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- 8 Jun 2009
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The Human Touch

Beyond notions of finite availability or promises of status and prestige, the true value of craftsmanship might very well be its human element.


LONDON – According to the Luxury Institute’s 2008 "WealthSurvey”, there is a growing feeling amongst consumers that luxury has become a mere commodity, and furthermore that many brands had ceased to deliver on their inherent promise of superior quality and craftsmanship. In short, to the eyes of several high net worth consumers, ‘luxury’ had been cheapened and simply no longer evoked the magic it once did.

In fact, a number of designers and luxury brands had already opted out of this circus long before the downturn for reasons other than the state of the economy, choosing instead a slower growth strategy largely premised on traditional values of craftsmanship and integrity. While many of these small, independent brands had for the most part been eclipsed by the glamour of larger brands at the height of the boom, their day may finally have come.

South African-born, New York-based milliner, Albertus Swanepoel, in some respects exemplifies this way of thinking. Once a well-guarded secret along Seventh Avenue, for years he has been painstakingly turning out his exquisite hand-made confections for the likes of Marc Jacobs, Thakoon, Proenza Schouler and Carolina Herrera. While his beautiful hats were often the final touch on critically-acclaimed ready-to-wear collections, the spotlight rarely reached his 400-square-foot studio in Manhattan’s Garment District. In fact, it took his 2008 CFDA/Vogue Fund award and recent nomination for the equally prestigious Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent in Accessories for his considerable talent to gain notoriety. “The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award has completely changed my life,” he admits earnestly. Lest you get the impression that he’s the newest ‘overnight sensation’, however, note that it has taken him eighteen years to reach this point.


Albertus Swanepoel’s presentation for the CFDA


Clearly, it is neither fame nor its promise of fortune that makes this master craftsman tick. After all, if Swanepoel had wanted to become a rich man, he would not have made millinery, of all things, his life’s work. Yet, the passion and old-school dedication that Swanepoel brings to his craft seem to be resonating beyond New York’s Seventh Avenue clique, coming to the attention of an increasing number of high-end retailers and their discerning clientele. In addition to an exclusive collection for Barneys New York, a first collection of hats for influential e-tailer Net-A-Porter has sold briskly and has led to more orders. Moreover, Swanepoel’s reputation is about to get another boost when Gap launches worldwide a capsule collection of his exclusive designs along with those of his fellow CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund laureates.

Despite the recent professional accolades and the significant support they’ve brought to his business, Swanepoel possesses the wariness of someone who has toiled away in obscurity for nearly two decades. Indeed, while deeply flattered by the public recognition of his craft, he harbours no illusions: “I’ve accepted that my business will always be a niche business. That’s fine with me. The financial aspect is frustrating but integrity is the cornerstone of my business. I want to grow but not at any cost.”


He’s not alone in feeling this way. The sentiment is shared by Aseef Vaza, the London-based Central Saint Martins graduate known for bold, beautiful couture-inspired clutches and handbags. “Growth is good insofar as it provides you with a bigger budget to take your craft to a higher level and to improve your product — but not at the expense of my reputation.”

496_aseef_vaza_medium Vaza began his career in the rarefied world of Paris haute couture where he apprenticed at the house of Carven, one of France’s oldest couture houses. Creative Director Pascal Millet asked him to whip up a few evening bags to compliment the 2004 collection and he hasn’t looked back since. His couture training is apparent in many of his designs which incorporate intricate pleating and juxtapose exotic materials and unusual colours making them at once highly unique and coveted. He too welcomes a return to a more restrained notion of luxury: “For a while, I was embarrassed even to use the term ‘luxury’ to describe my work because the term was so overused. I didn’t want to be associated with all that.”

Another testament of Vaza’s couture training is the level of precision he brings to his designs. He routinely spends hours with his Milanese craftsmen to get a particular model exactly right, down to the way it fits in your hand and feels against your body. Vaza whose business is currently entirely self-funded doesn’t rule out the possibility of eventually taking on investors; but it is clear in his mind that exponential growth is not what he’s pursuing. “I do this work because I love it. I don’t want to make a mediocre product just to sell more of it. If I sell a smaller amount of a product that I’m proud of, I’m O.K. with that. For me, it comes down to my integrity.”

Designers like Vaza have good reason to be wary. Growing a business based on craftsmanship and skill is particularly tricky. For one, there is the matter of scalability of their businesses. Swanepoel’s hats and Vaza’s bags and clutches are special in large part because they are made using age-old techniques and skills perfected over decades. There are only so many hats or bags any one skilled craftsman can make on any given day. As the reputations of these small brands grow, so does the demand for their product which raises the issue of productivity and the ability to meet demand.

Millinery, for instance, is hardly the specialty of choice for promising young design school graduates. Finding skilled labour is nigh impossible and training an apprentice, provided you can actually find someone willing to take up the craft, is a long-term commitment.


These concerns weigh heavily on the minds of Lewis Cutillo and his cousin Franco Gazzani, founders along with Franco’s father Manfredo and uncle Guido of Bontoni, an exclusive brand of exquisitely-made shoes for men. It takes one of five master craftsmen in Italy thirteen weeks to make just one pair of Bontoni shoes. Handmade from start to finish and hand dyed using custom made colours exclusive to the brand, the shoes embody the passion and dedication at the core of this small family business. At most, Bontoni’s craftsmen can finish 8 to 12 pairs of shoes per day.

495_lewis_cutillo_medium As Cutillo points out, “We’re not looking to become a global brand. In fact, we insist on remaining small. Currently, we know who our customers are. We love meeting them and educating them about our shoemaking process. Once they understand how our shoes are made, they value them more. When you grow too big, you lose that personal connection with the end client. We don’t want that.”

Fine craftsmanship, whether displayed on a beautiful hat, shoe or clutch, is to some extent an acquired taste. Even discerning clients sometimes have to be educated about the intricacies that make these products so special. This in turn requires well-trained sales staff, an all too often overlooked aspect of luxury retailing. Finding the right retail partners who are attuned to the nature of the product and willing to go the extra mile to support them is therefore an important part of the equation for these brands.


For Bontoni, who relies heavily on trunk shows to cultivate close relationships with their elite clients, this constitutes an integral part of their strategy: “From the beginning, we’ve insisted on maintaining a presence in only the most exclusive stores in the world such as Bergdorf Goodman,” explains Cutillo. “We carefully choose each one of our retailers. It’s vital that their approach is in line with the Bontoni philosophy. We have a strong personal bond with our clients. We strive to develop that same connection with our retail partners.”


While Swanepoel, Vaza and Cutillo both acknowledge that an appreciation of craftsmanship requires considerable time to cultivate, they are remarkably undeterred by this. In fact, one senses that this challenge is in part what draws them to their respective crafts.

“A finely crafted handmade product evokes an emotional response” explains Swanepoel. “It can be tied to a memory, an experience, a sensation. It has nothing in common with a cheap, mass produced counterpart. If you take the time to show a customer the difference, they get it.”

As Cutillo explains, " Our clients frequently want to know not only how their shoes were made, but also the name of the craftsman who made their shoes. They want to feel connected to them."

And perhaps herein lies the true appeal of a finely crafted luxury product. Beyond notions of finite availability or promises of status and prestige, the true value of craftsmanship might very well be its human element. After decades of being awash in glamour, hype and products that ultimately failed to live up to expectations, luxury consumers are awakening to the appeal of products with which they can connect meaningfully, and not merely possess.


Helene Le Blanc writes a blog at www.theluxechronicles.com