#SuzyVenice: Craft And Humanity Define Luxury For The Future

A soft, swaying entry via the lagoon, the domed silhouettes of Venice before me – and the first sign of my destination. On a bold banner attached to ancient walls, I read the words: “Homo Faber: Crafting a More Human Future”. With patronage from the European Parliament, the exhibition will run until 30th September with sequels every two years.

The calm of an ancient stone monastery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore held an impressive body of work – every single piece made by human hands – from a curvy glass vase set against a library of historic books to a leather-maker stitching an orange Hèrmes saddle.

Names – famous and anonymous – leapt out of a pan-European collection of hand-made violins, finger-stitched fabrics, and moulded bowls. This was the art of artisans, whether I was looking at a display of modern clothes in an abandoned swimming pool, or climbing on to a Bottega Conticelli Vespa – that lasting symbol of a post-war Italy on the go.

This breathtaking body of work had been put together from the impetus of two men, Franco Cologni and Johann Rupert, who both founded the Swiss-based Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship.

They spoke passionately about their mission; a rallying cry for a “new Renaissance” from Cologni, coupled with Rupert’s determination to give the world more than his empire of luxury conglomerate Richemont.

Here is the Johann Rupert philosophy: “In a world where machines are eliminating jobs every day and artificial intelligence is in the process of transforming our lives, it is vital to recognise exceptional and uniquely human talent and its potential to provide balance and beauty.”

The speeches, given on a manicured lawn with topiary statues, were followed by a tour in which patient handwork was applied to every object in each room. Even something as small and humble as a wooden bookmark or a tiny pillbox was defined as “The Poetry of Wood”.

I found the same feeling of humility in everything from a woven fruit bowl to the intense couture embroideries of François Lesage, whose historic maison in Paris is now supported by Chanel’s Métiers d’Art programme.

“Homo Faber is supposed to be a proposal that a more human future can be crafted, so we acknowledge the value of the master craftsmen and consider them an imperative advantage,” said Alberto Cavalli, Executive Director of the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship.

“We propose the idea that we don’t have to apply a price tag to everything,” he continued. “Prices hide a number of things because, really, the secret of wellbeing – and this is something that all the artisans tell us – is ‘Fai bene a stare bene’, as we say in Italian. ‘To do well is to feel well.’” If you are happy with what you are doing, if you feel fulfilled with this work – you will be well. It is a revolutionary message for the young generation.“

Many of the artisans looked proud and even overwhelmed as they stood beside their work, from the shy creator from Finland who might have just one woven plate on display, to the Santoni family’s shoe business, founded in 1975, which Giuseppe Santoni inherited from his father and grew in size and stature while keeping a belief in handwork.

Johann Rupert’s enthusiasm started with his relationship to family businesses. “I would meet with artisans, because I always loved chatting with them, and then I would ask where is your son, your daughter? Aren’t they joining you?” Rupert explained. “Some of them were too proud to admit that there was not enough work or incentive for their children to learn the skills. Or, even if their children weren’t interested, to train young artisans.”

The executive concluded that life and wealth had changed. “In the past you had patrons, people with culture and money, who were patrons of artisans and basically kept them alive,” Rupert said. “Now, money is made so quickly that people don’t have the time to acquire the culture en route. And I saw all of these crafts not being passed on.”

From this first thought, the head of the Richemont group, whose daughter Hanneli has built a handbag, accessories and clothing business out of South Africa, decided to imagine a luxury world of special objects. The Michelangelo Foundation gathered for “Homo Faber” (“Man the Maker”), an inspiring showcase that is highly sophisticated – far removed from the down-home look so often associated with handwork.

For example, the exhibition includes customised helicopter, racing cars, and a personalised bicycle from British designer Caren Hartley that gives a streak of modernity to what otherwise might have seemed an exhibition of familiar creative work.

Judith Clark, known as an exceptional fashion curator and architect, told me that at first she struggled with the long-abandoned swimming pool she was allocated as the set, and wondered how to bring to life clothing and accessories as examples of craft.

Stephen Jones to the rescue! The imaginative milliner created transparent headpieces that are viewed in the empty pool as waves in motion. Other displays in the drained area include a statement from Dolce & Gabbana, “Fatto a Mano” (“Made by Hand”), in embroidered embellishment.

“Fashion Inside Out” is the buzzword description of the curator’s work, which has many original pieces, from the paper cut of a dress by Hussein Chalayan to Virgil Abloh’s canvas tote emblazoned with the word “Sculpture” to suggest its connection to art.

“I wanted it to be anti-nostalgia, because I think with a show like this people might expect ball gowns and wedding dresses and I thought, not in a swimming pool!” Clark said. She also wanted to shine the light of craft on accessories, such as wigs, that take as long as dresses to make. And having chosen to lighten the scrubby pool with Venice’s favourite larch wood, she teamed that with a display of Chanel pieces that include wood as a material.

The relationship between high fashion and its makers has changed in this millennium. Once they were the “back-room boys” and “petites mains” (“little hands”). Now the major brands like to emphasise the handwork, much as “Homo Faber” is doing in the exhibition. Among many installations there is the head of the Cartier jewellery studio, showing how he is passing his skills to a young female colleague, with the craftspeople surrounded by blocks of gemstones in their intense colours.

Many CEOs – not just from Richemont – came to the opening events, which included an evening dinner where lights in the shape of jellyfish gleamed over tables laden with fruit and flowers. In the middle of the Spring/Summer 2019 fashion show season, few designers could make it, but Paul Smith, who has always included hand-drawing and handwork in his company, applauded the initiative.

I could write a book about those who have been involved in “Homo Faber”. Luckily, the exhibition guide has done it for me. I am including below some of my long conversation with Johann Rupert. But of all the words I saw explaining and clarifying what was on display, the wisest came from Marcel Proust, who wrote:

“The real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but having new eyes.”

“Homo Faber” is at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice, until the 30th of September. For details of this and future “Homo Faber” editions, visit www.homofaberevent.com