The second article in our series of ‘Brand Matters’ for Luxury Briefing, the renowned international magazine providing news, analysis and opinion across the luxury industry.

You can read it below.

‘There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in” sang Leonard Cohen. Mistakes, error and ambiguity are not the kind of words the business world embraces wholeheartedly. Especially businesses involved in luxury craftsmanship where the desire for superlative perfection and exquisite quality is the norm.

But look at the ‘pursuit of excellence’ from the viewpoint of craftspeople. They, like artists, don’t worry about chance or that ‘simple twist of fate’. If allowing for a change of mind is seen as exposing their vulnerability, then bring it on. Being part of the human condition inspires them.

Creativity is not some academic addition to humanity, to be called on when the need arises and then laid back in its box. It is part and parcel of human existence. Getting it wrong and ‘failing better’, is the engine of innovation and change.

Nowadays, all this introspection and interior energy has to work with the brute rationality of technology. As automation drives all aspects of our lives, I ask myself where and how analogue craftsmanship fits in, and whether we need to imbue luxury with a new type of value.

We've been hearing about AI for years and now it’s here. Oh, I know ChatGPT-4 will be writing articles about human craftsmanship, probably more entertainingly than this one, next year. So, who wants handmade craftsmanship? Will its artisan appeal fade? It’s been a brand mantra for hundreds of years, but what will its future value be? I’ve always thought that handmade craftsmanship makes luxury more desirable because it adds difference and depth. This means grace, quirkiness, character and personality. So, let’s examine the relationship between craft and tech. The old rational/emotional seesaw, the eternal dynamic.

On the one hand, the luxury craftsman adds value to the product through dedicated (sometimes obsessive) mastery and feel. The craftsperson’s work is rooted in human nature. It can mean not knowing the answer; which in turn can inspire creativity and bring life to ideas. Musicians have to make mistakes, play the wrong notes, in order to get them right. (Painful to hear if you live with it, but true).

On the other hand, we have the logical precision of automation and technology. Each world has to produce value, positive experience, connection and business success.

Craftsmanship demands human labour, and we know people consciously or subconsciously judge the value of luxury based on the perceived effort put into it. But is the human effort applied to technology similar? Is a computer programmer a master craftsman? If luxury craftsmanship is about the love and attention you give to a product’s stitching, the tender care of a vineyard’s grapes, or the exactness of diamond cutting, is coding a software program the same? I believe it is not, but recognise it’s not clear-cut. The story of art throughout the centuries is also the story of new materials, processes and resources. Hockney loves technology for instance. Reasons to be cheerful if you value craftsmanship: Bain & Co forecast a move from mass-production and a rise in valuing the art of process. Last year they opined:

“Luxury brands will need to leverage their cultural avant-garde position and insurgent excellence to overcome the challenges ahead and shape the world. Luxury is converting into art, with the ultimate objective of transcending from its original form, rooted in craftsmanship and functional excellence, towards broader meanings, empowered by imagination and symbolic power, to build its handmade creations.”

There are sectors that make a virtue of tech and handmade working together. Watches have messaged handmade craftsmanship for generations but use automation as proof of quality, not a lack of luxury value. Consider the Louis Vuitton Tambour Horizon Light Up, ‘the world’s most creative connected, never-seen-before, smartwatch, the ultimate luxury tech product.’ Or the Gucci x Oura Ring, a collaboration featuring Oura's Gen3 technology and Gucci ‘empowering individuals to connect with themselves throughout the day via wellness insights’.

I don’t have a nostalgic view of craftsmanship. Spit n’ polish, floor shavings, a Bunsen burner, and some sepia-tinted gnarled hands has its romance, but the robot – as Time does – marches on.

I hope luxury’s appreciation of the past means it won’t let craftsmanship go entirely. An algorithm won’t be driven to innovate because it isn’t a founder who needed to create to overcome tough times or turn the experience of vulnerability into a business. Maybe luxury craftsmanship, at some deeper level, expresses an optimism about life. It’s bringing something new into the world. Maybe, with the impending Metaverse and a life beckoning ahead of looking only at a screen, it signifies real sensory experiences. And maybe, vitally, that physicality grounds us. Famed craftsmanship writer Richard Sennett views the act of physical making as a necessary part of being human. He said about technology:

"The enlightened way to use a machine is to judge its powers, fashion its uses, in light of our own limits rather than the machine's potential. We should not compete against the machine."

In other words, we should focus on what tech can do best rather than let it totally take over. If automation can breathe new life into the market, with interactions that respond and change luxury in amazing ways, and do it without losing some humanity, that can only mean more meaningful luxury brand experiences. Let’s end on Freud: ‘Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength’.

Read more from our Brand Matters series:

  • The enduring importance of craftsmanship here
  • Creativity: From Origins to AI here
  • Luxury is ageing gracefully here

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