Sunday, October 16, 2011

Reimagining the Bespoke

Over the past several months, I've noticed a slew of articles, particularly photo slideshows, devoted to the handicrafts and craftspeople. These features give us a peek behind the plate glass windows of a shop that makes something to the unique specifications of each customer, that makes "bespoke" things. Ironically, these articles are anything but bespoke:

Have the photographer shoot a few closeups of interestingly composed piles of tools...

The narrower the depth of field the better...

Collar Choices at Rugby Haberdashery Shop, Unabashedly Prep

Add a nice picture of the chummy and content "craftsmen"...

Staff of Rugby Haberdashery Shop, Unabashedly Prep

And perhaps throw in an image or two (the sexier the better) of the product...

... and the result is a reverent homage to craft and to bespoke things.

Take, for instance, this profile of a menswear shop (which conveniently neglects to mention that the store is a division of Ralph Lauren) in New York City's West Village, or this slideshow devoted to the final days of Manhattan Furrier, a Brooklyn shop in operation since 1916. And yet, many such profiled shops are not really producing any bespoke goods. There is no craftsman perched over a cutting table in the back room lovingly stitching sumptuous fabrics into a magical suit just for you. The "boys" of Rugby Haberdasher Shop certainly look the part, but a discerning reader gets the sinking suspicion that none of them have ever put thread to needle in their lives. Rugby and other similar shops (and divisions of larger companies) are simply capitalizing on a new devotion to bespoke products. In fact, even the vocabulary of bespoke clothing has become hopelessly confused by these various interlopers, as David Colman noted in this article.

There are, of course, shops whose dedication to bespoke production and personal craftsmanship runs deeper than the narrow focus of a 35mm camera. One of my personal favorites is Optimo Hats of Chicago. Take a minute to watch this history of their business. You'll end up wanting a new hat or two.

So what is it that draws us to these craftsmen and their shops? Clearly it is strong enough that even the illusion of custom craftsmanship is enough to sell people on the superiority of a product.

Is it just another symptom of an ever more globalized society that we venerate the last people who manage to live by the power of their needles, their hammers, and their hands? Are these people in fact simply backwards relics of a bygone era? Will they all eventually be forced to choose between eradication and the equally troubling idea that their future patrons will be only hipster haberdashers?

The death knells of the bespoke tailor and the fine cabinetmaker rang long ago at the dawn of our modern industrial world. But perhaps they've held on just long enough to be recognized and saved from extinction. Certainly many of their contemporaries long ago vanished like the carrier pigeon. We forget that once upon a time there were stocking weavers and ship caulkers and glovers and spectacle makers and itinerant knife sharpeners, men and women who made their lives with tools we wouldn't even recognize.

It is a small leap from this thought to wonder if someday we will venerate the last of our own craftsmen. The last software engineer, the last airline pilot, the last cable repairman, the last bespoke short order cook.

Perhaps a few historic crafts can survive in our new world. Others might yet be revived from the permafrost of history. But what is it about the handicrafts and bespoke production that intrigues us so? Certainly there is something to be said for the very human nostalgia for the "good old days." Even if these days never existed. Life in America and abroad has always been more complicated than our popular view of colonial craftsmanship would have us to believe. We were never self-reliant, and we have always imported or bought cheaply-made products when it suited our purposes.

Perhaps it is the longing of so many in our virtually-driven world to make something tangible with their labors. Many of us produce things we can't hold in our hands. We answer phones, send emails, organize meetings, help customers, write memos. But at the end of the day, we can't pick up the product of our craft and admire it in the sunlight of a shop window. Perhaps that's why so many people dream of a "Plan B" making artisanal paper, baking artisanal bread, or raising artisanal bees. Even if the reality of this path is much more precarious than it might seem (as examined in this article), the fulfilment is undeniable.

After years of academic work, I've been making (part of) my living recently with the product of my own hands. It hasn't been easy to adjust to the hours, the unreliability of contracts, and the discipline necessary to complete the not infrequently tedious tasks involved in regular handwork. And yet there is much to be said for going to bed at the end of the day knowing that if you flipped the light back on you would see something sitting on your workbench or your pantry shelf that wasn't there that morning. In the end, I don't know what it is about craft that seems to attract us so, except perhaps that making things is what makes us human. Handmade things, even if they're not really made by hand, have an undeniable power over our hearts. It doesn't really matter if most of us only dream of the life of a craftsman or if the last handcrafts are done by people in their living rooms and backyards. We will always make things, even if we only make them in our dreams.

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