Italian shoes have a reputation for being the best shoes in the world. This is based on Italy’s extensive history in leather tanning as well as its pure and simple passion for shoe craftsmanship. This passion and expertise were what Martin Johnson wanted to highlight when he co-founded luxury shoe brand, Crafted Society. Below, hear from Johnson himself about the inception of and motivation behind his Italian artisan-centred enterprise.
Tell us a little bit about Crafted Society—how did it start and what was the inspiration behind it?
The Crafted Society journey started six years ago. It was 2015 and I had quit my previous role as the CEO of an LA-based footwear social enterprise and was taking some time off to reflect with my wife, Lise, and our two then-young children, as to our next adventure.
After a few months and countless dinner table conversations, Lise and I decided to pursue our own dream instead of helping someone else achieve theirs.
From the day we decided to go it alone, we knew exactly what we wanted to create: timeless, handcrafted objects of beauty that were 100% made in Italy. We just didn’t know who would make them. While luxury labels talk a lot about craftsmanship, they never reveal who their talented artisans are. It is part of what they call their “trade secrets.”
Not being deterred by this, we left for Italy at the end of 2015 in search of the mythical artisans. They were not easy to find, but with the help of industry friends, we were introduced to our first artisans.
At this point in time, we had the what, how and who, but we were still searching for the why. This eventually presented itself to us during our first meetings with multiple artisan families dotted throughout Italy. Instead of introducing our ideas, we decided to interview our potential future partners by asking them all one question: What is the single biggest threat to your legacy?
Despite not sharing any connections with each other and coming from a wide range of regions such as Lombardy, Marche, Tuscany, Veneto, Calabria and Sicily, they all unanimously stated that they were struggling to identify, onboard and train the next generation of artisan apprentices.
Coming from within the industry, this makes complete sense. Large, powerful brands force their production partners to sign strict confidentiality agreements. This in turn, in exchange for orders and work, banishes highly talented makers to an anonymous existence and dramatically shifts the balance of power towards the fashion houses.
This is how we unwittingly stumbled upon our purpose: to use the power of transparent craftsmanship to inspire, empower and educate the next generation of artisans. This became our reason for being, our greater purpose rather than simply making money. We decided there and then to preserve a crafted society (our namesake), while using luxury as a force for good (our foundation’s namesake).
Why did you decide to work with artisans?
We decided to work with master Italian artisans, because they are simply the best in the world at what we wanted to create (shoes, bags, leather goods and accessories). But when we delved deeper into their struggles, we also realized that they needed a new voice, a voice based on ethics. They could not directly challenge big brands or industry in general, but we could. They needed someone new to fight for them, so we inadvertently became the David to the monopoly of the luxury industry’s Goliath.
What is workflow like when working with them? What does your brand do to perpetuate their traditional cultures and their high-quality sewing techniques?
Lise designs all of our products from our studio in Amsterdam. Designs are then shared with our laboratories in Italy. The creation process is very collaborative and inclusive. We seek the input of our artisans when adding details which highlight their skill. We accept and respect the prices the workshops give us as they cover their (expensive) labour costs, overhead and profit requirements.
For example, in our footwear we wanted to include a specific stitching technique on the back heel and quilt stitching on the tongue. These two additional aesthetic elements increase costs by 20%, but the end result is fantastic and our customers can see and appreciate these handcrafted elements in every shoe.
What artisanship projects are you currently collaborating on?
We recently decided to expand our footwear offering into non-sneakers that are still casual yet sophisticated. We partnered with Blue Star, the leading independent workshop in Marche who are synonymous with high quality, handcrafted moccasins.
Why do you think the artisans of the world are disappearing?
Multiple reasons, but everything stems back to the power game within luxury. Sixty to seventy years ago, the tailor, cordwainer, milliner and weaver were all revered as the original heroes of luxury. Then came brands driven solely by profit, which slowly shifted emphasis from the hands and reputations of makers to logos, status, elitism and secrecy. In modern-day Italy, it is very expensive to run a workshop. With raw material prices increasing out of tilt—especially after COVID-19—and brands demanding lower prices, higher margins, shorter lead times and higher quality, the level of financial pressure added to the lack of workers and almost zero government subsidies, means many family-run businesses are staring down the barrel of a gun with very little ability to avoid the inevitable.
How can these issues be resolved?
A utopia would call for the Italian government to access available funds in Brussels for the purpose of preserving a significant part of the country’s cultural legacy. Brands producing with Italy’s masters would choose to follow a purposeful and ethical brand trajectory and would compensate fairly for production. They would cease to impose financial penalties on late samples or production orders. They would embrace transparency and support a free-market economy, stimulating healthy competition instead of simply waving around their cheque-books to purchase the last remaining independent workshops.
But as the above may take forever to materialize, the best remedy to address the artisans’ challenges lies within the rapidly growing sector of socially conscious consumers. Consumers have the power to vote with their wallets. The time of the consumer is now. If a brand refuses to divulge who their makers are, where their goods are made, what materials the goods are made of, how much their workers are paid, etc., then is that the type of brand you wish to spend your hard-earned money on? I know for us it isn’t. Which is why our own personal values have been placed at the core of Crafted Society’s DNA.
How can craftsmanship reduce global poverty?
True luxury is a measure of quality. True quality is a function of craft.
Through our Luxury for Good Foundation, we are working on programs to address the single largest challenge facing our artisans—lack of willing apprentices—while simultaneously addressing the humanitarian challenge of migrants entering Italy after fleeing their homelands due to conflict.
By pairing people in need with our artisans and subsidizing their training completely, we will help to create a future talent pipeline of artisans while providing career opportunities as well as social inclusion and dignity for many new Italian citizens and their future generations. We hope also to contribute towards ensuring that exquisite craftsmanship is able to address many of the United Nations’s sustainable development goals during the coming years.
What is your view on cooperating with other stakeholders, like Fairbee, to generate positive impact?
Crafted Society’s values are deeply rooted in sharing and inclusion and we acknowledge that we must collaborate with changemakers, stakeholders, peers and consumers within our industry to have the environmental and humanitarian impact we wish to see. No one individual or company has all of the solutions, but by teaming up with other (for good) businesses like Fairbee, we are collectively creating a movement to use business as a force for good. How cool is that!