Crafting Innovation

Caroline De Santis – April 05, 2018

While robots might be taking over the apparel industry production, they won’t be crafting Birkin bags any time soon. Even in the face of growing global demand, many luxury houses like Hermès and Louis Vuitton are proving invulnerable to automation. Instead of using machines to boost production, the two French companies decided to stick with tradition by opening new artisan workshops in their homeland. As world leaders in excellence, their decision to invest in this model of artisanship at scale that values traditional production emphasizes the cultural prestige we place on the hand-crafted.

Traditional luxury houses are growing as globalization offers a bigger market craving for the French know-how that comes with the ‘Made in France’ labels. The business model of employing more artisans to create more products is not groundbreaking, however it is advancing these companies and their communities forward. By expanding their production networks, companies can keep up with the growing demand as well as be more adept at reacting to the fleeting trends of the digital era.

Also, in the past few years the luxury companies have been the forces in France helping the unemployment rate, which has been stuck at 10%. In 2017 Hermès, for example, hired 220 new artisans as it opened workshops in Ganterie-Maroquinerie de Saint-Junien and Val-de-Reuil. Similarly, Louis Vuitton is set to open two new workshops of its own and bring on 500 more workers. After years of diminishing opportunities, the manufacturing job sector in France is finally being revived.

Approaching innovation, most people are looking for a radical next big thing. However, the great value that these workshops bring France demonstrates that it is not always a big innovative breakthrough that is disruptive. Depending on the industry, minor yet strategic new measures can be most valuable. Just like a master craftsman’s work method, the luxury industry’s approach to innovation needs to be slower, careful, and more meticulous because the products they make go beyond themselves.

Think of a Birkin handbag—besides being just a symbol of wealth, it’s a product that pays testament to 200 years of crafting excellence. Part of its allure is that one craftsman dedicates 16 hours of his or her 35 hour work week to make just one bag—from picking out the perfect leather to carefully placing each saddle stitch, these artisans have mastered the art of crafting durable beauty. A robot cannot replace this metaphysical quality that comes from the human hands, but these companies do need to keep up with the dynamic global market.

Especially in a world where more things are created by machines, a human crafted product, as well as the work that goes into it, becomes much more special. The strategic choice to continue tradition by expanding the production network gives luxury companies like Hermès and Louis Vuitton a manufacturing edge that establishes them as leaders bringing craftsmanship into the future. Now, it’s time for other luxury businesses to look at their countries’ artisan cultures and find ways to craft innovation.