How right was Joni Mitchell when she sang you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? Hers may have been an environmental lament to a paradisiacal land of apple farmers, birds and bees, paved over by parking lots and terrorized by big yellow taxis, but it also says a lot about the plight of regional craft and manufacturing.
On a recent trip to Denmark, I was inspired by an entrepreneur who’d breathed life back into his family’s business – a traditional fisherman’s “bubble jumper” setup dating back to 1920s. Like many young Danes, or young anythings for that matter, Soren had grown up taking the family business for granted. For him, the hulking knitting machines and thick knit jumpers of his youth were exactly that – slightly embarrassing relics of a bygone era.
It wasn’t until Soren moved to the big smoke (well, light mist) of Aarhus, that he realised there may be gold in them there bobble knits. Friends, colleagues, even strangers in the street were transfixed, eager to get their hands on a piece of Denmark’s past. Returning to the family home in a remote part of Jutland, he took over from his fathers and uncles, and turned a business that was producing around eight jumpers a month and selling them at little more than cost to local fisherman, into a fashion brand now sold internationally in the likes of Dover Street Market and Très Bien.
This isn’t just a personal story of a Danish former fisherman however – it can be scaled up and transferred to apply to almost any regional craft in the world. I was up in Stoke on Trent the other day to visit a new ceramics firm doing a roaring trade in the long shadows of abandoned Victorian kilns, and one of the first buildings you see drawing into the station is the old Wedgewood factory – now largely a museum with almost all production farmed out abroad under new owners. Whilst Wedgewood struggles to maintain former standards and preserve the brand, the small setup that I visited was flourishing, the proud back stamp of Made in Stoke seeing it through.
From denim weavers in Okayama, to knife makers in Scaperia, shoe makers in Northampton to indigo dyers in Fujisawa, regional specialties are experiencing a resurgence around the world.
Provenance now means more than price point for many consumers, and in any case, out sourcing is no longer a sure way to secure cheap labour. With the world’s economic axis shifting, and the line between developed and developing becoming increasingly blurry, wages in Chongqing may not be looking so competitive in five years’ time.
Outsourcing may have damaged the prestige of countless heritage brands, and perhaps some reputations are beyond repair, but a new wave of savvy insourcers are digging for gold on home turf.