Reviving Craft As Enlightened Self-Interest

By Regina Connell.

Knowledge is in the hand

Knowledge is in the hand

However you feel about luxury—and in particular, conventional luxury fashion and design (all those labels, all those ads!)—you have to admit: it is the savior of craft skills.

We can all say we love handcrafted work, and decry the loss of craft skills, but the reality is that handcrafted costs more. Much more. And the notion that people on mainstream incomes will be buying at such a clip that they’ll keep craft skills going on a large scale? Not going to happen. That’s where the luxury markets come in.

Luxury brands rely on finely made products, particularly at a bespoke level, and that needs those skilled, experienced hands: hands that are aging, and not being replaced.

So some companies, like Chanel, have taken the tack of acquiring the specialist ateliers and companies necessary for their products to ensure a ready supply of these skills for discerning couture customers. This has included buying up a Scottish mill and the high end ateliers with specialist skills (embroidery, milliners, shoemakers, costume jewelry makers, and others).

Other companies not at the couture level have chosen to train a new generation of skilled artisans.

One company, Brioni, opened a formal training school with a four-year program in 1985. As reported in this Telegraph article, “When Mr Fonticolo [Brioni’s co-founder] decided to move production from Rome to Penne in the 1950s, he looked at the tailors who were working here—all men in their late forties and fifties—and realised they would be retiring soon. He worried about how their skills and expertise would be passed on, so he set up a school to ensure those techniques didn’t die out.”

Bruno Cucinelli also has a school, as does Kiton. On the accessories front, Bottega Veneta opened a school in 2006, and Spanish leather good maker Loewe opened a school in 2013.

And it’s not just about training the young. While American companies don’t appear to have done a great deal on the training front (I suppose we think we have an endless supply of immigrants—for now), there are some companies that are taking a more “on the job” approach.

The Business of Fashion notes that Brooks Brothers, for example, maintains a Long Island City, NY factory, where over half of the 222 employees are 55 and older and the average tenure is 30 years. The factory makes the brand’s ties, and many of the sewers are in the alterations department. The intergenerational training not only gives lessons in craft skills, but lessons in life and work, as well.

Brooks Brothers also benefits because these star alterations experts and artisans can get product to its New York stores in far less time than it takes to get something made and shipped from China.

Could it be that our “want it now”/on-demand culture might actually be the savior of deep craft skills? Well, that would be a delicious irony.


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