Pocketbooks, Cars and the Mystique of the Handmade

Machines can make many things better, and for less.

Louis Vuitton has been caught pulling the wool—a very fine and delicately woven wool, no doubt—over the eyes of consumers. Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority this week demanded that the luxury company cease and desist with ads that imply their products are made by hand.

The glossy magazine advertisements featured a Vermeer-worthy model at a workbench, addressing a leather handle: “A needle, linen thread, beeswax, and infinite patience protect each over-stitch from humidity and the passage of time,” read the ad copy.

The bureaucrats paid to protect the public from flimflammery declared this to be a fraud. “[C]onsumers would interpret the image of a woman using a needle and thread to stitch the handle of a bag,” the agency ruled, “to mean that Louis Vuitton bags were hand stitched.” In truth, some of the work is done with the efficacious and none-too-tony assistance of sewing machines. For shame!

OK. We do need him.

Should we care? One is inclined to recommend the Advertising Standards Authority as a fine place for the U.K.’s new coalition government to find some savings.

Why the preference for the handmade, anyway? Yes, there are still goods where skilled craftsmanship makes all the difference: No machine can match the judgment of an experienced luthier, who has to adapt to the acoustic quirks of each piece of wood he carves for a violin. But does it matter whether a product is crafted by hand or stamped out by machine, if the consumer can’t tell the difference?

The aura of the handmade has been around ever since machines displaced tools as the main means of manufacture. Nineteenth-century moralists lamented the loss of honest craftsmanship and built a movement embracing goods that were objectively less well made than their factory-made counterparts.

Thorstein Veblen derided this as “exaltation of the defective,” which he disdained as just another manifestation of the leisure class’s taste for waste. He sneered at the “propaganda of crudity and wasted effort,” that led such advocates of the artisanal as John Ruskin to champion products of “painstaking crudeness and elaborate ineptitude” over the “visibly more perfect goods” made cheaper by machines. He hated the smug vanity of people flaunting Ruskin’s rough-hewn books.

There is a robust Ruskinite movement afoot again today, celebrating the rustic and exalting in, if not the defective, the artless (where art is understood as artifice). It is in foodstuffs where the modern taste for the artisanal flourishes most fully. Many are the farmers markets now offering bruised peaches and splotchy tomatoes as a rebuke to the plastic gloss of supermarket produce.

Who knows how much of this is really grown by Mr. Green Jeans, and how much is just the battered leftovers from the warehouse, repurposed for the farm stand. But there is no doubt that perfection is now about as fashionable in foods as it is in Persian carpets.

Louis Vuitton, like many modern makers of luxury goods, is in a tricky position. Their clients expect the glossy perfection that machines make possible. But they don’t want the taint of mass-market cheapitude that comes with highly productive technology.

A role must be found for craftsman, because these days nothing is more rare and exotic. For all the micro-tolerances of the machine work that go into making a Ferrari, the company has technicians assemble its engines by hand. Perhaps that’ the most efficient and effective way to do it; or perhaps it’s an inefficiency that lends its own aristocratic gloss.

Bugatti brags that it employs actual humans to caress its Veyron coachwork for hours per car—an extravagance, and purposefully so. Or take champagne: A few houses still hire men to do the riddling by hand, turning the bottles in racks to work the sediment down onto the cork for removal. Machines can now do it in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost, but of course without the elegant wastefulness of a million turns of the wrist.

Once upon a time the craftsman’s touch could be displayed through personalization—the adding of monograms and various options for customization. Machine-made goods came off the assembly line with a perfect sameness that was a liability: making the ability to choose and specify details a great luxury. But in the last 20 or 30 years, computer-controlled production has democratized customization. When you can order a computer-cut shirt from Land’s End for $50, customization loses its upper-crustiness.

What is Louis Vuitton to do? The company could always try to show that there is some by-hand work involved in its handiwork by embracing the ethic of the splotchy tomato. Myth has it that weavers once inserted errors in their work to signal that, unlike the unlucky Arachne, they wouldn’t try to achieve godlike perfection. Imperfection today is a different signal. It’s a declaration that the weaver isn’t a machine, which is why newbie carpet collectors are told to look for uneven stitching.

If imperfection becomes a desirable luxury- good quality, savvy factory manufacturers will simply start programming their computers to insert certain random and human-seeming flubs into the products. Advertising police will never stop luxury goods from delivering more mystique than reality. That may make such pricey purchases a conspicuous waste of one’s money—but wasn’t that always the point?

Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704717004575268980205920578.html