Roots finder - Issue 9 - Magazine | Monocle

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Provenance became a big issue for brands low, medium and high in 2007. A spate of scares involving Chinese-made products saw the world’s largest toy maker, Mattel, recall 21 million toys due to concern over lead paint. Gap was stung when it was found that children in India were employed to make garments for their western peers. In the showrooms of many luxury brands, buyers were starting to question if the clothes and accessories were really made in the UK, France or Italy.

In 2008, provenance is going to become more important at luxury goods companies as CEOs decide whether to downgrade their brands (they wouldn’t call it this, but we would) by shutting workshops and moving the work to Asia to improve margins, or take a long-term view and keep investing in craftsmanship, education and maintaining manufacturing facilities above the shop.

The decision should be a simple one. The fake handbag might be made in China, but if 90 per cent of the real thing is made there as well, where’s the point of difference other than price? Against this backdrop, a growing movement for authenticity, craftsmanship and heritage is creating greater opportunities for artisinal companies.

Territorial ties certainly link the brands featured over the following pages. For example, the towel manufacturers of Imabari, Japan are defending their industry against cheap imports with the launch of a subtle, Kashiwa Sato-designed seal of quality stamped on all their products.

Travel to the village of Fiskars in Finland and you’ll find more than 100 industrial designers, cabinetmakers and artists living and working there. With clean, Nordic forms, the Fiskars design aesthetic is inextricably tied to its unique, Finnish heritage.

As the “Made In” label is increasingly promoted by manufacturers looking to lure the more discerning shopper, its value as a reference point for quality must be carefully monitored. Carlo Molteni, president and chief executive of Italian furniture company Molteni & C, argues that the world-famous “Made In Italy” tag only becomes justifiable “when it describes a high-quality product of excellent design”.

Founded in the 1930s, the Molteni group now has a product portfolio spanning three brands: Dada (kitchenware), Molteni & C (home furnishings) and Unifor (office furnishings). Despite its formidable size, Molteni’s manufacturing base remains firmly established in the Brianza region of Italy, from where the company originated. “We are working with the traditions and know-how built up locally over the years,” says Molteni. “The complexity and variety of our range means decentralisation to distant countries in Asia is not possible without compromising the constant attention we pay to the quality of our final product.”

If we were creating a shop (in fact, we are) we’d be looking for brands that are honest about their mission and not trying to hide behind false provenance. If you’re happy to charge absurd margins for an accessory that’s made in China then a brand should proudly state that right under its logo.

01 - Imabari towels

With Japan’s domestic towel industry in danger of being swamped by cheap imports from China, the manufacturers of Imabari – the towel capital of Japan for more than 100 years – banded together to launch the Imabari Towel Project. Only locally made products of the highest quality earn the Imabari mark of distinction – a red, white and blue symbol designed by art director Kashiwa Sato. Imabari-mark products include flat, ultra-absorbent towels and bathrobes from Maruei, and luxurious, white, combed-cotton towels. For anyone who wants to be able to distinguish a waffle from a loop – and there are hundreds of types of towel – there is even an Imabari “towel sommelier” qualification.

02 - Orcival T-shirts

With a staff of 12 based in a workshop outside Lyon, French T-shirt company Orcival has turned patriotic tradition into a successful commercial enterprise (turnover is €1m a year), popularising the ship-shape stripes of the uniforms worn by the Marine nationale since the Second Empire. However, CEO Patrick Beerens insists Orcival’s worldwide popularity (the Swiss and the Japanese are its biggest fans) is because of an attraction to authenticity and quality, not just francophilia.

03 - KPM Berlin porcelain

Founded in 1763, Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin still makes and decorates its figurines and tableware by hand. Bought by the owners of castles and yachts, the porcelain is famed for its quality and “Made In Germany” stamp. “Traditional skill, imagination and manual dexterity are the main ingredients,” explains KPM Berlin’s export manager Hamidou Barry. A respect for provenance has won it an eager following in Russia, Japan, China, the UAE and the US. The KPM Berlin brand was developed under the guidance of six monarchs, starting with the company’s founder, Friedrich the Great, and ending with Kaiser Wilhelm II, who abdicated in 1918. Today it is thriving – the sixth KPM gallery in Germany opened at the Kurfürs-tendamm in November 2007, and a branch has also just launched in Shanghai.

04 - Moritz beer

When a 150-year-old company relaunches after more than 25 years off the shelf, it’s rare that the resulting rebrand achieves its former popularity. Not so in the case of Moritz. Founded in Barcelona in 1856, the beer was the toast of the region until 1978, when it went out of business due to poor financial management. But in 2004, a group of canny Catalan investors began a revival, refreshing the firm from its roots upwards. Playing heavily on its Catalan heritage, Moritz resurrected the distinctive blue and yellow label, applying it to bottles, cans, draft pumps and company vehicles. Once again ubiquitous in Catalonia’s capital, it is only a matter of time before the brand travels. “Catalans like to keep secrets, but this beer is so good I’m sure the rest of the world will be enjoying it soon,” says Tomas Serrano of Sant Pere’s Pizza & Love.

05 - Fiskars furniture

In the Finnish village of Fiskars, more than 100 artists, cabinetmakers and industrial designers work and sell their handcrafted wares. Described by one designer as “a little bit like Woodstock”, the former ironworks village, founded in 1649, was flooded by designers in the 1980s when the industry base shifted. With products made from local materials and in simple Nordic styles, the village’s reputation and output of design is steadily growing – the local government is now looking for ways to free up more land to accommodate the influx of designers. Nikari, a furniture and interiors company working with Finnish wood, was founded by cabinetmaker Kari Virtanen and relocated to Fiskars in 1993. “We try to be timeless with our designs,” says Rudi Merz, a cabinetmaker who designs furniture for Nikari.

06 - Ludwig Reiter leather

“Made In Vienna” is not a tag you see often enough, but it’s one that leather goods manufacturer Ludwig Reiter wears with pride. Headquartered in the city centre, and with a staff of 40 craftsmen at its factory in nearby Wiener Neudorf, the 120-year-old company creates handmade shoes and bags from the best leathers, including French boxcalf and water buffalo. Still in the hands of the Reiter family, CEO Till Reiter has always maintained the individual spirit of the brand across the 15 stores in the German-speaking world (Austria, Germany and Switzerland – it’s set to open in China next year). “Provenance is a core issue for us; not from a patriotic point of view but rather for economic reasons: the way we develop, produce and distribute our products makes it neccessary to be very near to our customers,” says Reiter.

07 - Abdul Rahman sweets

In 1881, Abdul Rahman Hallab founded a patisserie company in Tripoli, Lebanon, making treats such as baklava and kachta. Over the next three generations, this one-shop business became a national symbol, helped to fame by the recognisable and much-loved green tins. “We are 100 per cent Lebanese,” says Adnan Hallab, one of four Hallabs managing the company today. Admirably, Lebanon has sustained many of its local, yet international, brands.

08 - Joël Thiébault’s veg

More than 500 years of agrarian history and savoir-faire flow through the roots of Joël Thiébault’s artisan vegetables. On his family’s centuries-old farm in the outskirts of Paris, Thiébault cultivates more than 1,600 varieties of edible plants each year, from resurrected ancient strains and miniature marvels to haute hybrids crafted especially for his Michelin-starred clientele. One of the few remaining farmers to sell directly to the public, Thiébault’s faithful fans (including celebrity chefs Alain Passard, Pierre Hermé and Pierre Gagnaire, as well as home cooks) flock to his Paris market stalls each week to fill up their paniers with his wildly shaped, strangely coloured, earth-dusted delicacies. And now lazy gourmands can get their fresh fix too. TousPrimeurs, a new online delivery service, brings Thiébault-signed veggies from the farm to the flat.

09 - Bruichladdich whisky

“We have an openness to counter the bullshit factor of the big companies,” Mark Reynier says of his single-malt whisky distillery on the Scottish island of Islay. “We’re trying for reality, honesty, truth and integrity.” A former wine merchant, Reynier fought for 10 years to buy Bruichladdich from a succession of conglomerates. When he got it in 2000, it was defunct – seven years on, it’s a thriving enterprise. Reynier has cultivated an almost obsessive belief in tradition – the distillery dates from 1881 – and provenance. “From barley to bottle, it all happens on Islay,” he says – and there are no additives or colouring. Unlike other Scotch whiskies, which are stored on the mainland, Bruichladdich barrels breathe the briny seaside aroma. “I can trace specific whiskies back to a particular Scottish field, and you can taste the difference.”

10 - Swedish Match

Solstickepojken, the boy on Swedish Match’s matchboxes, has been striding towards the sun since 1936. The creation of artist Einar Nerman, he’s the most famous child in the country. “Everybody in Sweden associates matches with Solstickan,” says Rolf Byberg, Swedish Match’s marketing director. Four öre (less than €0.01) from every box goes to the charity Solstickan, which helps Swedish children and the elderly in need. A less virtuous Swedish Match product, equally popular among Swedes, is snus – tobacco enjoyed by placing it under your upper lip. Solstickan matches are made in Tidaholm, southwest Sweden. Financier Ivar Kreuger bought the firm in 1917 and, until 1929, his matches had 60 per cent of the global market. Now 20 million boxes of the matches are sold annually in Sweden.

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