“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.

French Artisans Struggle to Stay Afloat

A couple of stories in the news recently highlighted the state of craftsmanship on both sides of the Atlantic. One piece, in the Wall Street Journal, was titled “Couture Artisans Seek French Aid.”The lead paragraph stated that “France’s specialized embroiderers, seamstresses, tailors and hatmakers — once the backbone of a thriving fashion business–are today among the hardest hit victims of the global slowdown in luxury-goods sales.”

It’s sad to say, but the famous “petites mains” of the French luxury goods sector are struggling mightily and  the French government may have to step in to provide economic aid to these craftsmen. This sector is so intimately ties with France’s image and longstanding reputation as a fashion mecca, that it’s troubling to contemplate what would happen without the existence of these artisans. The number of “highly skilled” artisans employed in the country has reportedly dropped 80 %.

France is now considering tax breaks and new labeling rules that would highlight “the origin or artisanal nature” of a product (which  I think is a great idea). And then there’s Chanel, which has wisely been buying a number of these artisans in an attempt to preserve its ability to create those most elaborate couture gowns.  It’s interesting that Chanel actually requires that its own products be sourced in France.

Waterford Crystal Artisans Lose Their Livelihood

I noted that yesterday a major exhibition celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Wedgwood (founded in 1759) opened at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C. (it runs through Feb. 27, 2010). As you may or may not know, Wedgwood (of the famous china) is part of Waterford Wedgwood plc, the brand’s parent company.

Waterford maintains that it is “the leading brand of premium crystal.” Its web site has a page that features the artisans who create Waterford products (its engraver and master cutters who have worked there for decades). One of those artisans is master cutter Tom Power who began his career there in 1969. His bio says that “One of his great works includes the Waterford Crystal Ball, lowered at the Times Square New Year’s celebration in New York.” Waterford was founded in 1783 in the port town of Waterford, Ireland.

What the site won’t tell you is that on January 5, 2009, parts of the company, including the main Irish and UK operations, were placed in receivership after the heavily-indebted firm failed to find a buyer. The Waterford crystal factory in Kilbarry, Ireland ceased operating and 480 people lost their jobs. But guess what? Those workers continued going to their “jobs” and literally occupied the factory for months, hoping for a solution.

The New York Times reported that “The crystal company has posted huge losses in the past few years, and much of its manufacturing is already done in factories in cheaper countries abroad. The workers fear that all their experience and all their expertise, not to mention the long history of crystal-making in Waterford, are in danger of disappearing.”

“If it’s mass-produced, the craftsmanship we have here could be lost forever, so we’re fighting for that as well,” one worker told the Times. Sean Egan was an engraver “who had been an apprentice at the factory for a decade, from age 15 to 25, before he was allowed to wield his tools unsupervised. He is 50 now. ‘It’s extremely hard to learn, and machines can’t do it,’ he said. It’s like playing the piano. You can learn three chords and get away with it, but if you want to learn classical piano, you have to practice all the time.”

“When Mr. Egan heard that he had lost his job and came to find the doors locked, he was filled with an outrage similar, he said, to that felt by people thrown out of their homes during the Irish famine. ‘That is no way to treat people, to stop them from coming into their own factory,’ he said.”

KPS Capital Partners, a private equity company based in New York, purchased Waterford Wedgwood in March, but the Kilbarry factory was not part of the sale. The irony is that the factory is one of southeast Ireland’s biggest tourist attractions, drawing about 350,000 visitors a year.

About a week ago, the remaining 170 Waterford workers were given their notice, the Irish Times reported. A spokesman for trade union Unite, which represents the staff, said it was a “sad day for the area and for Ireland.” Indeed.

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