After surviving December's caloric filled tsunami of festive food, followed by a bout of apocalyptic digestion, today our sartorial adventure takes us to a place where we pose a simple but highly appropriate question: even if it is not the end of the world, could we be witnessing the end of a world?
Or to put it differently, are we focusing more on the finger of the wise man pointing to the moon rather than looking in the direction of where the wise man is pointing?
The title - "The End of A World", was also the title of an excellent French broadcast last month---during which, the excellent Philippe Dessertine (a professor of economics in Paris) explained in great length that although there has been a notable absence of a global Apocalypse, the world has nonetheless experienced an end of a cycle during a century of mutations of gigantic proportions.
In this same broadcast, Frédéric Lenoir, Director of Le Monde des Religions magazine and associate researcher in the field of social sciences, makes a distinct point. He states that there has been larger strides made in almost every area of development in the world during the time period from the early 1900s until today---than during the period of the beginning of time as we know it, up until the year 1900 !
Regardless of this great leap forward in the recent century, the heart of the debate was centered on the paradoxical nature of the shifts our economic and societal models are going through ; to put it in a nutshell, seeing growth as the unique driving force behind world economy is growing old, fast.
While all governments, particularly in the euro area, are desperately seeking growth initiatives that are presented to us as our only way of salvation in a worldwide crisis, the reality of the facts and figures is that even if today most of these countries miraculously experience a growth rate of 4% -- the planet and its 7 billion inhabitants would mechanically place such a great demand on its natural resources, that the stress of resource depletion would prohibit the ability to adequately manage the exponential growth of the population and its demand for food and energy ... Like it or not, being enmeshed in this paradoxical net will force us to reinvent our civilization model or to at least humbly begin to accept that it is not the correct model anymore.
And what does all of this mean to us style aficionados ? What part do we play in the great civilizational debate ? Well, it turns out that the world of classic masculine elegance, if we take the time to look at the subject in a similar sociological perspective, is a wonderful mirror of the mutations at work, particularly in Western societies.
And if we go even further, then we find an excellent laboratory analysis of behavioral change in one of the few industries in the world currently experiencing double-digit growth numbers, not to mention a men's style market which is also the beneficiary of huge investments across practically every continent.
At a time when words like "responsibility" or "measured" (which we do like a lot) timidly resurface in economic semantics as substitutes to the consumerist fantasy of infinite growth, looking at an overview of the changes taking place in our area offers an excellent reflection of the profound changes at work in our societies.
Not since the late '50s have we seen the classical men's style industry substantially reemerge. Notice that shortly after the time of the heyday of the 1950s and earlier until fairly recently, we have seen mass production and mass marketing reign unchallenged. Conversely, the traditional craftsmen of menswear population (tailors, boot-makers, shirt-makers, leather goods and trunk-makers ...) have been dwindling almost to the point of extinction, due to the change in degree of customer interest and lack of vocational callings...
Yet in recent years, we have witnessed a dramatic turnaround that is impossible not to recognize as a general trend towards the preference for handcrafted products. In the not-so-distant past, using workshop iconography and traditional gestures in advertising to communicate a preference for a style piece steeped in tradition would have been called "cheesy", and even worse, "outdated" (the ultimate insult in the world of dynamic advertising where youthfulness and trendiness used to reign supreme).
Still, we notice that these same once-glossy advertising industry gurus have made a distinct turn towards the promotion of careful and slow movements, even highlighting dusty workshops in the process (!!). This almost "nostalgic" feel is certainly not what the young creative in advertising agencies and marketers have learned in school-- where the fantasy of infinite growth and "modernity "at any cost scoffed at the prospect of glorifying "ageism" and the slow-moving, pernickety life of the master artisan.
It is clear that "a return to the traditional way" is one of the communication trends of the recent years, whether the house has any legitimacy to these claims or not. Of course, we do not find offense when Savile Row houses like Richard Anderson legitimately uses visuals directly lifted from their art to highlight their products. After all, even though the majority of these traditional house's RTW is no longer manufactured entirely under the misty sky of Mayfair, it is rather gratifying (if of course, the quality is intact) for these houses to communicate -- with full legitimacy -- on their roots, their founding values, and in essence, their very DNA.
Take Kiton for instance : Instead of the usual models fops with nonchalant Neapolitan shoulders that have routinely graced many a publication's double-page ads for years, the Neapolitan house now uses visuals that convey a more 'authentic' feel -- they now communicates on the dusty glory of their workshops.
But how to interpret this new trend in communication? What civilizational changes are at work in the background? Is it possible for the general public and the younger generation to dream of owning artisan quality and tailor-made products? Could it happen that the image of the humble tailor, mocked in the 80s for still using white chalk and scissors, be now be seen as sexy?
Concerning the attitude towards craftsmanship trade, the French in particular have remained a bit cold-blooded, because, as explained by Pierre Corthay in the now well-known "La Beauté du Geste" (a film produced by PG for House Corthay and Groupe Edmond de Rothschild):
"People are rediscovering -- and even singing about the merits of traditional craftsmanship with trembling voices full of emotion. While craftsman products remain very much beloved, parents display a reverse attitude when it comes to their own children, as they would much rather their offspring obtain a business, legal or medical degree, rather than become an artisan... ."
And, even if these trades we love are enjoying a newfound appeal with young adults, we are faced with the specific problem of being able to attain the level of skill necessary to be able to carry on the work of the old masters, on whom we currently rely on to deliver tried and true artisan quality...but this is a subject in its own right that we will leave open for a future article.
Even in the present climate of economic unrest, there appears to be a growing phenomenon in that consumers have, consciously or unconsciously, acquired a heightened sense of what the quality, comfort, ergonomics, durability and value of the products they consume should be.
And, since this phenomenon occurs at a time when the sector of classic masculine elegance is booming (especially compared to past decades) with the openings of a host of new craftsman houses that are opting to focus on higher quality offerings, we can say that this occurrence is a direct result from the fact that many men have rediscovered the pleasure of an impeccably cut sports jacket, the feel of a sumptuous thick tweed, or the emotion of wearing beautiful hand-crafted shoes...
It is a fascinating side-effect of times of economic hardship : quality and durability are once again major selling points. Because after all, if you have to buy something, better buy something of good quality and that will last --which seems to fall in line with the the philosophy that "Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten."
The second factor at the heart of this mutation is the increased interest of men for their own style, and, by extension, the heightened level of knowledge and education on all matter sartorial.
Despite the humble role of PG as one of the players in the field of masculine elegance, we often find ourselves pleasantly surprised by the polar-shift that is occurring as men in greater numbers join this growing movement with the aim to make more informed choices regarding their own style. And we notice that the words "sartorial" and "bespoke" have entered the vocabulary of many men, whose level of education on such matters has nothing in common with what we have witnessed even as recently as the early 2000s.
What man would have specifically requested a Milanese buttonhole, a "Con Rollino" shoulder, or even a half-canvassed jacket, just 10 years ago? Who would have questioned the height of the notch on a lapel? And who at that time, could have explained the benefits and shortcomings of the Blake construction for shoes? Who had even heard about the "No Brown in Town" after 6 pm? Almost nobody, that's who.
As an aside, I must confess that I am one of those who don't care much for this particular rule, perhaps because I love losing myself in the reflections that are formed against the sheen of the olive-green patina on my brown shoes. But, at least I am aware of it! (In order not to lose anyone the rule "no brown in town after 6 pm" applies to shoes...in the UK it is seen as more correct to wear only black shoes after 6 pm, except in the countryside of course...)
Today, it is less and less rare to meet a gentlemen who knows that the Neapolitan shoulder is not a recipe for lamb shoulder with tomato sauce, that Goodyear is not only a brand of tires, that Savile Row is spelled with only one l, and that a "hand-rolled" handkerchief by Simonnot Godard is not describing a weird drug ritual straight from the 60's.
The simple fact that men are more knowledgeable on the subject of elegance has caused significant changes in the client-vendor relationship and, above all, resolutely stepped-up consumer demand for more experienced and educated providers.
The urge of men to devour books, blogs, forums and reference sites on the technical aspects of dressing well, including the ability to obtain continuous, accurate, and reliable information in the area of men's elegance is (and I weigh my words carefully) revolutionizing the entire sector, since education is the essential aspect that can shift the fundamental structure of an entire market.
A much more recent phenomenon in the field of men's style is a renewed interest in the origin of a product, that is, people want to know where the product is made.
The excellent magazine Monocle (monocle.com) has devoted an article on this subject in its latest issue. The article is presented in the form of a round table discussion and captures the best moments of the resulting exchange between notable style industry entrepreneurs (also available via Tyler Brûlé's radio magazine, Monocle 24).
This article entitled "Makers and Shakers", conveys the thoughts and analyses of four British entrepreneurs in the field of shoes, menswear, jeans and leather.
© Monocle 59 by Sophie Grove
Till Reiter, do Ludwig Reiter's customers care where their shoes are made?
Till Reiter (CEO of Ludwig Reiter, the family owned 100-years-old shoes firm still producing its Goodyear welted products in its historic headquarters in Vienna)
In general, I don't think so. I think that most customers just care for prices, for brands, for fashion, for technology. But, it is our conviction that it does matter. It matters how (and where) our shoes are made. And, it also has quite important logistic advantages to have production in the market and not somewhere abroad.
David Hieatt, I'll bring you in here as Hiut Jeans has such a compelling story. Do you think your customers care where your jeans are made?
David Hieatt (founder of Hiut Denim. Hieatt set up in Hiut in Cardigan, Wales - a town that once had a thriving jean industry. He's hell-bent on seeing it restored to its manufacturing heyday)
I think they do care to a point. I live in a town (Cardigan, in Wales) that used to make 35,000 pairs of jeans a week, every week for 40 years, and then one day they closed the doors. So all that skill remained and they didn't have anywhere to show off their talent. I want to get my town making jeans again. I think we have to be careful though. I don't think you build a great business by sentiment alone.
Alan Lewis (Chairman of the 200-years-old men's and womenswear label Crombie. The brand has just announced it will bring the majority of its production back to the UK.)
I agree. For instance, the Crombie coat is an icon. We've been selling it for 200 odd years. Our customers like British because British is very good. But, we can't just say "Oh, it's made in Britain, and that's it". As you say, it's not all about where it's made, it's about the actual quality. The key is achieving levels of excellence from our craftsmen. And, the only way you can do that is give the craftsmen the kudos that they enjoyed before.
Let's discuss the idea of kudos. How important is the notion of a craftsman status here? Is this something that needs to change in Europe if we are going to truly regenerate manufacturing?
From my point of view, if we want craftsmen jobs to be more interesting for young people, then this has to come from the market--which means that if consumers appreciate such products and are willing to pay an appropriate price, then you can simply pay and employee younger people and offer them an attractive job. Then, they will be interested in getting that job.
Actually the kudos is coming back. From my point of view, I am seeing it changing. I think there is a real kudos to making things now.
I think David is so right. You mustn't underestimate the spirit of UK entrepreneurs. We are investing heavily. A lot of these factories are now regenerated into innovation centers--centers of excellence--and we are working with the universities now to make sure they offer curricula for master craftsman. So, the move is happening but we've got to move very quickly.
Let's talk about the role of your factories in all this. Gary, how key is your manufacturing space to Globe-Trotter's identity?
Gary Bott (Creative director of Globe-trotter, which was founded in 1897 by English-man David Nelken in Saxony, Germany. Nelken brought production back to the UK in 1901 and the firm now produces vulcanised fireboard suitcases in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire.)
I think that's something that we are really coming around to the idea of. We are starting to show that side of the business now. And this is interesting because the production process is something that our customers want to see. It helps them to understand the value of the products. It comes back to this earlier point cachet. For a young person perhaps not finding the glamour in working in a factory, we need to reeducate young people and we need to show them that they are part of something quite special.
Till, your factory in Vienna is nothing short of lovely. I wondered whether the factory itself is part of the brand?
The funny thing is, since we opened our manufacturing to the public, the effect is that the consumers understand better and appreciate the value more. The other effect is that the workers in the factory feel their work is appreciated. Economically, we even had a noticeable increase in productivity since we opened the factory to visitors.
I want to touch on the subject of ethics. We've established that most consumers aren't moral crusaders. And I wanted to bring you in here Alan. Is there a moral dimension? Is there still a role for philanthropy in manufacturing?
All of our factories were built based on philanthropy. I honestly believe that lot of creators of wealth have an interest in philanthropy because to create money is purely a by-product of creative thought. To amass wealth for the sake of amassing wealth is silly; what you've got to do is amass wealth for the power of good. That's what I think philanthropy has got to do with it. It will pay them not only morally, but it will also pay them because they are investing in the future. The skills will come. A classic example is Crombie's new facility in Slaithwaite. We had 700 people working there, producing the best yarn in world. But it closed. We've just opened it again, by putting an inovation center there to concentrate on skills.
Are there any financial arguments for bringing things back to the UK or for producing in your hometown in Vienna or Hertfordshire?
Yes of course, if there weren't such arguments we wouldn't do it because we couldn't survive in the long term. We are a small family business and cannot afford to run a factory by philanthropy. One of the arguments that I already mentioned is that the sophisticated consumer is willing to pay a higher price. The other argument is logistics. If you are producing made-to-order things, it has great benefits to be close to manufacturing. In manners of time, if we want to perform quickly, to respond to new trends, it's a great help. We can act much quicker and respond, even to the weather, and we couldn't do that with the factory somewhere abroad.
I think Till is absolutely right. China and places of low cost production are finding major difficulties now. Their skills are short because the workers don't want to work in factories. Logistically, there's starting to be a benefit in making in the UK, cost-wise.
Gary, how would you respond to that from your Globe-trotters' perspective?
I would agree with my colleagues that geography is key. To give you one example, Japan is a very important market for us; in fact, it is our primary market. However, if we were to move our production to Japan, it would no longer be our primary market because, again, the reason we are successful in Japan and in international markets is because we are made in England.
China has been demonized in some manufacturing circles. Is there a geopolitical element here?
The Chinese are great makers--I don't think anybody's not saying that--and I think they are great thinkers.
I think that in particular, craftsmanship and manufacturing is very vivid in Chinese culture. But if you want to think about something like a China phobia, I think it's a matter of politics.
A final point is authenticity. Till, do you need to innovate in a way that is unique to your identity? Is there more than just nostalgia?
Yes absolutely, because we are not living in a museum. The utility of tradition is that you can use it in the present or the future.
Could this fascinating article (as is often the case in the writings of Tyler Brulé) have been written three or four years ago? Definitely not. And for a generation like ours, who has witnessed economic crisis and throughout our lives have mainly known "Made in China" or "Made in Taiwan", this article has the effect of an awakening bomb .
With this breaking of the paridigm that product globalization is inevitable in order to accomplish the mass production needed to meet the world market demand, is it possible that there will be a return to producing traditional products that are "made in France, England or Italy?" And, are we indeed experiencing the end of a world?
And with this new shift in thinking, can we dream of future labels such as "Back in England", or even more amazingly, "Back in France"?