Good Company: Crafted Society’s Commitment to Artisans
June 17, 2021 3:53 pm ET
Crafted Society has made its mission to work with the small, mostly family-run workshops who comprise the Made in Italy label.
When fashion veterans Lise Bonnet and Martin Johnston decided to start a luxury fashion brand five years ago, they looked to Italy to make their limited-edition handcrafted sneakers, bags, and accessories. But finding the shoemakers, milliners, and weavers to give life to Bonnet’s designs was a challenge.
“You cannot find them anywhere online; it’s not something that big brands are advertising,” Bonnet says from her home in Amsterdam. “They never tell anybody who actually makes their products. It’s all trade secrets.”
Non-disclosure agreements ensure that decades of silence will continue, but thanks to contacts provided by industry friends, the husband and wife duo was able to connect with several of these hushed makers of Italian luxury. All was not good. From one workshop to another, they heard variations on the same struggle: there was a shortage of next-generation artisans.
Upon hearing that the average age of employees at Lanificio Arca, a 70-year-old family-owned workshop of cashmere weavers, was 60, they felt a call to action. “Within a generation, these artisans could cease to exist,” Bonnet says. “We said to each other, we need to find a way to help preserve this crafted society. That’s also where our name was born.”
Crafted Society has made its mission to work with the small, mostly family-run workshops who comprise the Made in Italy label. “These people are so proud of this generational history that they’ve been handed down,” Johnston said. “It made complete sense to put them back into the spotlight.”
Each gender-neutral product identifies which company manufactured it, some named for the maker: the Gusto key ring, the Luisa tote, the Mario sneaker. Photos, stories, and biographies of these craftspeople connect buyer to maker. Contact information for everyone from the makers to the raw suppliers are listed.
When the pandemic hit, workshops saw their orders from the big brands canceled or reduced, putting their pre-existing challenges into sharper focus. “We had to take a good long look at our business,” Bonnet says. “What are we doing? How can we make sure we can keep on working with the artisans?”
Bonnet and Johnston addressed this question first with two yearly subscription plans. After purchasing the Crafted Society Club subscription, a client can buy the entire collection at a 40% discount. Shoe lover? The Crafted Sole Society membership includes the 40% discount as well as four pairs of shoes.
“We’re trying to bring the customer and the artisan closer together,” Bonnet says. “We’re also doing this so we can give the artisans more orders so they can keep producing.”
Secondly, a Luxury for Good Foundation is being set up to eventually fund apprenticeship programs to train the next generation, reinvigorating this endangered community.
Founders Lise Bonnet and Martin Johnston.
The star of the handcrafted collection is the Mario sneaker. “It’s our classic,” Johnston says of the retro-styled tennis shoe. “It’s an easy, easy style for all age groups.” Indeed, kids are saving up. The Mario, one of four sneaker styles, comes in either nubuck or full grain leather, in a wide variety of colors.
The Albertina cashmere scarf contains 365 individual yarn colors—one for every day of the year. Named for Albertina, the master craftswoman at Lanifico Arca for the last fifty years, the scarf is upcycled from leftover cashmere for a zero-waste luxurious product.
The collection also features handbags, travel bags, hats, and other handmade accessories.
By cutting out the middleman and slashing extraneous margins, Crafted Society is able to offer its products at significantly lower prices than the big Italian labels; sneakers start at US$362 and top at US$423, whereas similar styles from Italian houses of luxury start at two to three times that price—and could very well be made by the same artisans.
The Saffiano leather and organic cotton canvas backpack is US$911, the Nando weekender bag, also made from Saffiano leather and canvas, starts at US$1,275 for the small size and the Albertina scarf, made from 365 different colored strands of Grade-A upcycled cashmere is US$364.
Subscriptions substantially bring prices down even more. “We’re trying to make luxury accessible for more people, and not just a happy few,” Bonnet says.
By cutting out the middleman and slashing extraneous margins, Crafted Society is able to offer its products at significantly lower prices than the big Italian labels.
WHAT’S THE GOOD?
“If we are going to close the loop on that connected problem that we faced five years ago, we also have the responsibility to come up with a solution,” Johnston says. “A solution for us will be not just to give these people work, but to also help provide an infrastructure where they educate the next generation and build a pipeline of future talent.”
To that end, Crafted Society gives 1% of turnover to educational nonprofits, with the goal of setting up a Luxury for Good Foundation that funds scholarships to help in finding and training new apprentices.
“The goal is to control it ourselves, and to work very closely with our partners, to set up the scholarships for them to get a pipeline of new apprentices,” Bonnet adds. “We’re not there yet, but that is our dream for the future.”
In five years, these couple wants to have their foundation up and running, and to be working with the artisans to give out scholarships for future generations. The duo is also contemplating having a second home base in the U.S., from which they would create a scalable brand to then re-export back to Europe.