Europe's Crux de Luxe

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The Financial Times reports:

Europe's luxury goods makers have warned that numbers of skilled craftsmen are dwindling rapidly as suppliers source more production from Asia. . . .

Guy Salter, . . . spokesman for the alliance [of national craft industry societies], said the loss of skills was a big concern. "All young people want to be designers and very few, makers. We want to try to change that by promoting craftsmanship in the luxury sector," he said.

Of course from the Crusades onward, many European crafts began as imitations of Near Eastern, South- and East-Asian luxury goods like silks, carpets, perfumes, and porcelain. In the nineteenth century, the opulent paisley shawls of Kashmir inspired the handloom weavers of Paisley, Scotland, near Glasgow, who transformed them from men's head coverings to women's shoulder wraps.

In fact some of the most vocal critics of the quality of European luxury goods have been Chinese officials, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Authorities in wealthy Zhejiang province, on the east coast near Shanghai, marked consumer's day on Monday by taking aim at the quality of imported designer fashions.

After weeks of increasing tensions, China reprimanded several Western companies for quality issues. China's new chilliness is part of the country's efforts to raise the profile of local brands, Beijing editor Andrew Browne reports on the News Hub.

In a statement posted on its Web site, the Zhejiang Administration of Industry and Commerce said that "International designer clothes, blindly worshipped by Chinese consumers and enjoying 'super national treatment' in the country, have once again proven unsuitable for China."

Naturally the manufacturers have disputed this judgment. But it echoes other articles on shortcuts in luxury production and dilution of snobbish brands for "aspirational" middle-class markets -- and the journalist Dana Thomas's exposé of three years ago. And it's not a new phenomenon. The European version of Paisley shawls originally took a single weaver months to produce. Later in the nineteenth century, more efficient machinery slashed time, costs, and prices, but ironically helped kill the fashion's appeal by widening the market:

[B]y 1870 a woven Jacquard shawl could be brought for 20 s or £1 and an identical patterned cotton shawl for a few shillings. Once shawls had become so inexpensive that every woman could afford to own at least one, they fell out of fashion.

And as an object lesson for luxury producers, the design never really recovered. Even now a popular men's fashion book is called Paisley Goes with Nothing.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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