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Is There Still Room Left for True Craftsmanship?

By Renée Batchelor, Lynette Kee and Kames Narayanan

Before the outfit is set on the runway, final fitting of the outfit and its accessorising takes place under the observation of Virginie Viard and her team.
Before the outfit is set on the runway, final fitting of the outfit and its accessorising takes place under the observation of Virginie Viard and her team.

Time may be a subjective measure, but to anyone growing up post-1990, it is likely measured in minutes and not months. Where the rush of instant gratification for our day-to-day needs, everything from coffee to travel bookings, can be attained at the snap of a finger, the idea of waiting for anything is a foreign, almost laughable concept today. Yet, there are certain industries and business that build their reputation on the premise that quality takes time. 

An antidote to fast fashion and off-the-shelf purchases, these require consideration, time, money and skill to craft, and part of the joy is in the length of the process, and in the sheer effort that goes into crafting it. Is effort directly linked to time? Here are some bespoke services and boutique brands that offer their services to a discerning clientele who seems to think so, and who are willing to wait it out. 

Bespoke perfumery

Perfumery is one of the oldest beauty practices that humankind has undertaken. It is believed to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and archaeologists have even discovered the world’s oldest surviving perfumes — estimated to be at least 4,000 years old — in Cyprus in 2003. But it wasn’t until the 16th century that perfume reached its pinnacle (or perhaps its nadir), when the wealthy classes doused themselves in the stuff to mask their unpleasant body odours as taking baths was not a daily affair. Modern perfumery as we know it, owes much of its progress to regions like Grasse, in France, which not only started to grow the raw ingredients used in perfumery, like lavender and rose, but also began nurturing generations of perfumers. 

Today perfumery has reached such a point of saturation, that nearly every brand and D-list celebrity seems to have a scent to their name. In a sea of smell-alike fragrances that are practically indistinguishable from each other, the art of bespoke perfumery stands head and shoulders above the rest. Francis Kurkdjian, is a renowned French perfumer who has created not just bestsellers like Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Mâle as well as a slew of fragrances for the fashion house Burberry, but has carved a niche with his own boutique line, Maison Francis Kurkdjian since 2009. He has been seeing to the whims and fantasies of perfume aficionados since he began creating these scents in his made-to-order perfume workshop in 2001. “A custom-made scent is the ultimate luxury in the fragrance world. I am like a fashion designer, as I dress women and men with my perfumes. Creation fees are separated from the price of the product itself. Sometimes you have to work countless hours to achieve greater simplicity and sobriety of the formula and the scent,” says Kurkdjian. 

Maison Francis KurkdjianFrancis Kurkdjian, perfumer of the eponymous boutique line.
Francis Kurkdjian, perfumer of the eponymous boutique line.

According to Kurkdjian, the first contact for a bespoke fragrance is always made over the phone. “This first contact between anonymity and intimacy avoids the weight of the gaze and the idea of being judged. It is very personal while respecting the privacy of people if they do not want to engage totally. For me it’s fundamental. At the end of this first meeting, my goal is to be able to design the olfactory profile of my client — an olfactory silhouette that will help me identify the different tracks to explore,” he explains. 

The process can be a long drawn out one, as it subsequently requires a face-to-face meeting with Kurkdjian in Paris at his bespoke atelier before samples are crafted by him, based on his conversations with the client. To him, the bespoke process is all about adaptability, flexibility and care. After all, the person seeking a bespoke fragrance is after something that cannot be bought on the shelves. The samples that are given to the client, either in person or couriered over, are presented in tiny 5 ml vials so that the client can try them on and test-drive the fragrance, so to speak, in his or her usual environment. “You do not choose a perfume just because you like the top notes,” says Kurkdjian. 

The process comes with a hefty price tag that starts from 20,000 euros, which includes the delivery of two 60 ml engraved bottles in a handmade case. “The price depends on the raw materials used for the formula, the final concentration, and of course the time needed to create the scent,” says Kurkdjian. The bespoke atelier does not do large orders of a custom scent, as a fragrance will alter over time, so a customer will have to order his or her fragrance as needed, rather than in bulk. The house, which is known for its innovative scenting options, is also able to make body creams, hair mists, soaps, scented candles, laundry wash and even bubbles from the chosen bespoke scent. In his time doing bespoke perfumery, Kurkdjian has already met many unusual and challenging requests from perfuming a swimming pool in Spain to recreating the smell of a horse for a riding enthusiast. And while his clients come from all corners of the world, there are some common threads that unite them. “Most of them are perfume lovers but you do not need to be an expert. It is more about your passion for fragrance. They seek passionate and exceptional refinement. Each request needs a lot of time, dedication and commitment,” says Kurkdjian. 

Master watchmaker

After observing the natural rhythm of darkness and daylight, civilisations from all over the world started a forage for ways to measure time — first with calendars, then instruments to tell the passing of time in an hourly fashion, followed by variations with increased precision at every horological milestone. 

According to horological tradition, it was during the 13th century when the first mechanical clocks were made, and people were finally freed from the necessity of looking at the sun to tell the time. But as far as watches are concerned, the first watch that pioneered the modern watchmaking that we know today, began in the 16th century and developed through the mid-20th century. 

Countless versions of watches and several grand complications later, the world now has a uniform concept of accurate time-telling that is easily accessible, thanks to the industrial revolution and the advent of technology. Time has played a big part in the efficiency of one’s existence by providing the means to control the flow of daily activities. Yet, for quality timepieces, people are willing to wait it out. 

At a period where it feels like watchmakers are running out of ideas to meet the fast-growing appetite of consumers, watch aficionados are waiting on an average of four to five years to get their hands on a Roger W Smith watch. The namesake brand is the brainchild of independent watchmaker Roger Smith from the Isle of Man, UK. Unlike many other watchmakers who dedicate their craft to existing watch brands, Smith started building a name for himself shortly after graduating from the Manchester School of Horology. He was mentored by George Daniels, who was dubbed the greatest horologist during his lifetime. Daniels was also one of the few modern watchmakers who built watches entirely by hand — a legacy that is kept alive by his protégé Smith. 

Roger W. SmithWatchmaker Roger W. Smith.
Watchmaker Roger W. Smith.

These timepieces that are ticking off both time and money from its consumers are created by Roger Smith and his team, following the signature approach coined the “Daniels Method”, where a mastery of 34 trades is required to build a watch by hand — the same 34 trades that earned Smith his mentorship with Daniels. “There are no shortcuts and it took me many years to master all 34 of these trades from case-making, to dial-making and, designing and building my mechanisms,” Smith said in an interview with T Singapore. 

All watches made in the house of Roger W. Smith has “benefitted from years of development,” according to Smith. “Ours is a very organic process,” he explains, “We make all our own mechanisms — this takes considerable time, but contributes to all our watches.” Smith remains resolute in his ethos to only craft watches by hand, which means that each timepiece takes about nine months to complete. As a result, production numbers at Roger W. Smith often stay at a low count of 10 to 13 pieces produced in a year. 

Aside from technical prowess, Smith also shares that the stylistic signature of his watches “has always been led by function and clarity of timekeeping”. In all the watches in the Series 1 to 5 collections, Smith takes delight in adding traditional English flourishes to the designs, as a nod to his roots. All of which, are invaluable crafting advice imparted from his mentor. “A watch should appear to have simply appeared from thin air, without any sign of the maker, other than the realisation of their aesthetic,” says Smith. The idea of time and waiting seems a small price to pay, sequentially, for a timepiece imbued with such a deep-rooted legacy coupled with unparalleled craftsmanship and exclusivity. However, in a fast-paced world driven by instant gratification, the motivation behind patience takes more than just understanding the value. “For me, nothing truly worth having is easy,” he said, “The experience is the real gratification.” 

Haute couture

For fashion, the pinnacle of luxury is arguably found in the distinct genre of haute couture — the highest attainable degree of craftsmanship and design in garment-making. The history of haute couture stretches back as far as 1858 when Charles Frederick Worth, who has since earned the moniker “Father of Haute Couture”, founded the House of Worth in Paris.

The linchpin of couture earned a reputation for the lavish fabrics and trims that lent an air of opulence to the wealthy women of his time. Then, he would handcraft entire wardrobes — a dress for every occasion and time of the day — and even design costumes worn onstage by famous actresses and singers. Affordable to only the wealthiest women in society, Worth’s exquisite garments were a symbol of status. These were clothes cut to fit and hug every curve of a woman’s body like a glove. 

ChanelA close-up of the intricate tulle and feather details from Chanel’s Fall ’19 couture show.
A close-up of the intricate tulle and feather details from Chanel’s Fall ’19 couture show.

Worth’s legacy inspired the succeeding wave of couturiers, and amongst them was the iconic Gabrielle Chanel, who was proclaimed the queen of couture on her own terms. Chanel’s career in fashion took off from a milliner’s studio in 21 rue Cambon in Paris in 1910. Five years later, the designer opened the doors to her maison de couture in Biarritz, a seaside town in France. As a couturier, Chanel’s ingenuity steered away from the previously established codes. Beyond employing the use of quotidian jersey, she also decidedly steered away from the body-hugging silhouette established by couture’s predecessors. 

In 1917, she was described by Vogue as a “dictator of jersey” — in the best sense of the word. Gradually, Chanel extended her design vocabulary to the use of crepe and embroidery. Women were enthused to be liberated from the stringent waist-cinching garments to functional wear that also retained beauty. Under Chanel’s subversive lead, the eponymous house thrived, with an employee count that reached nearly 300 workers. 

Succeeding Chanel’s passing in 1971, the late Karl Lagerfeld took over the maison as its artistic director in 1983. And along with it, the two annual couture collections — Spring/Summer and Fall/ Winter showings. To Lagerfeld, “haute couture is an islet of dreams and escapism. It’s high luxury that transcends fashion and is timeless.” 

Creating a piece of haute couture can be likened to creating a work of art. First taking form as a sketch, the initial idea is then brought to life as a cotton toile — the initial version presented to the designer. Then ensues the scrutiny and a subsequent pursuit of perfection. The way the garment sits and moves on the human form is tantamount to the delicate beadwork or embroidery that embellishes the canvas. Maintaining the timeworn tradition and impeccable savoir-faire synonymous to the couture house translates to hours and hours of tireless work in the atelier. To put it into perspective: a spectacular feathered dress from the Spring 2018 collection warranted a hefty 750 hours of meticulous crafting. 

ChanelA coat in navy blue tulle embellished with flowers worn over a dress in ivory duchess satin hangs on a mannequin.
A coat in navy blue tulle embellished with flowers worn over a dress in ivory duchess satin hangs on a mannequin.

Couture clients who inspire to build their wardrobes from the fantastical world of Chanel’s haute couture are received by appointment only at the house’s couture houses in 31 rue Cambon. The process of creating a custom couture offering stretches anywhere between hundred to a thousand hours — the former for a suit and the latter for a wedding dress. The multiple fittings (up to five for wedding gowns), are independent of this count. For regular clients of the house, the process is slightly less cumbersome as a wooden mannequin, shaped to their exact measurements, sits in place for the rounds of fitting. 

The exclusivity of couture is further reinforced by the Commission de Contrôle et de Classement Couture Création, a regulatory body established in 1945, where the members of the organisation serve as gatekeepers of the rare character of haute couture. The stringent specifications require all original models to be created by the maison’s designer and produced in their own ateliers with at least 20 employees. To maintain its status as a couture house, it is mandatory to show a collection of at least 25 runway looks encompassing both day and evening wear. 

Granted the high level of precision and detail imbued into a garment, the time taken to conceive these incubations of art and inspiration transcend the rudimentary manufacture of run-of-the-mill ready-to-wear separates. Just as Rome was not built in a day, an object of such grandeur, at much less the old active couture house, is a long-drawn process. One cannot rush art — the same ethos applies to couture.