Back to Basics

...Young designers return to artisanship and craftsmanship

by Crystal Kruger
With the advent of the industrial revolution, a whole new world was born. Factories, steam power and eventually electricity gave life to a cost effective way to create and replicate just about anything to order, exactly the same, over and over again. That world was one of mass manufacture.

It could be said that mass production liberated society – from the confines of expensive, laborious manufactured items that were simply unattainable and inaccessible to the masses – rather reserved only for the upper class and those of means. Suddenly there was an influx of new, untold potential in production that designers were both forced to adapt to, yet also jumped to explore. It was a shift that was to be ultimately but irrevocably embraced, shaping the face of design-to-come and all that we know today. The mindset of designers begun to change, but at what cost?

Jump to the post-war years - ready to wear fashion experiences a massive boom. Industry and the public move their focus away from national security and forgetting the horrors of war, embracing frivolity and mass consumption. Suddenly fashion, appliances, furniture became accessible, inexpensive and available to the masses for their purchasing pleasure! Trends began to be shorter lived, more all-encompassing and lifestyle based; millions of must-have items being pumped out on production lines, all the same, over and over and over. Enter pulp fashion. Disposable, homogenised and eventually sub–cultural and fleeting.

And yet, just half a century later we have come full circle and are beginning to see designers harking back to artisan techniques and traditional craftsmanship. No longer satisfied with convenience and quality control, unique handcrafted designs are becoming a covetable point of difference in the ever-competitive realm of fashion.
Returning to traditional techniques offers designers the opportunity to create something unique; a piece that tells a human story. It allows designers to explore their heritage, to celebrate the history of textiles and pay homage to the craftsmanship that has evolved over hundreds of years.

It becomes a chance to support small communities and real people. Each piece made is a testament to the manufacturers who have honed their skills over many years, who are veritable geniuses in their sphere of expertise – lace makers, weavers, knitters, leather craftsmen, printers, embroiderers. A chance to revive small businesses and restore dying industries; to showcase little used and undervalued techniques that are being needlessly forgotten. A unique signature, woven, knitted, printed, tooled into the essence of the design. No two pieces alike, but not in a bad way. Rather as an asset, a selling point. A chance for the wearer to own something truly exclusive that exudes quality and a character all of it’s own.

Many traditional art forms are at risk of being lost forever in the face of technology and progress, when there should be room enough for both to coexist simultaneously. Like the move towards sustainable textiles, this shift for designers to go back to basics, to hometown manufacturers, small business and hand crafted pieces, is a testament to the ever-increasing consciousness of the fashion industry. A shift that looks to be a lasting one, a design signature, rather then just another fleeting fad.

NJAL designers Helen Rodel and Matteo Molinari are just two of a growing movement of designers, whose philosophy is based around this very concept. Residing on opposite sides of the world, they couldn’t be more diverse in style and yet are on the same design wavelength. They share the same values and yearning for handcrafted textiles. Both employ the talents and skill set of wise and worldly older women to create their divergent collections - picture several ‘little old ladies’, all lined up together on a lounge, knitting, crocheting. Their workers are experts, revered for their skills, and employed for their talents, so unlike the world of sweatshop manufacture.

Rodel creates a sense of whimsy and playfulness in her hand crocheted designs, colourful and intricate in detail. Her frequent use of ‘popcorn’ crochet combined with cascades of glittering beads creates a distinct textural dimension to her work that is anything but traditional. She feels strongly about forging new perceptions and reinterpretations of time-honoured techniques – a strong signature in her design.

In stark contrast Molinari is dark and brooding, sophisticated and serious. Focusing on a dark palette of black and greys, his work is austere and unrelenting, yet exuding a unique emotional underpinning. A fusion of modern tailoring and traditional craftsmanship, Molinari draws on his family and his past for inspiration. Growing up surrounded by his mother and sisters’ crochet patterns, his designs reflect this through hand crafted crochet feature panels fabricated by family members.

It is exciting emerging designers such as these who are leading the way - reinventing and reinterpreting traditional techniques in ultimately beautiful ways that are not only innovative but relevant to today’s audiences. Designs that celebrate the past and the future, that are essentially personal and human. Crafted by individual hands, no two pieces are exactly the same. Unique designs that reflect who we are and yet where we have come from.