Safeguarding Craftsmanship

Numerous changes have come in the luxury industry due to many factors - globalisation, recession, and more. It's the apt moment to go back to the roots and understand the original meaning of luxury - as understood by veteran like Mr Franco Cologni.

By: Soumya Jain

Posted on: April 10, 2011

Numerous changes have come in the luxury industry due to many factors – globalization, recession, and more. It’s the apt moment to go back to the roots and understand the original meaning of luxury – as understood by veterans like Mr Franco Cologni.

In an era where every brand claims to be luxury, elite brands are unconsciously retreating from ‘exclusivity’ to gain business, and LVMH is acquiring luxury brands by the bucketful, the definition of luxury has become blurred and mutilated beyond recognition. True connoisseurs of luxury shake their heads at the constant misuse of this word, while the younger generation is willing to believe everything expensive as ‘luxury’. 

Luxury was and is about perfection. Women don’t buy a Hermes bag just because it looks good. They also buy it because they are sure about the quality and functionality of the bag. They know each unique handbag is painstakingly hand-stitched by a master craftsman and they are buying a piece of heritage…not just a bag.

Caught up in the endless cycle of demand and supply, many ‘luxury’ brands have resorted to churning out endless ready-to-wear collections at various price points. While business is booming, genuine luxury patrons are slowly disassociating themselves with such brands.

In such a scenario, it has become imperative to re-look at the word ‘luxury’, safeguard true luxury, and place brands in this category even more carefully. Who better to converse with on this subject than Mr Franco Cologni?

Mr Cologni started his career by working with numerous publications, chiefly concerning the history of theatre, luxury, the arts and outstanding artistic crafts. Today also he collaborates with numerous daily papers and magazines. Recently, he stepped down as the editor of the international magazine Cartier Art - though he is a part of  the committee still. Mr Cologni has a long-standing relationship with Cartier. Starting as the head of the Italian market, he went on to become the Chairman of Cartier International. In 2000, after the French company became part of the Richemont Group, he became the Executive Chairman for the Group’s jewellery and horology sector. In October 2002 he became a Director of Compagnie Financière Richemont SA - a post he still holds.

The Chairman of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie till recently, today he is the President of the Cultural Committee of FHH. In Milan he established the ‘Creative Academy’, an international design and creative management school. In France he has been awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and Officier de la Légion d’Honneur for his contributions to culture and the economy. For his entrepreneurial work, he was awarded Cavaliere del Lavoro (Knighthood for Work) in 2002 in Italy.

Adding to the string of achievements, Mr Cologni is also the chairman of Fondazione Cologni, an institution that works towards promoting true craftsmanship. The impressive portfolio makes Mr Cologni one of the foremost authorities on true luxury – someone who is passionate about the subject and works heedlessly towards upholding it.

The basics
Mr Cologni, who defines true luxury as “something that makes your life better”, has strong views about craftsmanship. He says, “Excellence requires certain specific characteristics. An excellent product must be authentic, original, perfectly realized, of great functionality, desirable. This is why real luxury objects are necessarily created thanks to the indissociable link between a creative mind and an ‘intelligent’ hand: the hand of an artisan whose savoir-faire is nourished by passion, talent and culture.”

But judging a true craftsman is not easy as well today. For instance, countries like India are brimming with fashion designers, but who is a true haute couturist from them all? Mr Cologni agrees and explains, “A skilful craftsman is someone who not only masters techniques, but who also has the artistic sensitivity and the personal talent to interpret projects in the best possible way. Emboideries, for instance, can be realized everywhere, but only real masters are able, not just to develop the project of a designer, but to receive it, elaborate it, and perceive exactly the designers’ inspirations to turn them into a beautiful creation.”

Luxury today
The colloquial Mr Cologni is quite positive about the current state of the luxury industry. When I asked him if he thought that true craftsmanship is getting lost today, he said, “On one hand, luxury brands are starting to understand what I’ve been saying since the last 40 years – that no luxury product could exist without the help of craftsmen. Many maisons are now investing in the savoir-faire that legitimates their identity and their products. But for sure, the culture of the artisanal work is suffering. There is no proper communication, and the average age of the artisans is quite high.” 

While the younger generation is definitely clued into shopping for the best of the best, they might not be that keen to actually create these luxury pieces. “The young generation is not always charmed by these professions. In many cases they even ignore them, and hence lose a lot of opportunities. This is why we have always insisted on a lot in projects that could inspire the young talents to discover the beauty of these professions,” said Mr Cologni. He recommends the programme Professorship in Systems for managing the métiers d’art which he has been financing since 2010 in the masters program in Economics and Management of Cultural Property and the Performing Arts at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan.

With luxury brands increasing their global footprint and creating their mark in every nook and corner of the world, many consider that luxury is not ‘exclusive’ anymore. It is easily available to any consumer (who might not exactly be called luxury connoisseur) across the world. This aspect can be seen in both ways – positive and negative. Mr Cologni also thinks the same – “A bigger distribution is not always in contrast with top quality. What is necessary is to preserve the authenticity and the originality of the products. Of course, exclusivity and uniqueness are and remain fundamental for the definition of luxury products. Globalization can be seen both as an opportunity and as a threat. I prefer to see it as an opportunity for countries like Italy, France, Switzerland or England to export beautiful products that can be produced only by their best artisans, and can now be appreciated everywhere.”

The correct way ahead
History has produced some of the greatest examples of true artisans. There are some of whom we are aware of, some we are not. Mr Cologni, in his turn, applauds Benvenuto Cellini. “The clearest example is always Benvenuto Cellini, author of the famous salt-cellar created for King Frances I of France which we have chosen as symbol of the Foundation. He knew how to perfectly work with materials; he had a great taste and was able to produce refined masterpieces; he was a skilled communicator and was able to sell his pieces to the most important commissioners of the time; and he had an atelier that was also a forge of culture. Such an outstanding figure is still nowadays a symbol of creativity, talent, commercial skills and passion.”

Coming to Fondazione Cologni, Mr Cologni’s non-profit institution, we had a word with Mr Alberto Cavalli, the Direttore Generale of the foundation, as well.

The Foundation Cologni aims at a ‘new Renaissance’ for arts and crafts. It addresses the young people especially - to train a new generation of masters, and save the various crafts from the risk of extinction. Thus, the foundation promotes, supports and finances a range of cultural, scientific and publishing activities, organizes conferences and exhibitions, and funds scientific research at the Research Center ‘Crafts’ set up at the Catholic University of Milan.

Mr Cavalli excitedly said, “Among the most important and recent initiatives, the exhibition “Mestieri d'Arte, Moda d’Autore” (Métiers d'Art, Designer Fashion) saw a huge success. It was organized in the context of the Milanese fashion week in the prestigious premises of Palazzo Marino, the Municipal Palace of Milan, just in front of the La Scala Theatre. Organised by us, it was dedicated to Pino Grasso, one of the most important embroiderers in Italian fashion. Twenty outfits signed by Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Ferré, Valentino, Etro and Mila Schon, and embroidered by Pino Grasso, were displayed alongside some of the most precious embroideries realized by the Milanese maestro. More than 5,000 visitors saw the exhibition that lasted for five days. A record!”

The Cologni Foundation publishes a series of historical and artistic monographs dedicated to artistic craft professions. After the first three books dedicated to traditional professions, the series moved towards contemporary areas. The success of titles such as ‘The Copywriter’ and ‘The Chocolate Maker’ prompted the Cologni Foundation to continue in this direction. For the 2011, two new volumes are foreseen: ‘La mano che cura. Dialoghi con i maestri del benessere’ (The Hand that Cures. Dialogues with Well-being Professionals) and a book about the art of navigation.

The foundation also publishes a magazine, ‘Mestieri d'Arte’, which enters into the specifics of the noble origins of materials, techniques, projects, ateliers, schools, workshops, and above all, the master craftsmen: the maestri d’arte.

Among the other projects scheduled for 2011, one of the most important is the exhibit on Instrument Making at the Auditorium in Milan. For the Salone del Mobile, Fondazione Cologni, Creative Academy and Van Cleef & Arpels are promoting a meeting of Young Designers and Expert Craftsmen where the young students of the Creative Academy of Milan, the Richemont group’s school of design and creative management, will put their creativity to test under the guidance of architect, designer and applied arts expert Ugo La Pietra. The young designers will encounter the manual talent of four specialized craftsmen in ceramics, mehtyl methacrylate, wood and metal, to make unique objects that will be exhibited during the Salone del Mobile week at the Van Cleef & Arpels boutique in Milan. The theme given is ‘The Extraordinary Travels of Jules Verne’, inspired by the latest collection by the prestigious French maison.

In a burst of philanthropy, the Fondazione Cologni will fund internships for three young instrument makers graduating from the Civica Scuola di Liuteria School in Milan, with the aim of guaranteeing them six months’ specialization in a workshop of excellence.

That’s a lot happening for creating new talents and masters. But what advice does Mr Cologni have for the current luxury brands? “Never betray your origins, never neglect the importance of artisanal savoir-faire, never reveal your secrets, never compromise on quality, always invest in creativity, always invest in know-how, always listen to the client, always look for beauty.”

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