Heart of an Artisan

Documentaries Sustain Our Culture

As a documentary filmmaker I read with great interest a recent  article in The Guardian newspaper written by the series editor of BBC Four’s Storyville, one of the premier showcases for documentary films on television. In “Why documentaries matter,” Nick Fraser maintains that “documentaries are among the most valuable, neglected cultural forms of our time.”

Nick Fraser of the BBC's Storyville (photo by Frank Boyd)

With the squeeze on television budgets Fraser worries about how small documentaries – “low budget, clever, appealing to small, passionate audiences” — will be adequately funded in the future. “I’d like to know how their independent spirit can be conserved and nurtured,” he says.

If we didn’t have these “manifestations of contemporary culture,”  Fraser predicts  that we would miss them very much.

In  my humble view, the best way to support documentary films is for audiences to actively seek them out at their local theater or watch them on television, DVD or video-on-demand.

Bill Cunningham: New York’s Indomitable Street Fashion Photographer

If you Google the words “Bill Cunningham living legend” you will get tens of thousands of results – and with good reason. I went to a screening recently of the new documentary film, Bill Cunningham New York, and found it mesmerizing. Cunningham, as some of you may know, is the incredibly humble yet eagle-eyed street fashion photographer at The New York Times. Now 82 years young, he comports himself like a man who retains a youthful enthusiasm for a job that consumes him. He lives like a proverbial monk, devoting all his time to capturing the sartorial zeitgeist.

Cunningham is most interested in the subject of his photos — in the information it imparts about that person — rather than in the photographic image itself. “I don’t really see people—I see clothes” Cunningham said in a 2009 New Yorker magazine profile. Through his marvelous photos of creatively attired individuals in his Sunday Styles column, On the Street, Cunningham aims to subvert the “cookie cutter sameness” in the culture at large. Rather than seeing fashion as a superficial pursuit (as some would have us believe) I’m in total agreement with Cunningham, who maintains that fashion “is the armor to survive the reality of life,” as he says in the film.

Bill Cunningham photographing in the street

Cunningham remains fiercely independent and owns all his own work, despite being an employee of The Times. And he continues to shoot in film when everyone else has switched to a digital format.  Here’s a 2002 article on Cunningham in which he describes his experience working at the old Bonwit Teller department store and as  a hat designer when he first moved to New York from Boston.

Bill Cunningham photographing Vogue editor Anna Wintour

Director Richard Press said it took him eight years to convince Cunningham to participate in the film and two years to shoot and edit it. In pursuing this project, Press wanted to capture Cunninghams’s “essence, his joy, his way of being,” and he certainly succeeded brilliantly. Producer Philip Gefter admitted that Cunningham “brought me back to my innocence.”

In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Cunningham gives a short and humble acceptance speech in Paris when he’s being decorated with an award as a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. He says quite simply, “He who seeks beauty will find it.”

As soon as the screening ended I immediately thought of one phrase to describe the man: “pure of heart.” I, for one, hope he lives forever.

Bill Cunningham photographing a fashion moment

The film Bill Cunningham New York opens this Wednesday March 16th at New York’s Film Forum (click to see the trailer) and will be playing across the country thereafter. See the screening schedule here.

A Memoir from an English Bespoke Tailor

I’ve been meaning to write a capsule about this book for some time, but the demands of post-production and fundraising for my film have gotten in the way. Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed is a compelling memoir of how a 17-year-old kid from the London suburbs fell into an apprenticeship at Henry Huntsman & Sons, the bespoke tailoring film on London’s famed Savile Row. More importantly, Anderson recounts how this experience 29 years ago transformed his life and gave him a lifelong vocation and a penchant for perfectionism that he never could have dreamed of as a lad.

At the age of 34, Anderson became the youngest head cutter in Huntsman’s 150-year history. Since 2001 he has been at the helm of his own tailoring firm on Savile Row, Richard Anderson Ltd.

Anderson writes that the first three months at Huntsman caused him “relentless mental and emotional chaos.” The environment was like being in the army, “where one must resist being broken down,” and where your superiors never let you forget that you’re at the very bottom of the food chain.

It’s amusing to read that despite all the miles he had run and all the football games he had played as a teenager, this had in no way prepared him for handling the massively heavy cutting shears in the workroom. It’s also fascinating to learn about the firm’s frequent forays abroad to service its vast American clientele.

Bespoke tailor Richard Anderson (photo by Neil Gavin)

Anderson writes movingly about being inducted into the private world of bespoke:

To put a true and properly made bespoke suit on for the first time is a revelation: immediately you take to its positive influence on your posture…you stand up straighter and feel at once more comfortable and confident…that you have it in you to be a better person, a person of unique capacity, sensibility and class. And for me this was like a drug.

Tod’s: an Italian Success in a Tough Economy

Boy, The New York Times is really focusing on Italian manufacturing lately. Here’s a story on one of my favorite brands — Tod’s. It’s titled “A Shoemaker That Walks But Never Runs” and features an interview with Diego Della Valle, the chairman of Tod’s. (By the way, the company’s web site has a dramatic video of thirteen ballet dancers from Milan’s La Scala Ballet company interspersed with close-up shots of craftsmen hand-sewing Tod’s shoes.)

To his credit, Della Valle has maintained his production in Italy despite the fact that he could reduce his costs in half by making everything in China. I’ve owned a couple of pairs of Tod’s for close to 20 years, so I can attest to the fact that they’re made well, super comfortable, and timeless.

An excerpt from the article brings some much-needed good news from that luxury sector:

For true luxury brands, lowering prices by outsourcing is not something they could really ever consider as a strategy for growth,” said Davide Vimercati, the chief analyst for luxury goods at UniCredit in Milan. On the other hand, he said, Tod’s is “certainly giving up some profitability because they don’t spend less on manufacturing.

Even if outsourcing shoes and handbags could plump the bottom line, the strategy of Tod’s has paid off — and seems likely to keep doing so as long as it stays a premium brand with universal appeal. It was one of the few luxury companies worldwide to increase sales and profits through the financial crisis: profit grew from 77 million euros in 2007 to 83 million in 2008 and 86 million last year.

Analyst Davide Vimercati adds that “Tod’s is proof that if you manage your brand consistently and you build brand equity over the years, you reach a stage where demand remains strong, even in tough times.” Amen to that.

“Men of the Cloth” Featured on the Blogs

I’m excited to report that “Men of the Cloth” has some fans in the blogosphere. In the last several months it’s been featured on A Suitable Wardrobe, United Style, Image Granted, Sew Chicago, Sleevehead and the French blogs Parisian Gentleman and Redingote, among others. I find it gratifying that my small independent film on Italian master tailors could have an audience from San Francisco to Paris, and that several thousand people have watched the new trailer on the “Men of the Cloth” web site and on Vimeo.com.

Carlo Barbera Mill Purchased by Kiton

As an addendum to my post on the Carlo Barbera mill and the Made in Italy label, it was reported a few days ago that the Neapolitan tailored clothing company Kiton purchased “a controlling stake in the mill,” according to WWD. Journalist Jean Palmieri (a former colleague of mine) reported that “Competition from low-cost manufacturing countries has bitten into Carlo Barbera’s bottom line over the past few years.”

Kiton CEO Antonio De Matteis said Luciano Barbera will act as a consultant for the mill and its 40 employees will be retained.

The Quandary of the “Made in Italy” Label

Two recent articles published in the New York Times are like bookends on the Made in Italy label and the economic malaise in the Italian textile industry.

In August journalist David Segal reported from Biella, Italy, at the foothills of the Alps, where he interviewed Luciano Barbera of the famous Carlo Barbera fabric mill for a widely disseminated piece titled “Is Italy Too Italian? From Taxis to Textiles, a Nation Chooses Tradition Over Growth.”

This piece brought back memories of my visit there in 1999 when I was working for the men’s wear newsmagazine DNR (WWDMens). I was thrilled that Carlo Barbera, who was in his ‘80s at the time, gave me a personal tour of the mill. He took me to the grotta, the subterranean cave cooled by the waters of the River Strona, where the yarns sit and rest in wooden crates for six months to a year, in a sort of natural aging process. The theory is that the yarns need time to recover after the stress of the combing and dying process, and they absorb the river’s humidity as it seeps through the grotta’s brick walls. In the Times article Carlo’s son Luciano calls it “the nobilization of the yarn.”

The clothier Luciano Barbera in his family’s “spa for yarn,” where crates of thread rest for months. Economists fear that such small-scale artisanship cannot sustain Italy’s economy forever. (Photo by Dave Yoder for The New York Times)

The mill supplies fabric to dozens of luxury brands like Ermenegildo Zegna, Armani and Ralph Lauren. An executive that I interviewed at Hickey-Freeman for my DNR article said “Carlo Barbera is the premier family of Biella. It has been and continues to be one of the very select mills of the world noted for innovation…. They would rather be very, very good than very, very big.”

But the firm is now struggling financially and its orders are down. Luciano Barbera has been focusing on the “Made in Italy” label and claims that “a growing number of clothing designers have been buying cheaper fabric in China, Bulgaria and elsewhere and slapping “Made in Italy” on garments, even if those garments are merely sewn here.”

He’s now fighting against a new law taking effect in October which would allow manufacturers to use the label if at least two stages of production (out of four) occur in Italy. He maintains that the law “will wreck the national brand, which has long been built on the skill of its craftspeople.”

Barbera advocates for a label “that simply lays out the origins of a garment, stating where its fabric was made, where it was constructed, and so on.” David Segal writes that “Mr. Barbera says he has no qualms about globalization. In his opinion, Italy can’t compete when it comes to low-skill labor and shouldn’t try.” He is hoping that the European Commission will overturn the law. Meanwhile, garments in the collection that he designs are labeled “Entirely manufactured in Italy.”

More recently, Times reporter Rachel Donadio visited Prato, another textile hub located further south in Tuscany. The title of the piece says it all: “Stitched in Italy, by Chinese, Newcomers Redefine a label.” Having been familiar with the efforts of the Italian Trade Commission and its “Made in Italy” promotions, this article was almost painful to read.

The first few paragraphs set the scene:

Over the years, Italy learned the difficult lesson that it could no longer compete with China on price. And so, its business class dreamed, Italy would sell quality, not quantity. For centuries, this walled medieval city just outside of Florence has produced some of the world’s finest fabrics, becoming a powerhouse for “Made in Italy” chic.

And then, China came here.

Chinese laborers, first a few immigrants, then tens of thousands, began settling in Prato in the late 1980s. They transformed the textile hub into a low-end garment manufacturing capital — enriching many, stoking resentment and prompting recent crackdowns that in turn have brought cries of bigotry and hypocrisy.

The city is now home to the largest concentration of Chinese in Europe — some legal, many more not. Here in the heart of Tuscany, Chinese laborers work round the clock in some 3,200 businesses making low-end clothes, shoes and accessories, often with materials imported from China, for sale at midprice and low-end retailers worldwide.

It is a “Made in Italy” problem: Enabled by Italy’s weak institutions and high tolerance for rule-bending, the Chinese have blurred the line between “Made in China” and “Made in Italy,” undermining Italy’s cachet and ability to market its goods exclusively as high end.

In Prato, Italy, the Chinese manager of a textile factory closed it down after a police raid. (Photo by Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times)

And the following description brings to mind a sweatshop in China:

The work — long hours at sewing machines — takes place in back-room workshops with makeshift sleeping quarters. The heart of the “fast fashion” sector is an industrial area on the outskirts of town, Macrolotto, filled with Chinese fashion wholesalers.

Here, vans from across Europe line the parking lots as retailers buy “Made in Italy” clothing to resell back home at a huge markup. By buying in relatively small quantities and taking advantage of the fluid borders of the European Union, most manage to avoid paying import tariffs.

On a recent afternoon, a couple from Montenegro loaded racks of cotton summer dresses into boxes in the back of their van. The wife wielded a label gun, tagging each dress “Made in Italy.”

Needless to say, the aforementioned scene has little in common with the rarefied fabric production of the Carlo Barbera firm and high-end collections designed by the likes of Luciano Barbera. Simply put, it’s night and day – and a perfect illustration of what Italian designers and fabric mills are up against.

Artisanry: Past, Present & Future

The New York Times Center was the site of a stimulating panel discussion last week called “Artisanry: Past, Present & Future,” which examined the current state of craftsmanship. It was held in conjunction with the aforementioned exhibit on The Art of Craftsmanship Revisited: New York.

Renaud Dutreil, Chairman of LVMH in North America, started the evening off by simply saying that “most of the 60 LVMH brands were born from the labor and love of artisans…It’s a subject close to Bernard Arnault’s heart – and to my heart.” (Arnault, of course, is the company’s chairman and CEO.)

The goal of this initiative between LVMH and Parsons The New School for Design was “to promote the oftentimes overlooked work of the skilled craftsperson and to ensure that their unique knowledge is understood and carried forth by a new generation.”

Students from Parsons had six weeks to interview local New York-area artisans and do their research before translating that experience into design work of their own; some of them were featured in a short documentary film produced by @radical.media, which had some noteworthy sound bites.

Unlike in the old days when people in small towns had a proximity and ready access and exposure to craftsmen, metalwork artisan Jean Wiart commented in the film that today “we are extremely remote from the production aspect – what we wear, what we use.” One student noted that “the genesis of luxury is craft.” Renaud Dutreil added that “the school of artisanry is really a school of respect. We have to respect artisans.”

Moderator Kurt Andersen, host of the public radio program Studio 360, accurately portrayed artisanry as “a religious calling.” And he characterized artisans as individuals who are “doing something with that sense of passion…you would do it whether you were being paid or not.” The flip side, he observed, is that “nowadays, everything is artisanal – the butcher is artisanal….it’s the adjective du jour.”

Andersen added that “there’s a great overlap between luxury and artisanry… but they aren’t the same things.” Panelist Ulrich Wohn, president and CEO of Tag Heuer North America maintained the “you can never sell luxury…it’s really in the eye of the beholder.”

Andersen asked if “the fraught relationship between art and craft” is changing. Panelist Holly Hotchner, director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, was of the opinion that it had changed, but “there was a reticence on the part of young artists to look at tradition.” Indeed the decorative arts were not valued by people for many years, and Hotchner bemoaned the fact that unlike Europe, “America is extraordinarily behind” in giving economic support to artisans, craftsmen and artists.

Panelist Simon Collins, the dean of the School of  Fashion at Parsons, asserted that even though his graduates would be using computers to design, “we don’t train computer technicians; we train designers… there has to be the raw hands-on experience.”

Panelist Lev Glazman, CEO and co-founder of Fresh, observed that artisan-made goods create an emotional connection with the consumer. Andersen said that “in an age when so much is virtual, people, have a desire for something that is a tactile, sensual experience.” Ulrich Wohn of Tag Heuer said that the economic downturn has precipitated “a reordering of priorities. People are looking for that authentic experience…for that legitimacy.” Hence, “the whole realm of heritage is more important today.”

“The Art of Craftsmanship” Exhibition

Up until recently, I was editing a 27-minute work-in-progress for “Men of the Cloth,” so I haven’t had much time to post. While in the midst of editing, a multi-page advertising spread in The New York Times caught my eye. Parsons The New School for Design joined forces with LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton Inc. for “The Art of Craftsmanship Revisited: New York,” an exhibition on New York’s Governor’s Island. It’s free and open for one last weekend, June 26 and 27, and showcases the work of Parsons students and local artisans.

LVMH knows all too well that artisans have been the driving force behind many of its illustrious brands — which includes Fendi, Berluti and Hublot. This is one of LVMH’s social responsibility initiatives in New York City and around the world. And I, for one, applaud it. There will also be a panel discussion at the Times Center on artisanry’s “Past, Present and Future” on June 22, which I’ll be attending.

The LVMH program brought 23 teams of Parsons students from diverse disciplines together with local artisans working in areas ranging from architectural and ceramic arts to graphic arts. Through an extensive collaboration with the artisans, the student teams created original fashion ensembles and short documentary films, which were previewed in February, during New York City’s Fashion Week.

Renaud Dutreil, chairman of LVMH in North America, said:

“This exhibit allows us to expose thousands of New Yorkers and visitors to the City to the enormous talent of our local artisans and to see the work of our next generation of design talent come alive. The designs created by the Parsons’ students reflect exceptional vision and innovation as well as an understanding of the importance of craftsmanship and precision in creating a work of art. In artisanry, like in luxury, it takes skill, talent and hours of precise and passionate work to create every product.  It is important that the next generation of design talent understands their responsibility in ensuring that the traditions and heritage of craftsmanship survive.”

Decorative Painter Osmundo Echevarria in his studio

Claire-Aude Staraci, a spokeswoman for the company, added that the artisans in the project were selected among hundreds of New York Artisans.

“The ones selected were so inspired and eager to transmit their knowledge to the next generation embodied in this project by the Parsons students. They were also very articulate about their art and processes, which added a critical educational component in the project.  It was a tough decision but an important one considering that teams of 5-6 students each were assigned to one master artisan whom they spent many hours with in their studios, watching and learning from the artisan’s work and life experiences.”

Silversmith Valentin Yotkov creating one of his pieces

The web site is a fantastic spotlight on these artisans. It  includes videos of Valentin Yotkov, a master silversmith who hails from Bulgaria and uses the same tools and techniques employed hundreds of years ago; master clockmaker David Munro, who draws from the tradition of French precision horology of the 18th and 19th centuries; and Les Metailliers Champenois, a metalwork studio in Paterson, NJ responsible for the recreation of the Statue of Liberty’s torch.

Patrick Fenton of Swayspace letterpress print shop poses the question: “Are we losing something through our advances in technology?” And Ornamental metalwork artisan Jean Wiart, who apprenticed with his father, states in his video:

“I consider something beautiful that is well-made, well-engineered, well-fabricated. We are in a world of visual(s), and it is my responsibility to make sure that was is looking good is good in itself as well…My workers, like myself, are extremely aware that they are part of a chain – of a chain of unforgotten traditions that trace back for centuries — of  refined techniques and tricks of the trade that has been transmitted orally for hundreds of years.”

Gucci Spotlights its Artisans

Several weeks ago I noticed a Wall Street Journal ad featuring the craftsmen behind the Gucci label — and I thought ‘What a great idea — and a clever marketing approach, to boot.’

This storied Florentine label has long been associated with status handbags and shoes, and sexy globetrotting clothes. So it’s refreshing to see an emphasis on its heritage with a program the company calls its “Artisan Corner.”

Gucci's Artisan Corner

Throughout this year, Gucci’s artisans will travel to select Gucci stores, where they will be stationed at custom-built workstations with their sewing machines, leather stand and metal tools. Customers get to observe them assembling some of the house’s most iconic handbags.

An accompanying video will highlight the fact that these artisans’ skills are handed down through a family’s generations. Founder Guccio Gucci would be proud!

So far, they’ve been featured at Gucci stores in Tokyo, Osaka, Rome, Paris, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Chicago and New York. Visit the Facebook page for more photos.


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