When the team at Crockett & Jones posed the question to me ‘what is British craft?’, it took me off-guard. I’m so used to writing about craftspeople and craft-led brands that I rarely pause to think about what that really means, and how we define craftsmanship today. It’s an interesting question, one that bears careful scrutiny.
Of course, there are a number of different ways to extrapolate this question; what do we really mean when we talk about craftsmanship? How do we define the act of making something as a craft rather than a mundane process? And perhaps most importantly, why should you, the consumer, give a monkey’s about craftsmanship at all?
Well, the reality is that craft-led brands and processes have enjoyed a huge resurgence in recent years; with an industry like the craft beer movement being the perfect example. But, much like the tedious misappropriation of the words ‘luxury’ and ‘bespoke’ that happens so much in high-end men’s fashion, this also opens up the idea of craftsmanship to misinterpretation. Today, lots of brands play on the idea of being ‘crafted’ or ‘Made in England’, exploiting legal loopholes to only part-make domestically, or use inferior materials, or outsource parts of the manufacturing process to cut costs. Reducing the idea of craftsmanship to a marketing ploy is a sad reality of today’s menswear market, one that should be avoided wherever possible.
That said, I think that craftsmanship is not only about the physical act of making something – although traditional skills and handwork do add value to a product – it is also about the core values that underpin that ‘thing’. A true craftsman is honest and cares about his work in a way that a machine, cheap labour or a robotic production line doesn’t.
Frequently, when it comes to crafted products – like Crockett & Jones shoes – the parts of the process that involve human hands are the most delicate, or the most time consuming. I wrote a feature for Robb Report US last year about ‘The rise of the robot tailor’, and concluded that, yes, in 10 years time, you probably will be able to have your suit cut and tailored entirely by a sentient robot, which will be able to cut and stitch a jacket to the same standard as a human being. But, if that reduces the art of bespoke tailoring to just another mass-market mechanised process, why would you want to? The same cannot be said for Goodyear-welted shoemaking, a far more labour intensive process all together.
A true craftsman is honest and cares about his work in a way that a machine, cheap labour or a robotic production line doesn’t.
Therein lies the rub. Craftsmanship is inherently valuable; if human hands take time and care to make something, to me at least, that gives said artefact value. Something of the human penetrates through that object; giving it lasting integrity and quality. This might sound daft, but it’s no different to petrol heads who argue that their cars have a character of their own because they’ve been so beautifully made or even restored. The principle is the same.
Forgive me if this sounds a little preachy, I don’t mean it to. In fact, I was perplexed a few weeks back when a HandCut Radio listener asked me if I was a Brexiteer because I devote so much time and energy supporting British brands. The answer to this frankly daft question is an emphatic ‘no, I’m not’, but there aren’t many countries in the world with such a rich pool of talent when it comes to making things by hand, and passing on inter-generational skills. Crockett & Jones has dozens of staff who’ve been with the firm for in excess of 30 years, a handful who’ve been with the firm for longer than 45... and one about to hit an incredible 50 years of loyal craft and service – that’s rare, and it’s worth standing up for.
We live in a world that’s consuming far too much, too fast, and with too little thought. The growing support for heritage brands and craft production in our society is an encouraging sign that suggests we are slowly waking up to the throw away society we live in. Today, crafted products are more important than ever; they create less waste, last longer and are made with thought and care. Sustainability is a responsibility we should all be aware of an embrace. Another reason why British craft matters to me, and hopefully that’s why it matters to you too.