Walpole editorial | Crafting a future by Guy Salter

Ahead of London Craft Week from Wednesday 11th to Sunday 15th May, LCW Chairman Guy Salter OBE MVO examines the craft renaissance and asks: is it here to stay?

This article was originally published in the 2018 Walpole Book of British Luxury, more details on which can be found here.

As the little boy who always wanted to know how something was made, or the slightly older boy discussing every detail of his first bespoke suit with his tailor or buying his first pot in the artist’s studio, it seemed clear to me that craftsmanship mattered. So, it’s been reassuring to see the explosion of interest in craft. Of course, this goes well beyond my personal interests or, for that matter, either Britain or luxury. Indeed, I first sensed the change not in Bond Street but in farmers’ markets. I still see signs wherever I go: new galleries in Seoul or Taipei presenting the work of local artists, the popularity of exhibitions like the V&A’s McQueen blockbuster, Kyoto overrun by tourists declaring craft cool, drop-in studios in Shanghai department stores where you can throw a pot in your lunch break. Like so many iceberg peaks they point to something going on. But is it of any real lasting significance and, if so, what? And what does it mean for the luxury sector, especially given the challenges to traditional business models from disruptive technologies?

In my view, the luxury sector was both first and late to the craft party. First because most heritage luxury brands started as family-owned businesses, whose focus on the highest quality of materials and making was taken for granted. However, while the best never forgot, some lost their way when transforming into brands responding to waves of new customers, who didn’t ask tricky questions and were quite happy with the pulling-power of a logo. This meant that when some of those consumers gradually became as super-picky and opinionated as their 19-century predecessors, several luxury houses had to play catch up.

Nowadays, you won’t find many brands that don’t sound like they value craftsmanship. However, inevitably there are some who have more craft credentials than others. Does this mean they are more likely to be successful? Not necessarily. For while skimping on quality was always going to be self-defeating in the end, the challenge for luxury continues to be to inspire and excite. Cristóbal Balenciaga’s genius was to cut, sew and shape startling new silhouettes that captured the spirit and aspirations of the time. But such talent is rare. As is such a craft-first approach. And in an era when many fashion houses see their main task as providing millennial customers with newness, when collaborations with streetwear brands generate block-length queues and when bloggers out-influence fashion editors, is the talent that’s really required that of the storyteller? Maybe the so-called craft movement is merely a scratching of a nostalgic itch that will pass, so the real winners will be brands who pay lip service to craft and heritage but concentrate on new stuff as the only way to win the Instagram wars.

There has always been an element of truth here (Coco Chanel was as much showman as couturier) but I think this is to misread the tea leaves. This isn’t about fame. Nor is it about craft.  It’s not even about creativity. For its all these things and more. In many ways the most useful word is authenticity; you know it when you see it.

Affluent consumers have become immensely more sophisticated at making these judgments and this is playing out around the world in a powerful projection of knowledge, self-expression and values. And while the continued growth in wealth could be said to be a universal global trend, clearly those able to afford luxury are by no means a monolith block.  But while their interests differ, I believe the considered and self-confident way that they will spend and express their point of view increasingly unites them. And is here to stay.

This is fundamentally changing the outlook for not just for the luxury sector but all businesses who depend on the consumer, from fast-moving consumer goods behemoths to adventure holiday boutiques, from online platforms to Michelin-starred restaurants. To this list I would add museums and the visual and performing arts, who also compete for footfall and attention. For this is as much a cultural as a commercial phenomenon. Indeed, once one starts to join the dots, it’s not too much of a leap to see the relevance for cities, governments and nations, too.

Bringing this back to where we started, my view is that the craft renaissance is important. Both to British luxury and the sector as a whole. But less because of the renewed interest in how things are made but as a symptom of a more thoughtful, open-minded and knowledgeable consumer mindset, in which the established players are scrutinised and expected to live up to more, while there is an increased desire to find out about and champion less-well-known talent. Looked at this way, while the disruption heading our way from artificial intelligence and the like is real, probably the more telling shift is going to come from how human beings have been changing (aided and amplified by new technologies). A valuable reminder that the best long-term hedge and repository of value remains a sustainable brand franchise based on a consumer’s love and respect.

The other reason I find the interest in craft so heartening, is that it’s one of a number of straws in the wind that something I call ‘mass discernment’ may one day be possible. The place that comes closest to this now is Japan, where appreciation of beauty and quality is widely based. To some this may sound nightmarish but to me it’s a natural evolution that at its best will promote higher standards of creativity and transparency, as well as spread prosperity and shared values. In this scenario, a luxury brand who tries to boast about ersatz craftsmanship looks just as silly as a politician pedalling fake news.

Dubbed ‘Mr Luxury’ by the press, Guy Salter OBE MVO is a long-standing specialist retailer and investor. His pro-bono work includes founding London Craft Week, the GREAT Britain Campaign and 15 years with Walpole, including establishing the Crafted programme in 2007. By a happy coincidence, one of his portfolio businesses is a Walpole Brand of Tomorrow this year.