stating that “the upholstery skills we need are becoming rarer and rarer in the UK, simply because the old craftsmen are dying and not being replaced.”

Armando Branchini further comments: “Our challenge is how we distribute the knowledge that is in the heads and hands of our master craftsmen to younger generations.” I believe that a significant part of the solution is to be found in more and better funded sector-generated initiatives such as Savile Row Bespoke.

Similar initiatives are being spearheaded in Italy by such schools as Scuola Pelletteria Toscana, Scuole calzaturiera STRA & Scuola Orafa Arezzo, where senior craftsmen pass on their knowledge to younger ones at weekends. Country and category-specific projects like these are essentially taking on some of the role of the old Master Guilds.


The National Question.

“Ten years it didn’t seem to be so important but now I feel is essential for our brand that our entire product is made in England,” says Robert Ettinger. A number of businesses I know share in the sentiment, especially those for whom Japan is an important market.


The Ettinger brand gains considerable awareness, without compromising on the family spirit and the quality of the craftsmanship.


But, in the craft debate, we mustn’t confuse country of origin, brand story and the underlying level of craftsmanship skill in the product. Indeed, for other companies it is less vital where a product is made so long as it is crafted by the most talented people.

La Maison, which makes beautiful furniture hand-carved in China, provides an interesting example of this. Its founder Gui Bacou says his Chinese craftsmen are “very much better than the French or Italian carvers. We are open and proud of our craftsmen and their skills.” Fromental, another company that manufactures in China, produces exquisite hand-painted and embroidered wallpaper.

The level of luxury craftsmanship skill in countries such as India, Vietnam and China is on the rise. Tomasz Nosarzewski says, “We have mostly only asked them to do the cheap things but with their thousands of years of culture they can definitely do craftsmanship. The trouble with Europe is now we all work hard mainly to find new ideas and designs.”


Knowledge Transfer and Innovation.

“The knowledge is travelling,” says Gui Bacou, “it always has, but Europeans try to stop it. This is not right. The skills are not yours in the first place. All you can do is pass it on.”

However, skills don’t always seem to travel as freely as they could, and as a consequence both brands and craftsmen suffer. Alastair Hughes speaks of one of his best upholstery suppliers operating a workshop in Cairo. This craftsman’s local customers now prefer foam mattresses, so he cannot use his craft skills locally. Fortuitously, Savoir Beds can deploy these skills for their own traditional mattresses, perpetuating his knowledge of how to use horsehair and other natural materials.

This story boasts a happy ending, and I am confident that a more efficient international online networking system for logging craftsmanship skills and connecting brands, suppliers and craftsmen could benefit everyone.

Knowledge transfer is not only about old techniques, but also concerns new or non-traditional ones. This could mean, for instance, a British leather-worker, originally trained to make hard-edged cases using bridle leather learning to make light, soft bags from a Florentine craftsman. Or, as in the case of Ettinger, using laser technology to apply the traditional English brogue pattern, a feature of their new wallets, on a much smaller scale. As Alastair Hughes says of the bed industry: “there has been far too little innovation except in cutting costs and marketing.”


Craft as a Business.

Maybe because it is often associated with nostalgic visions of the past, rarely is there sufficient focus on the commercial aspects of running a craftsmanship business.

As a small step in this direction, Walpole is working with Arts & Business on a soon-to-launch new initiative. Called Crafted, its purpose is to help luxury craftsmen improve on the commercial aspects of their business and gain new and relevant craftsmanship skills. I originally set this up a couple of years ago with The Prince’s Trust to help disadvantaged young people who had established creative businesses.

But I still felt we needed something more focused on the luxury and fashion sector, which was more commercial. American Express has funded Crafted as a pilot project, providing business advice, contacts as well as access to artisanal skills and knowledge to fifteen craftsmanship businesses. The objective is for businesses to be more sustainable and successful after a year, and furthermore to provide the means to enhance, preserve, and pass on skills.

The Luxury industry, above all others, should be a bastion for the preservation of craftsmanship. The timing could not be better to work together as an industry in addressing this. For one, even our largest brands are re-examining their models and working methods. What is more, young people may now be more receptive to what Mark Henderson calls “the hugely satisfying job of being a craftsman.” Preserving these precious skills will enable us to execute exceptional products, crucial in the current market.

As Jorn Werdelin opines, “There is a huge difference between something that is ‘nice’ and something that you look at, pick up and say ‘Jeez, I really want that!’’’


Guy Salter is Deputy Chairman of The Walpole