Lifestyle Journalist

M. Astella Saw writes about travel, food, retail, design and trends in the lifestyle sectors. Contact me at m.astella.saw (at) gmail.com

Insider Dealings

Consumers are increasingly knowledgable about production methods and supply chains, and brands are increasingly lifting the veil to highlight their own. But where does the honest assessment of an item leave the brand froth that surrounds it?

Among the ruffles and silks of Paris Fashion Week 2011, one image stood out: that of a team of tailors and seamstresses taking to the Dior catwalk at the end of the show. Dressed in simple white work coats, the luxury brand’s artisans were greeted with cheers. Putting aside the John Galliano scandal, the fact that Dior chose to place its craftspeople in the closing frame of the show was a dramatic stroke of action highlighting a growing movement.

The same motivation that brought consumers in droves to small-scale farmers’ markets in recent years – the personal contact with producers, the geeky fascination with provenance, the opportunity to pick through heritage apples and pears rather than grab plastic-wrapped supermarket produce – is now taking hold in other lifestyle sectors.

In luxury, design, fashion, automobiles, interiors and even personal electronics, the spotlight is turning to shine not only on a featured product, but on the process of how that product came to be. Driven in large part by consumers’ emerging interest in craft, but equally by a growing access to information that explains production or offers an understanding of supply chains and margins, brands increasingly realise that the how and the why are inextricably linked to the what.

But as the craft knowledge economy dawns, will consumers focused on the production narrative become inured to the tales and promises of much advertising and marketing today? Will barefaced nuts and bolts – and tailors’ shears and leatherworkers’ tools – win out over a seductive sheen and practised patter? As consumers become more familiar with the workings of factories, workshops and ateliers, what’s at the end of the production line for brands?

In mature Western economies, a burgeoning DIY movement and a thriving craft market point to growing consumer interest in the way things are made. The Bibles of our time include Mark Frauenfelder’s ‘Made By Hand’, an ode to amateur shed building and organic gardening, and philosopher-mechanic Matthew B. Crawford’s ‘The Case for Working with Your Hands’, a New York Times bestseller that reconsiders the value of manual work. On-line, websites such as Sight Unseen, Grain & Gram and Manufacture & Industry take audiences on factory tours and introduce them to woodworkers, printmakers, tailors and other craftsmen. Off-line, hands-on classes in carpentry, leatherworking, pottery and other traditional crafts are gaining in popularity: “Anecdotally, there does seem to have been an increase in people wanting to learn craft skills,” says Rosy Greenlees, executive director of the UK Crafts Council. “There seems to be a real desire to understand more about where objects come from, how they are made and, consequently, how to make them.” And despite personal budget cut-backs during the recession, people continue to spend on ostensibly hand-made objects: the craft sector in the UK alone was last year worth over £913m, according to the Crafts Council.

“Now we find that appearance matters less than provenance, and brands are losing their stranglehold,” Greenlees says. “Craft, as opposed to design, luxury brands and art, is seen as personal, authentic and genuine.”

Indeed, as supply chains lengthen in a globalised world, and the links between raw material, maker and buyer stretch and are ever more strained, consumers are seeking emotional reconnection with the things that fill their lives. Rather than the cookie-cutter products and anonymity of much modern production, humans – human scales and human emotions – are coming to the fore again. “Crafts, by virtue of their existence, have stories to tell – stories that connect with the consumer in difficult economic times,” says Hugo Macdonald, design editor of Monocle magazine. “The humanity and integrity of craft is reassuring.”

But a second phase to the craft movement is now in operation as brands seek to mine this perceived reassurance further. Responding to consumers’ interest in how things are made, brands are – à la the Wizard of Oz – pulling back the curtain to show customers what goes on behind the scenes. Mirroring initiatives by luxury brands including Gucci, Tod’s and Chanel, Hermès in February launched its Festival of Crafts in the USA, a travelling roadshow of demonstrations by the luxury brand’s artisans. Turning production into performance, too, furniture brand Tom Dixon showed up at the 2010 Salone del Mobile in Milan with boiler-suited workers assembling the studio’s digitally manufactured brass and stainless steel Etch lamps. The installation, Flash Factory, also welcomed consumers who wished to assemble their own product at the stand. Savile Row tailors Gieves & Hawkes has high-lighted its in-store bespoke shoe-making service with posters not of glossy footwear but the grizzled makers at their bench.

“Such initiatives are great as they introduce elements of the production process to consumers on consumers’ terms – they don’t have to travel to the factory, but still get to meet the people behind the product,” says Adam Thompson, founder of Manufacture & Industry and a researcher at creative strategic consultancy Sense Worldwide. “But most big brands are too frightened of giving away their secrets,” Thompson cautions. “The most interesting brands are often smaller companies in their early stages, such as Marwood, a tie brand that has documented its research and development process from the start.”

Marwood’s blog, an on-line sketchbook, includes behind-the-scenes posts on sales visits, trips abroad for inspiration, and setting up installations for London Fashion Week. Similarly, Red Wing Shoes, a maker of work boots, features a video series on its website showing how the brand’s boots are produced. The Factory, the first instalment, demonstrates how much is done by hand by skilled leather cutters and stitchers. This year, the brand launched ‘From the Heartland’, a touring photography exhibition featuring its tannery and factory workers.

Elsewhere, menswear label Albam recently released ‘Factories’, a hardcover photography book documenting the places in which its products are made. Featuring close-ups of factory workers, machinery and tools, the prints present factory work in a more human, artistic light than people may originally have perceived it. “As production has shifted further away from the consumer, you lose that sense of where things actually come from,” says Albam co-founder James Shaw. “It’s nice to know when you do know. It’s the same with our factory – [the book shows that] this is the person who made your jeans. What people do really makes a difference, rather than the process being controlled and automated to where the human side is gone.”

Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles website is even more explicit about its supply chain. Here, users may track particular items from design to delivery, as the interactive map shows, for instance, how a pair of board shorts made of Japanese nylon is sewn in Ho Chi Minh City before arriving in the company’s Reno, Nevada, distribution centre. Helping customers further understand how sourcing and pricing decisions are made, the website explains, in one case, how using a recycled nylon fabric would have resulted in a pair of shorts costing $75.

The notion of the consumer’s new craft knowledge feeds too into questions of identity – ones shared among post-industrial nations, where shoppers’ renewed, sometimes green, sometimes patriotic focus on the local – local raw materials, local workers, local production – is sharpened by a sociopolitical decision to rediscover a country’s or a city’s pride in a once-strong heritage of manufacture and industry. Wieden + Kennedy’s recent Imported from Detroit campaign for Chrysler is a powerful reminder of this, as is New York axe maker Best Made Company’s new American Felling Axe, a paean to traditional American craftsmanship. The product description on Best Made’s website speaks of American steel, icons of the American axe industry and the use of an Appalachian hickory helve.

But is this a can of worms being opened? “Being able to think materially about material goods, hence critically, gives one some independence from the manipulations of marketing,” Crawford writes in ‘The Case for Working with Your Hands’. “Knowing the production narrative, or at least being able to plausibly imagine it, renders the social narrative of the advertisement less potent.” Crawford argues that the craftsman, or the craft-savvy consumer, is a more utilitarian consumer, and indeed utility – how well something works – will increasingly come to the fore as informed consumers, wise to the workshop, press for it.

That certainly plays well to brands for whom utility has become a starting point more than a by-product. Albam, for example, relies mostly on consumers’ positive experience of using its products rather than paid advertising. “There’s no seven-page advertisement in next month’s luxury magazine, because that adds to the cost of every garment,” Shaw points out. ‘It’s just a bit more old fashioned – if you like it, we hope you come back again.” In other words, utility has a role to play in marketing, too. Other brands, including fashion label Margaret Howell, furniture brand Another Country, paper goods company Field Notes, luggage brand Globe-Trotter, and Filson, a maker of outdoor clothing, take the same utilitarian tack – one likely to be adopted by more companies in the new craft knowledge economy. “Brands like these play within the intersection of craft and utility,” Thompson says. “They all share a similar aesthetic, and when it comes to advertising and marketing, they certainly rely less on the illusory tactics employed by others.”

It is against this notion of illusory tactics that consumers familiar with an item’s production narrative will increasingly chafe. As educated consumers scrutinise brands not only for their intrinsic utility and production quality, but also for their ethical and environmental practices, there will be less place for offending companies to hide. Away from any potential romanticism of craft and traditional workmanship, the facts prove that unthinking mass production comes with serious faults, ones that are increasingly being made public. In December 2010, for example, a high-profile campaign by anti-poverty organisations War on Want and Labour Behind the Label accused some of Britain’s most popular high-street stores, including Marks & Spencer, Miss Selfridge and Debenhams, of using sweatshops that exploit foreign workers.

Just as the proliferation of fashion blogs and street-style photologs proved that taste isn’t handed down from high-end designers or magazine editors, so will the growing number of behind-the-scenes projects demonstrate that an item’s value is built in from the very start – not created, through aspirational pricing or strategic marketing, at the end.

This is a sign of things to come. In the craft knowledge economy, brands that have until now survived on flash and inexplicably large profit margins will no longer be able to count on the blind loyalty of blinkered consumers. Shoppers will seek reassurance in the solid, tangible worth of an item made with care and expertise, not the unquantifiable promises of much of today’s obfuscating brandspeak. As Macdonald says, “Fantasy doesn’t look so appealing anymore.”

And while the demands of production-aware consumers will leave many brands vulnerable, the new craft knowledge economy will find others thriving as they add their voices to the greater production narrative. “Competitors will go one step further to show behind-the-scenes of their workshop, mill or ethical factory,” Macdonald says, “to outline that their provenance is finer, that they really are to be trusted, and hence that their brand and product are ones to purchase or invest in.”

Brand communication efforts will increasingly tease out the poetry of production. Heritage and story are still important, some experts believe, and can successfully work hand in hand with the notion of utility and fitness for purpose. “I’m not sure the two are mutually exclusive,’ says fashion industry consultant Eric Musgrave. “Would I like to buy a bag from Hermès? Because they’ve got a heritage of making saddlery and leather goods, I’m very happy to accept that they know what they’re doing.” Yet as consumers hone in on the production narrative, brands will increasingly find themselves in the position of proving that they know what they’re doing. “There are very few adverts that talk about the intrinsic quality of the product,” Musgrave points out. “There’s an opportunity for brands to communicate to consumers more detail about what’s gone into the production of their clothes.”

This principle holds for products across the board. “Using a craft narrative to be competitive is definitely not just a luxury preserve nor just that of a fashion or design brand,” Macdonald says. “It’s become a vital part of how a brand, however small, whatever its product, positions itself and sells itself to a consumer in a swollen-to-bursting retail market.” Among FMCGs, for example, environmentally focused companies are currently leading the way. Method, which makes eco-friendly cleaning products, includes heaps of information on its website about how the company sources its materials, and how its researchers formulate their products. Tom’s of Maine, the maker of natural beauty products, shares all the knowledge a consumer could want about the sourcing, manufacturing and green technologies that make up its production narrative.

Crucially, real consumer education will have to go beyond factory-tour exhibitions and well-shot campaigns showing rough and rugged craftsmen in their glory. “This is the crucial part of communicating the process to consumers,” Thompson says. “So many people have lost touch with the costs of materials, production and distribution. If you understand these things, you are much more likely to part with your money.”

Æsir, for example, a new craft-focused mobile phone brand, tracked the months leading up to launch with photos and notes in its on-line journal showing raw materials, circuit boards and technical drawings. “Today, most people want to know how things are made, who made it and why. If I can’t get that, I feel like I am being exposed to nothing but hot air and marketing trickery,” Æsir founder Thomas Møller Jensen says. “If you understand that it took skills and someone’s time to manufacture a product, you won’t throw it away as quickly as you would a mass-produced and impersonal object.”

Educating store staff is one of the main challenges brands will face as consumers become more informed on production and the crafting process. “Sometimes you walk into a shop and say, ‘Tell me about this. Is it calfskin or lambskin or shagreen or camel?’ and the salespeople just say, ‘Oh, I think it’s leather’,” Musgrave says. “People who sell to me in the shops should know enough that I can ask questions.”

Ultimately, sharing product information is a chance for a brand to demonstrate – and share – pride in its work. But to build on a solid craft narrative, brands will find themselves increasingly collaborating with like-minded partners who put the same emphasis on production values. “More collaborations between different craft heritages will come into play,” Macdonald argues. “Particularly as cutting-edge technology becomes even more cutting-edge, craft will assume its place alongside these developments. There will be a greater focus on combining extreme technology with traditional craft, neither at the exclusion of the other.” He points to Mattiazzi, a quarter-century-old producer of wooden furniture in Udine, Italy, whose recent Branca chair combines CNC robotics with traditional shaping and hand finishing.

Mobile phones are also bringing together traditional craft and production with new technologies. Working with the UK Crafts Council, Nokia has begun reaching out to makers and artists to experiment with materials and processes for future production. In Copenhagen, Æsir’s first phone to launch this year was designed by Yves Béhar, and created by a specially chosen team of craftsmen, niche manufacturers and artisan-like suppliers in Switzerland, France and the Netherlands.

For brands, then, the challenge in the new craft knowledge economy will be to create something worthwhile and truly fit for purpose. For brand planners, strategists and marketers, the parallel challenge will be to convey the story of that worthwhile exercise. “Telling a story has never been more important in persuading people to part with precious money,” Macdonald says. “Gone are the days when a wooden chair could hold a price tag of thousands without a very good explanation of why it merits such a price.”

Consumers looking beyond (and behind) the price tag will need new ways of perceiving a brand – which is where projects such as Tænker will increasingly come in. An oversized pamphlet – itself a handsomely designed object using vintage letterpress keys for graphics – commissioned by Æsir, Tænker includes insightful essays and work on topics including collaboration, meaning, value and values. “We wanted to make sure that Æsir had a presence in the marketplace that’s more about the people and the beliefs of the brand – not that it’s a costly phone made of expensive materials,” says Suki Larson, founder of creative agency Keep, which developed the brand strategy for the mobile phone company. Besides a note mentioning that Æsir brought the Tænker collaborators together, the mobile phone brand receives no other tip of the hat. “This is very, very specifically not an endorsement for the product,” Larson insists. “It’s not been crafted to perpetuate or sell or justify anything about the product.”

From a brand’s perspective, Tænker is most successful in its ability to associate the mobile phone company with ideas, with conversation and collaboration. Initiatives such as this will become more popular as brands in the craft knowledge economy shift to position themselves as curators of new ideas and production techniques. Consumers, in turn, will assume roles as new patrons eager to contribute to and advance these ideas.

“Every consumer has their portfolio of products they buy, and there’s some segment of that portfolio where they care a lot more about the craft of it,” Larson says. “For the sports fanatic, it might be a type of football or a certain type of ski. For the gourmet, maybe knowing that the water they drink came from a certain glacier somewhere makes them feel great. It’s that idea of falling in love with the story, the idea, the touch and the feel. If you appreciate those things, the price tag becomes something different.”

Of course, when speaking to an informed patron who has faithfully followed a brand’s production narrative, the pressure to create an honest campaign is magnified. “Brands that put their production origins on show for the consumer have less to hide behind when it comes to marking up the retail price of a product,” Macdonald says. “It’s this ‘bare hands’ integrity that consumers find appealing, though, and I think regardless of price – within reason, of course – customers will always be willing to fork out more for a product if they know where it came from. Having a sound provenance is the surest way to creating and keeping brand loyalty.”

It is for these consumers – informed, interested, and willing to spend when they can see where their hard-earned money is going – that the production narrative and the ideas behind how a product came to be will increasingly signal a brand’s worth. Intrinsic value is at stake in the craft knowledge economy. “In parallel with the craft market growing, so, too, is consumer responsibility, vigilance and the desire for trusted provenance,” Greenlees, of the Crafts Council, says. “All the objects in people’s lives are coming under more scrutiny as consumers are aware of the ethics of fashion, and which brands make responsible decisions with their production.”

Ultimately, Crawford’s craftsman, his utilitarian consumer, is after time-tested values that are once again proving their relevance. “What do these consumers want? Well-made, long-lasting, well-designed products that fit their lives,” Thompson says. “The story should be ingrained in the product itself.”

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30 April 2011