“If we have more artisans in the world sending positive energy through their products, then we've got a good chance of being able to preserve a crafted society, where people can really appreciate things that are made by hand.”
Between poor working conditions, environmental degradation, burning unsold merchandise, and secretive supply chains, the fashion industry has been slow to adapt to rising trends in sustainability and ethical production practices.
After years of working in traditional fashion, Martin Johnston and his wife Lise Bonnet wanted to effect change. So they took matters into their own hands and started their Amsterdam-based luxury fashion brand, Crafted Society.
But it’s not just another fashion company — what’s remarkable about Crafted Society is that from beginning to end, it is focused on transparency, sustainability, and ethical practices. Suppliers and raw materials are listed on the website, there are no unnecessary markups, products are sustainably sourced, and a percentage of sales goes towards education-focused non-profits. And perhaps most importantly, Crafted Society puts authentic craftsmanship at the forefront, working with talented artisans of Italy to bring humanity back into an industry rife with exploitation.
There's a beautiful quote on your website that reads "there is poetry in their hands." From your perspective, what is unique about handcrafted goods, and why should we aim to preserve some of these crafts?
There are a few things that immediately come to mind. Modern-day businesses are extremely good at fabricating stories to provide a brand with a buzz. Ultimately what comes with crafting something by hand is authenticity. It's putting into play traditions that have spanned the test of time through skill. It's through mastery and generational knowledge that has been passed down generation after generation.. It's counterintuitive towards what the fast fashion trend is today. We’re placing our bets on slow fashion becoming the new fast fashion: quality rising above quantity, handmade by masters resonating more than made by machine. Especially in this time of a pandemic and social uprisings in the world, conscious capitalism is starting to take a new direction, and objects of beauty made by hand and using authentic traditions are ultimately appreciated more.
So it's very true that these masters possess a kind of poetry in their hands. I read somewhere that it may take a master five hours to make something, but you should pay them for the 25 years it took for them to perfect their craft. I think that's what comes with all great artists and artisans as well -- they've been able to become the best at what they do through hard work, determination, and their personal commitment towards excellence. We're trying to put that skill back on a pedestal because the real heroes of luxury have been forgotten. We're trying to challenge convention and put the human before the label, after all, our products have all been individually handcrafted.
In a world of instant gratification, we’ve lost perspective on the value of that mastery.
Correct. I think of the people who are at the lower end of the supply chain. They’re some of the lowest paid people in the entire supply chain, and with fast fashion cutting huge corners to provide greater shareholder value and greater profit margins, it comes with a drastic human cost. There's been countless examples of workers pleading for help, writing messages in garments, to try and share their voice and bring much needed visibility towards the conditions that they work in. Underpaid and working in poor inhumane conditions is far removed from the glossy marketing campaigns that we see. This has to stop and full transparency in business operations is a good start.
Luxury is at the other end of the fashion spectrum. The spectrum that uses the highest quality raw materials, made by best in class masters who have perfected their craft over decades. But luxury should also be transparently acknowledging these people, because without the master artisan, there simply is no luxury. If we have more artisans in the world sending positive energy through their products, then we've got a good chance of being able to preserve a crafted society, where people can really appreciate things that are made by hand.
The artisans you work with are the heart of your business. How does this approach to luxury fashion empower them in their work?
We are the first brand to truly acknowledge the people behind the independent workshops behind true craftsmanship.
When we started, we knew that we needed to come up with something different, because the world doesn't need another fashion brand. Most people are sick of fashion (brands). If we were going to bring something new to a noisy industry, we needed to afford ourselves time to discover, be inquisitive and challenge convention.
We visited multiple artisans and listened to their history, stories and challenges. We recognized that our definition of what new luxury should be would be nothing without these makers. Creative directors and designers come and go, but if the knowhow of pure craftsmanship is not passed down onto the next generation, it will be lost forever. We recognize that in order for us to have a circular luxury industry, we need to take these people out from the shadows and put them back up onto a pedestal so that more businesses can have access to them and their skills. The artisans indirectly helped shape the name of the brand.
It's interesting that the idea of authenticity is so highly esteemed in luxury fashion, yet transparency is not. Why aren't traditional luxury brands transparent, and what makes you different?
The idea of luxury originally came about through status and societal recognition -- the haves versus the have-nots. It was centered around elitism and in turn high prices. Then consumerism and branding got involved and transparency would have been the death of traditional luxury due to the highly inflated prices.
Until recently, there really wasn’t a business opportunity to offer the same quality of raw materials of luxury goods brands and to sell them to the end consumer for a fraction of the price. Then e-commerce emerged and with it, an opportunity to sell directly-to-the-end-consumer without the unnecessary mark-ups accustomed to the traditional wholesale-retail business model. Consumers wanted something new, something they could not get on every street corner. They are still prepared to pay good money, but they want to know that your brand has got it's values in the right place and are putting people and the planet first. Sustainability is a key driver.
Certain brands donate money, they donate percentages of profits, they are involved in multiple corporate social responsibility programs, and we just felt that transparency was the gatekeeper to everything.
We were willing and courageous enough to open the gates and allow people an all-access pass towards our trade secrets -- that ultimately was a bit of a gamble. A lot of my industry colleagues and friends thought I was completely bonkers, but if you have seen the speed at which the transparency movement is gaining strength we were probably ahead of the curve.
In the old days, if you had enough money to put big advertising campaigns out there, you would probably win. But today it's not about the monologue, it's about dialogue. There has been a seismic shift at the consumer level, and if you're not giving them the facts to the questions they are asking 5they're simply not going to adopt you and go and choose someone that is willing to have a dialogue.
Luxury has traditionally been extremely secretive. They don't want to have a dialogue. They don't want to tell people who make their products because it will open up a labyrinth which they are probably not completely comfortable disclosing. So we can talk a lot about why traditional luxury doesn't do X, Y, and Z, but I think the real question is, how is luxury going to evolve in the future and be relevant to thirsty, socially conscious consumers? We believe transparency, sustainability, and ethical practices will play a huge role in maintaining relevance.
That lack of transparency — is that just a way to create a sense of scarcity that keeps their brands alive?
What has been synonymous with European luxury for the last 30-40 years has been two predominant labels; “made in Italy” and “made in France”. When those two labels are applied to a product the perception of the product and ultimately the price which can be charged is significantly enhanced. When the early European luxury brands started to internationalize and make more money in the process, some of them identified ways to cut corners and cost while retaining the “Made in Italy” or “Made in France” label. This still happens today and is not only a grave misrepresentation of the label but also a generally accepted practice to deceive the consumer..
That is why many traditional luxury labels maintain strict levels of secrecy which provides them with the ability to cut more costs while making more money, without necessarily being true to what that label stated.
During our research, we visited multiple factories that were not even making products. They were simply assembling pre-fabricated products so that they could have that “Made in Italy” stamp on it, as the last piece of the process occurred in Italy. We experienced first-hand this practice with some of the most famous labels which inspired us to do things differently. I think that was another defining moment in our journey that inspired us to want to place transparency central to our brand.
When we say our product is made in Italy, it's not just made in Italy It is also completely sourced in Italy. From start to finish everything is found in small, family run workshops throughout the country, from the raw materials to the laces, outsoles, metalwork to the finished goods suppliers, pattern makers, cutters, sewers, lasters - everything. It costs a lot more, but that is why we have an unrivalled price - quality proposition.
Personally, what has been the biggest learning from starting your own business? What would you say to other founders and entrepreneurs who want to start out on their own?
Some of the learnings that have come out of starting our own thing has been determination and perseverance. In the old days, when I didn't like a CEO or I felt the board wanted to squeeze too much, I'd simply go and look for a different company. When you're running your own business, you have to have a self-belief that is probably different than anything you've come across before, because you're going to have the door shut in your face countless more times than it's ever going to open. It's a slow burn when you're trying to disrupt and go up against hundreds of millions of dollars worth of marketing power. It's extremely tough. But as long as you persevere and you have a purpose that is far greater than the components, that purpose will ultimately drive you to get up every morning and go to work with the same amount of passion and enthusiasm.
Brands have always had mission statements, but I think finding a purpose that is greater than anything you do has probably been the saving grace for us as well. And in our purpose statement on our website, we don't mention anything about the products we design, manufacture and retail. It's all about what we are trying to achieve. Simply put, our purpose is to use the power of transparent craftsmanship to help inspire and empower and educate the next generation. Craftsmanship is the lifeblood of the luxury industry and the master artisans are the Michelin-starred chefs.
We ultimately learned that there are countless ways to reach your goal. We were creative and positive enough to continually look for a solution, even when it came to expanding our footprint.
In 2019 we ventured into the world of searching for investors to join our purpose. It was a long road riddled with pitfalls, multiple no’s, people who couldn’t see the opportunity, etc but through perseverance and self-belief, we were successful in bringing onboard seven new angel investors at the end of February. We're absolutely delighted to have these people join us. But there were times when we thought it wasn't going to happen, and I think that in the moments of despair and anxiety you see your own character. But we stuck to our guns and to what our instincts kept telling us. And that was to find the right people that believed in what we’re trying to do, and luckily we did.
How are you looking to expand Crafted Society?
We follow a digital-first strategy. The beauty of the internet is that you can be on anyone's telephone or computer or tablet, anywhere in the world, at any moment in time. So we want to continue to bring our story and what we're doing to more corners of the earth. But there's one thing that will probably never change: no matter how much the notion of luxury evolves, people still want the ability to touch and feel products, to see for themselves the quality and the craftsmanship that has gone into making a yacht, a car, a pair of shoes, a bag.
So what we stumbled on about 18 months ago is this notion of a fitting room. It was a very small concept and a “try before you buy” idea. We thought if we were going to have a physical brick and mortar store, we probably needed to rethink that also. We decided that we wanted to create a living room of sorts, where we can have a closed-door policy, if necessary. This provides customers a kind of private shopping experience which makes them feel special and in this COVID period, also safe. When people find the right size or the right product, we can just ship it to them directly, after they've had a first-hand live experiential drop into the Crafted Society world.
We are now actively planning the fitting room launch concept in the United States, as well as identifying franchise/showroom partners throughout the US all while continuing to drive a digital online business because that's where the economies of scale come from. So it's definitely about running a lean mean fighting machine in a way that still offers the touch and feel and the smile of a friendly face.
Would you say that you "move the needle"?
I would say that we're trying to move the needle, but I wouldn't say we've moved it yet, but we try every day. We fight every day. Three and a half years ago, when we launched to the end consumer, we had a hundred thousand Euros worth of cash tied up in products. We had no customers and we opened the website and no one came because nobody knew about it. Lise and I had built our whole careers in a traditional fashion business model and we took all that knowledge and threw it out the window and said, “we're going to go digital”.
I still remember the day we made our first sale online. It was a few weeks after we first launched and then an email came in. And it read “you have your first order on Crafted Society!”. Now we've sold thousands of products later and we've been in different global media, fans in more than 45 countries and growing, but still in my humble opinion, it's not yet enough to move the needle. It's only through scale and growth that we can continue to ensure that more of the next generation become artisans and that more consumers can appreciate their craft. That is what ultimately drives us.