From Luxury to Craft: Climbing the Discernment Curve

From Luxury to Craft: Climbing the Discernment Curve

Growing sophistication rather than raw wealth is becoming the main driver of how people consume, shifting luxury spending to craft or brands with craft credentials, argues Guy Salter.

Over the last twenty years I’ve learnt to my cost that there are two words that have to be used with extreme caution. The first, “luxury,” evokes wide-ranging responses from blue-blooded brands, indignantly disputing the right of others to use it, to lobbyists urging alternatives such as “high-end industries” to avoid offending the egalitarian sensitivities of European politicians. In a similar way, claims on “craft” and its positive associations are raising the blood pressure of artisans who feel it is being over-used or misappropriated. For others, it smacks too much of the happy amateur.

All this semantic skirmishing came to a head for me last year when I launched London Craft Week (LCW). There was much heated discussion about whether it was better to avoid the craft word altogether and substitute “métiers d’art,”qualify it as “artistic craft” or even bring the two tricky words together, as in “Luxury Craft Week.”  Other debates rage about whether craft is art. And should contemporary craft matter more than heritage craft? Is there a craft movement? And if so, how far has it moved and where is it moving to? Can 3D printing be called “making,” and much more besides.

While all this angst is a bit silly, what’s driving it isn’t. There is something significant at stake. There is a real desire to defend, describe and promote genuine quality and celebrate that most magical but elusive of attributes, creativity.

And while its the brand owners, makers and artists who are most passionate and vociferous, the group for whom it should matter most, those who buy and collect, are pretty sanguine about what things are called. They are, however, deeply interested in what makes something the best and, as consumers, are ever more knowledgeable and questioning. Gone are the days when a distinctive logo, the shop-as-retail temple or well-connected gallerists was enough.

The well-travelled consumer sees the same famous names in similar shopping streets and has a growing interest in the local and non-branded.

In 2005, I christened this phenomenon the “discernment curve,” suggesting that growing sophistication rather than raw wealth would become the main driver of how people spend and on what. This has largely come to pass, even in faster-growing markets, driven by access to information and opinion online.

The well informed and travelled consumer is feeling a creeping ennui, seeing the same famous names in similar smart shopping streets and has a growing interest in the local, independent and non-branded.

It was with this person in mind that I founded LCW. The demand is there, but there’s no clear road map in this brave new “beyond luxury” world. Just because something is handmade doesn’t necessarily mean it is better. Buying from an independent maker or small shop can feel like going dangerously off-piste: who’s who? What’s the process? Is the price fair?  And commissioning something from scratch, while very rewarding when it goes well, can seem daunting. As a result, most of us still default to buying something off the shelf.

Consumers need to experience “craft” not just as static objects or as brand-led “fashion,” “luxury design” or “art,” but must also understand the full context in which they were made, why they are special, and meet the creators and see their remarkable skills up close.

It is the customer who matters and they are, as I always hoped they would, now voting with their wallets. Indeed, with homes bursting with stuff, increasingly, we don’t spend on things, but special moments with our loved ones. If I had to pick one word to capture this zeitgeist, it’s neither “luxury” or “craft,” but “patronage.” At its best, this more discerning spending is not only enriching our lives, but also supporting a much wider ecosystem of talent and ensuring endangered skills survive.

Guy Salter is the chairman of London Craft Week.

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