Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, USA
Keywords: artisanship; global craft; tradition; heritage; luxury.
Abstract: Why is current global craft and artisanship undervalued, while historic global crafts are highly sought after and collected? Why is there such a perceived gulf in the valuing of the skill sets of European artisans and global artisans? The aim of my research is to explore how global artisanship can be re- contextualized and valued through the partnership of tradition and sophisticated design. The partnering of design and craft can honor and value the tradition, and history of the craft, the context, and the people, while simultaneously re-contextualizing it, and re-valuing the artisanal work through cutting edge, sophisticated design.
The need for companies to embrace sustainable development and ethical business practices, combined with the continued loss of traditional hand crafted techniques, potentially positions global craft as the new luxury. Culture, history and heritage, are priceless, and the authenticity of products made with heritage skill sets are a means of reinvigorating the over exposed branded luxury fashion market. The time has passed when a designer could dip into another culture for inspiration, and then produce their designs without recompense to the community that inspired their work. Designers can no longer in good conscience raid the cultural and historic heritage of others, without partnering with those communities and repaying that debt in equal value.
In a globalized, branded world, the true luxury of the future is handcrafted, indigenous and heritage crafts, re-interpreted into high-end fashion.
Contemporary global craft and artisanship from developing countries is generally undervalued, relegated to touristic keepsakes, irrelevant of the history, culture and craft that went into its production. While hand crafted historic artefacts from the same location are highly sought after, valued and collected, and European artisanship is considered the pinnacle of contemporary luxury. Why is there such a perceived gulf in the valuing of the skill sets of European craftsmen and global artisans? Is it possible to re- contextualize and revalue global artisanship through the partnership of tradition and sophisticated design, to reposition it as contemporary luxury fashion?
The previous statements may seem obvious and perhaps overly simplistic, but are never the less intrinsically true. There are of course many factors leading to the devaluing of global craft, some historic, some current; socio, economic, cultural and racial, to name just a few. I am not a cultural anthropologist, I am never the less, a keen observer of culture at the intersection of craftsmanship, with many years of field experience working with women’s cooperatives, and the creative industries in the developing world. Much of that experience has proven to me, that the intrinsic difference between European and global craftsmanship is access to quality materials, the logistical facilitation of sourcing and production, a true understanding of the Western luxury aesthetic, and access to markets. All of which can be overcome with committed partnerships that bridge the knowledge gap of the artisans to the global marketplace. To accomplish this requires years of commitment, with no major financial outcome of massive profits, so why go to the trouble? The answer to that is clear; it’s the same as it is for European Haute Couture, It is about keeping alive know-how. For global craft, it is to save traditions in danger of being lost, and in doing so, sustaining communities and cultural heritage.
The need for companies to embrace sustainable development and ethical business practices, combined with the continued loss of traditional hand crafted techniques, potentially positions global craft as the new luxury. Culture, history and heritage, are priceless, and the authenticity of products made with heritage skill sets are a means of reinvigorating the over exposed branded luxury fashion market at a time when its authenticity is being questioned. The global expansion and democratization of luxury goods to make them accessible to the middle market may have pleased stockholders, but has also led to the replacement of individual craftsmanship with assembly-line production.
Despite their evident commercial success, one question has plagued the luxury goods sector for some time now: to what extent can a luxury brand grow and thrive before damaging its sense of luxury? The question was answered by Dana Thomas in her book Deluxe: has luxury lost its lustre (2007). With very few exceptions, European luxury continues to tell the story of its hand crafted, French or Italian artisanship, while simultaneously outsourcing to developing nations. A fact that has not gone unnoticed by many, and has undermined luxury’s perceived value.
Luxury relies on limitations of production and the value of rarity and scarcity, something lost with the democratization of luxury, and the introduction of fashionable lower-priced accessories, and exacerbated with the expansion of retail reach to a vast global network of stores. In contrast, traditional artisanship is by default entirely authentic, and offers something special, in the same way as haute couture, where garments are considered as investments on an economic and emotional level, by default extending the product lifetime.
Global artisanship can be completely re- contextualized and re-valued through the partnership of tradition and sophisticated design. The partnering of design and craft can honor and value the tradition and history of the craft, the context, and the people, while simultaneously re-contextualizing it, and re- valuing the artisanal work through cutting edge, sophisticated design. Few designers have managed this delicate balance; many are in the emerging designer space, with very few notable exceptions, Donna Karan’s Urban Zen probably being foremost. Karan’s Haitian Artisan Project spans a range of expressions, materials and products, all produced by Haitian artisans, using locally sourced materials. It honors the creative role of the artisan, and partners with Karan’s understanding of a sophisticated Western aesthetic. Donna Karan has created a model at the intersection of business, craftsmanship and philanthropy that serves as the base of what has become known as the Soulful Economy. Most of the items produced are housewares, with some jewellery, and accessories, but no clothing. Never the less, textiles form the basis of much of the craft tradition in many cultures around the world, making the transition to fashion a natural extension.
This type of partnership is quite rare, most fall into one of two models: the sustainable development model which, focuses on training new skills to a disadvantaged populace as a means of said individuals gaining self- sufficiency, and raising their standard of living. The second developmental aid model focuses on facilitating market access for traditional crafts, thereby focusing on craftsmanship, but with little design intervention or collaboration. I consider Donna Karan’s soulful economy a third model, one that combines and builds on the best of both, and the model that has the greatest likelihood of acceptance in the luxury fashion marketplace.
There are a number of current designer collaborations with global artisans, the vast majority however focus on the developmental component of their undertakings, a reflection of their developmental aid roots, underplaying local craft and tradition, instead introducing new skills, not working with existing ones. All too often this results in the over simplification of traditional cultural symbols, reinterpreted with a Western aesthetic, process and product. Clearly there is enormous value to this model, it does after all bring self-sufficiency and sustainable development to disadvantaged groups, but it does nothing to retain and honor existing traditions and crafts, that isn’t after all its purpose.
Vivienne Westwood’s African bag collection is a good example of this type of philanthropy. The collection is produced in collaboration with the Ethical Fashion Initiative, an organization, which supports the work of thousands of female micro-producers from marginalized African communities. Designs are produced from recycled canvas, upcycled roadside banners, leather off-cuts, and recycled brass, and produced in one of Nairobi’s largest slums. The mission to upcycle locally discarded materials, combined with developmental aid, is clearly an exceptionally worthy undertaking, but never the less, negates the rich cultural heritage and craftsmanship of the region. Although the most recent collection does in fact feature hard wired beaded bags, not dissimilar in technique to the Maasai beaded collars.
EDUN is likely one of the best-known global brands in this space, founded by Ali Hewson and Bono in 2005. EDUN’s entire raison d’etre is to promote trade in Africa through sourcing and production. Edun currently manufactures 85% of the collection in Africa, and aims to produce 100% by 2020. The collection is the epitome of a contemporary Western fashion brand, with no aesthetic inkling that the basis of the business is African trade development. Until quite recently the brand has used African settings and imagery as part of the branding message through PR, but clothing has been quintessentially Western in aesthetic. In recent seasons however, Creative Director Danielle Sherman has included a small number of artisan collaborations with African craftspeople such as Penny Winter, URU and Moussa Albaka, all accessories or jewellery designers based in Africa.
While the other brands cited already produce their own fashion collection, and work with global artisans to complement their own line through the creation of accessories and jewellery, Edun produces a full apparel collection in the developing world, with non- traditional skills, to produce the finished product. This is the “teach a man to fish” method of sustainable development, an enlightened outgrowth of the charity model, and based around the concept that if “you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
The second model of developmental aid comes through a large number of NGO’s that do work with traditional craft, but who’s lack of design intervention in the final product, too often results in an undervalued global craft product, that cannot gain traction in a sophisticated luxury market; ultimately the market best placed to truly appreciate artisanship and craft, but which, requires a sophisticated end product to justify the real cost. This model is one step up from local individual artisans selling traditional crafts to tourist markets in neighboring towns and cities, the intrinsic difference being access to consumer markets, with the NGO’s ability to access global markets, and their understanding of marketing, sales and Ecommerce. This type of work is inevitably at the lower end of the market, appealing to a low to mid-market customer, and epitomized by Ecommerce sites such as Global Girlfriend, and Ten Thousand Villages.
Stacey Edgar created Global Girlfriend in 2003, as a means to support women worldwide in gaining economic security, by providing expanded market access to women producing handcrafted products. Ultimately, the greatest benefit of undertakings of this type is greater market access, most often through Ecommerce sites, allowing artisans access to a wider marketplace to sell their goods, while ensuring fair trade wages and practices for the artisans. Most organizations in this space, work with local NGO’s that provide access to education, health care and training for the artisans themselves. While artisans and products are selected to showcase their work through the website, the overall understanding of a luxury aesthetic is lacking, coming from a philanthropic and charity perspective, rather than a fashion one.
Similarly, Ten Thousand Villages offers a range of handmade gifts, jewellery and home decor made by artisans in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. A member of the World Fair Trade Organization, Ten Thousand Villages seeks to establish sustainable markets for handmade products in the West. Sales help to fund access to food, education, health care and housing for the artisans themselves. The mission of Ten Thousand Villages is emblematic of this type of sustainable development, “to create opportunities for artisans in developing countries to earn income by bringing their products and stories to our markets through long-term fair trading relationships.“
Both of the previous model types either fail to value tradition, culture and craft, through the lack of inclusion of it in the products developed, or alternatively value it to the exclusion of Western concepts of quality control and design aesthetic. The first model allows for access to the luxury market through a Western high fashion aesthetic, and the exclusion of local tradition and craft, while the second model excludes access to the same luxury marketplace due to a complete lack of a Western high fashion aesthetic. Few have yet to achieve the careful balance of contemporary design, artisanship and tradition that values each in equal measure, though some have come close.
Design and Craftsmanship
The final examples are of designers working with traditional techniques and craftsmanship, honouring the cultural aspects of their work, and collaborating with the artisans to produce clothing or accessories that are a hybrid of tradition produced to a European standard of quality, while appealing to a Western luxury aesthetic. Inevitably many of those achieving this careful balance, are small, independent, emerging designers.
Swati Kalsi is an Indian textile and fashion designer, who has worked with handcrafted textiles for over a decade. Credited with bringing contemporary relevance to time honoured, handcrafted, artisanal textiles, Kalsi helps to support artisanal hand craft, and preserve ancient and traditional techniques, by engaging with artisans in an interactive creative processes, to create distinct pieces of work on the edge of design, craft and art. Kalsi’s process is based on an intriguing creative give and take that incorporates inconceivable twists and turns, which result in a timeless, understated elegant collection. She has been credited with being at the forefront of a craft revival in India, as well as for innovation in textiles.
Finally, designer Angel Chang, crafts a womenswear collection using the traditional hand woven textiles of the indigenous Miao and Dong ethnic minorities in Guizhou Province, China. Working closely with the artisans of Dimen village, Chang is trying to preserve these ancient techniques by helping to gain recognition for their craft in the international marketplace. Chang is eager to communicate the breadth of ethnic diversity within China to the outside world. The history, mythology and culture of which, is expressed through dress and textiles, acting as the oral history of the community. As with many global textile traditions, that of the Miao and Dong is in danger of dying out, with the young not interested in the old ways. Never the less, Chang is managing to train a new generation of artisans, and keep the tradition alive through the ability to generate a reasonable income from the craftwork, by incorporating it into her collection.
In both these cases the historic and cultural connection to the development of luxury products made through traditional craftsmanship strengthens “the appreciation and attachment towards a garment”. In the same way that haute couture once did, “such garments can… be considered as investments on economic as well as on emotional levels.” Hermes, one of the few luxury brands that still produce in the traditional hand crafted method in its traditional home in France, are a testament to the longevity and value of true craftsmanship. Many of Hermès handbag designs “have been around for almost a century, and are coveted not because they are in fashion, but because they never go out of fashion.” According to Dana Thomas, “to see how an Hermes bag is made is to understand what luxury once was and which it is no longer” (2007). Global artisanship, craftsmanship and heritage craft still embodies the purest sense of integrity through workmanship, constituting the only real opportunity for the luxury industry to regain its lustre.
Cleary there is no one size fits all response to sustainable fashion, and there is so much work to be done, and there is room for many different approaches. This is an ongoing conversation, with many different voices and perspectives, as it should be, to develop a diverse, supportive and sustainable fashion industry. Clearly there is a move being made by trade not aid models of sustainable development to integrate at least a portion of local tradition and culture into otherwise contemporary Western collections, whether through partnerships with individual artists and artisans, or building on local aesthetics integrated into a few pieces within the greater collection, as both Edun and Vivienne Westwood have done in their more recent collections.
The challenges of working with traditional skills in the developing world are many. Building a shared understanding of key components a product must embody in order to access the Western luxury market, is vital. A common language has to be built that references quality production, but allows for individual artisanal variations, with much current work based on tradition, inconsistent in quality, and made from modern cheap materials, simply due to access issues. Brands must respect and honour tradition and creation by partnering with artisans, while managing the delicate balance of re-contextualizing craftsmanship to a Western luxury market.
In a world where our material connection to the past is constantly being eroded, where knowledge and know how are being lost because of its inability to compete in an industry obsessed with faster, cheaper, surely the preservation of traditional textiles best chance of survival is through re-contextualization in the luxury fashion market.
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