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Op-Ed | The Craftsman’s Comeback by Orsola de Castro

“THERE IS NO FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN ARTIST AND A CRAFTSMAN” said Gropious, founder of Bauhaus.

This quote may not be as well known as the Andy Warhol’s “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” but it proved to be just as prophetic, spearheading a shift in our cultural thinking where all creative arts are linked, visually and intellectually.

Art and fashion, for example, interact continuously: there is a strong, deliberate link between the two – grand fashion exhibitions are regularly showcased in international museums and fashion boutiques look more like art galleries, displaying clothes like they were art installations.

This dialogue has culminated in many collaborations between fashion designers and artists.

From the iconic Mondrian inspired YSL shift dresses in 1965 to a flurry of more recent ones, such as Vanessa Beecroft and Helmut Lang, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Yayoi Kusama, both for Louis Vuitton, Levi Jeans x Damien Hirst x Andy Warhol Foundation, to name only very few.

Inspired luxury houses have become increasingly involved as patrons of the arts, opening foundations and museum wings, such as the Prada Foundation in Venice and the Transformer Building in Seul.

Right now, the Venice Biennale and Frieze in London are as fashionable as any Fashion Week.

Fashion photographers are also showcased in contemporary art spaces, and designers such as Karl Lagerfeld and Hedi Slimane make it look like the transition from designer to artist is somehow quite natural.

Before Gropius, there was a dignified distinction between the minor arts, or applied arts as they are also called, and fine art; now this distinction is more blurry.

Fact is, we tend elevate the artist, but we have grossly devalued the craftsman.

However, if we look at Gropious’s quote, we can change the emphasis and reach two very different interpretations.

Because Gropious doesn’t say, there is no fundamental difference between a CRAFTSMAN and an artist – meaning, I am a craftsman therefore I am, or I can be, an artist.

He said, there is no fundamental difference between an ARTIST and a craftsman – meaning, I am an artist, therefore I am also a craftsman.

Because the craftsman is every bit as sacrosanct as the artist.

In the fashion and textiles industry, as a result of recent trends such as fast fashion and mass produced luxury, the artisan, the craftsman, has pretty much disappeared from the picture.

After decades of gloss, of quantity over quality, our recent aesthetics have changed and we have become removed from the people who make our stuff, and there aren’t many people left who make things like they used to.

We do not value this kind of work because we no longer see it around us.

In fact, for years now we have been lead to visually believe that crafts were not that interesting, a bit dull, a bit ‘ethnic’, seriously unpolished: a stigma that insulted many skilled heroes and was subsequently very much suffered by the emerging ‘eco’ fashion brands, as many of the pioneering labels were born out of a need to preserve and commercialise the work of crafts-skilled communities.

The shift towards glossy, impersonal, designer brand as opposed to artisanal and manmade was probably also driven by the cyclical nature of fashion, and as a 1980s reaction to the 70s hippy culture, however, the decline in handicrafts also coincides with the mass migration of the fashion industry towards developing countries, which makes it look more cynical than ‘just a trend’.

It suddenly begins to look like in our search for cheaper and faster, we severely damaged millennia of handmaking traditions.

After all, we have industrialised the globe but put very little effort to safeguarding local skills and artisanal crafts, which is almost criminal in my opinion.

Quoting fashion photographer Edward Steichen:

“THE MAKING OF BEAUTIFUL OBJECTS AND THINGS OF ORNAMENT, AND EVEN UTILITY, HAVE PRACTICALLY BEEN BANISHED FROM THE ARTS TO THE MORE ACTIVE AND LUCRATIVE SCOPE OF COMMERCE”

But recently it has become more mainstream to capitalise on our artisanal heritage, and as a direct result of shifting attitudes towards sustainability and innovation, we begin to see, in communication campaigns and in the vocabulary used by fashion brands, the return of the word ‘craftsman’.

There was Gucci’s old-fashioned ‘factory workers’ ad campaign last year (and read Kering’s Marieclaire Deveux in her interview with BOF on the role of artisans in the luxury industry); Hermes, ever proud of their crafts heritage; even Primark using Harris Tweed is part of a distinct move towards this new crafts rehabilitation.

The name of Maison Margiela Couture line? “Artisanal”.

Could it be that we are looking for a new aesthetics that matches our principles?

That we are suffering gloss saturation and cheap mass consumption stress?

Are there enough people out there who want emotional durability in the things they buy?

And is the fashion industry responding to social injustices and an environmental crisis by actually reinvesting in heritage?

By integrating an aesthetic that informs sustainable choices and that speaks of values, we can infuse the crafts, the artisanal and the manmade with the same aspirational edge that we have so far only bestowed to the likes of Prada, or Topshop.

In upcycling (or recycling, as it was known), with its very distinctive aesthetics of fragmented, block colours and print clashes, there has been a continuous cross over between fashion, crafts and art, for centuries.

Upcycling is indeed a fancy new word, but it’s a pretty common look right now, fashion wise. From Christopher Raeburn to Reformation, Antonio Marras, Margiela, Vivienne Westwood all the way to H&M and Topshop.

Plus it’s the method of choice of many young emerging talents (such as the brilliant Estethica designers Katie Jones and Louise De Testa, and the Italian Progetto Quid), so it is bound to grow exponentially over the coming years.

New name, old story. Humanity’s deeply intimate relationship with what we leave behind.

From mosaic to modern art, we have reused: for purpose, for art, in fashion, meaningfully, for fun, forever.

Look at WABI SABI art in 15th century Japan (where broken pottery pieces were repaired with gold to emphasise the act of mending as an added value) and BORO FABRIC (again in Japan in the 17th and 18th century – just like quilting in Europe and America at the same time) – valuable textiles constructed by stitching together tiny scraps of waste fabric collected from several generations.

Amazingly, Boro Fabric looks like something that could have been part of a Martin Margiela collection, just as Christopher Kane referenced patchwork and crochet only a few seasons ago.

We see the regular use of reclaiming materials and textiles in art, from Arte Povera in Italy in the 60s to the YBA in London in the 90s, Sonya Delunay in the 20’s and Pippilotti Rist now.

In interior design it’s called ‘Shabby Chic’ (and it looks very much like Wabi Sabi) – take a tour of London’s East End and you will find that most gourmet cafes and restaurant are entirely refurbished with reclaimed objects, mis-matched plates and glasses, planks of old wood as asymmetrical shelving, unpolished everything.

It’s a look that is steeped in fashion history, with Gaultier, and Westwood, and Comme De Garçon, and Punk, and Grunge, and Vintage.

Nowadays, at a time of furious over-consumption, upcycling and recycling offer a viable design solution to an environmental challenge, standing for ‘the slowing down of unnecessary virgin textile production and the reduction of landfill mass with its associated emissions burden”.

At a time when 80 billion items of clothing are delivered out of factories annually, any kind of slowing down has to be seen as an alternative. How brilliant it is that we like the look of it.

Fashion talks, and the trends we are inspired by are a manifestation of who we are, and where we want to be. The language we speak with the aesthetic we chose tells a story we want to tell, or hear.

Wouldn’t it be great if Karl Lagerfeld, rather than showing his conceptual, back lit, etched glass portraits confessed to spending most evenings deep in embroidery and exhibited that body of work instead?

Perhaps, after so many decades of a fashion industry with absolutely nothing interesting to say, as well as looking at fine art, fashion will lead by re-embracing its origins.

By telling us again the story of the things we buy, promoting transparency as the new ‘must have’, preserving as well as fostering new craftsmanships and enthusing the next generation with an aesthetic that speaks of integrity and spells out MAKE CLOTHES BEAUTIFUL AGAIN.

Orsola de Castro is creative director at From Somewhere and Reclaim To Wear.  Co-Founder of Estethica and Co-Founder of Fashion Revolution Day. Click here to watch Orsola’s TEDx talk at The London Business School.

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