A discussion in front of an audience cannot be long. Particularly when most of them are standing. An hour – max – minus 10 minutes or so for questions.
So we had 50 minutes for the talk at our Accessories Symposium, shared out among the six speakers and myself.
With only 7 or 8 minutes each to talk, I cut down the questions to four:
- We would all agree that there is an increasing appreciation of craft and quality in our industries. But how mainstream is it, and how long might it last?
- Social media has allowed that quality to be communicated more widely and cheaply than ever before. A boon to a small craft-based brand. But it also relies on a constant supply of shallow imagery – is it a help or hindrance?
- How has the breakdown of traditional relationships, between manufacturing, wholesale, retail and marketing, affected you?
- China has changed dramatically in the past 10 years, with more sophisticated consumers and manufacturing. How has your relationship with it developed?
Most speakers had time to answer most questions. But the themes of each merged very quickly – the way social media allows shops to do so much marketing of the brands they stock, effectively breaking new markets for them; or how craft relates to the range of nationalities that work in different people’s workshops.
There was little consistency in the make-up of those workshops. Ann Ryley described the Begg & Co factory in Ayr, Scotland, for example, which is 90% Scottish workers, many of whom have been there for decades.
Tommaso Melani of Stefano Bemer, on the other hand, said that he was the oldest person in the whole team, which was made up of Italians, Japanese and other nationalities. (“The Japanese arguably made Stefano Bemer what it is today”).
The makers did agree that owning your own factory helped control the product. Michael Hill of Drake’s admitted that their factory in east London may not exist today if the company hadn’t decided to launch its own brand, rather than just make for other people. (“With competition increasing from Europe and Asia, we realised we had to add more to the value chain,” he said.)
Everyone on the panel owned their own production, with the exception of Bram Frankel at William Abraham socks. While it was recognised that this was an advantage in terms of stability and control, it was also one of the few remaining barriers to entry: a start-up like Bram is unlikely to be able to afford to set up a workshop (particularly if it involves a lot of capital-intensive machinery).
The sales approaches between the brands varied more widely: Bram just online; Maison Bourgeat through the shop; Stefano Bemer and Simonnot-Godard largely wholesale; Begg and Drake’s a mixture.
Overall, people acknowledged that the routes to market were much more varied and complicated than in the past – but that this could create flexibility, allowing brands to pick the one that was right for them.
Everyone said they embraced social media, while recognising its faults. How mainstream and permanent the craft trend is was difficult to guess at, but all speakers were resolutely optimistic (as they have to be – another breakdown in roles is that all were salesmen/women as much as managers or creatives).
The same positivity came across about China – despite its current economic woes. It will take time for Chinese consumers to change (shops like Brio, who were in the audience, are at the coalface) as it will for attitudes to Chinese production.
Bram initially said he could make anywhere that had the right level of quality, but admitted that if his socks had ‘Made in China’ on them it would make a big difference to how they are perceived. This despite the fact that Chinese factories are at the leading edge in many areas of clothing, most obviously sportswear.
After a few questions from the audience, it was time for more wine and some street food outside. A few more pictures were taken, Monocle interviewed the makers, and everyone drifted away for dinner.
From all the comments afterwards and since, everyone seemed to find it both entertaining and thought-provoking. Thank you, all, for coming. Here are just some of you: