The future of luxury is increasingly being debated in terms of core values such as tradition, time, craftsmanship and innovation. Gone are the days that glossy surface advertising alone meant stellar profits, and even designers such as Tom Ford, who helped accelerate the previous generation of luxury sales, are now reverting to more authentic brand propositions.
A Regola d’Arte, a new exhibition at Florence’s Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, explores the relationship cultural heritage and economics have with high fashion and luxury. Inspired in part by American sociologist Richard Sennett—who writes about cities, labor and culture and teaches at both New York University and the London School of Economics—and coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Ferragamo’s death, curators Tommaso Fanfani and Stefania Ricci’s beautifully conceptualized show features animation, archival photography, multimedia installations and family interviews to bring the Ferragamo story to life, while also employing music and technology to illustrate the relationship between art and fashion production. The event also celebrated the philosophy of luxury ideology with the creation of a special prize for new Florentine artisanal enterprises that emphasize local craftsmanship, innovation and creativity.
In an exhibition statement, Professor Sennett laid out his aims and attempted to reconcile the increasing role of industrialization and fast expanding luxury production. “Drawing on the history of an Italian company such as Ferragamo,” he remarked, “it would like to provide an opportunity to reflect on the values that have allowed an enterprise well rooted in Florence’s arts and crafts tradition to keep this DNA intact, even throughout the difficult transition to industrial production…Today’s craftsman is the artist who plays the music, the shoemaker who operates and controls the machine at work, the young person who creates a new website.”
The inevitable and increasing role of industrialization in luxury production has led to products that are no longer personalized or exclusive. Historically, luxury goods have been created through meticulous detail, respect for our shared environment, commitment and recognition of human dignity. But this dedicated breed of craftspeople in Italy and across the world are now being replaced by large production facilities in cheap labor regions. Of this decline, Professor Sennett has noted: “Belief in sharing and developing skills, in craftsmanship intended not only as manual ‘know-how,’ but above all as a mental process in which passion for one’s work, the desire to keep progressing, an obsession with quality and continual research into materials and technology…are tangible expressions of a zeal and dynamism that belong anywhere but in the past, that now more than ever represent elements of distinction and important levers for facing the future.”
Luxury craftsmanship has been marked by the rise of industrialization techniques to cope with the expanding demand and technical innovations that the industry has needed in order to grow and prosper. Ferragamo was established in Florence in 1928, and is widely credited with having encouraged the spread of artisanal culture throughout Italy, but the company was forced to transition from handmade craftsmanship to industrial manufacturing techniques to meet increasing demands by the early ‘60s. An order from Saks Fifth Avenue for 12,000 pairs of shoes instead of its usual order for 200 pairs at the time, for example, required the introduction of machines in order to reach a daily output of 6,500 pairs. This, in turn, led to a radical transformation of the company’s manufacturing, communication and investment strategies, thereby giving rise to the modern global fashion brand that we all know.
And yet, in today’s economic climate, is it still possible to create such a company with today’s business pressures and market realities? Can a designer with the vision, talent and business skills of the young Ferragamo ever compete with the big groups and conglomerated fashion system? If a little of what has been built here in the space of 100 years may be imparted to the China, India and other cheap labor neighbors then it can only be for the good. Can goods truly be considered luxurious if one directly or indirectly knows that impoverished workers produce them in sub-standard working conditions? As the industry increasingly looks for signs of emerging China’s desire to create its very own global luxury powerhouses, they could do worse than to take a leaf out of Ferragamo’s book.
Ferragamo and companies such as Kiton, Riva and Hermes encapsulate the re-emerging idea that craftsmanship is a result of an inexorable harmony between the mind and the hand. A modern, family-owned company’s recognition and reflection of itself in the work, activities and products created by men and women particularly tied to the culture and history of a territory, leads to constant striving to keep the memory of this “know how” intact.
That the Ferragamo exhibition opening also coincided with the First Biennial International Cultural Heritage and Landscape Week is further evidence that the city is spearheading what could become a new international movement. From November 12th to the 20th, the entire city became the setting for more than 150 events and activities, culminating in a three-day International Forum. Set to be held in Florence every two years, this initiative aims to reposition the city at the center of the contemporary debate about the relationship between cultural heritage and economy. And based on both the city’s history and current momentum, it seems to be heading in the right direction.
Shwetal Patel is the co-founder of The Creative Archives