A New Millenium Werkstatte

Pendant, Josef Hoffmann c. 1905, silver, gilt & semi-precious stonesTo quote the great Shirley Bassey: "It's all just a little bit of history repeating..."

One of the reasons I left the luxury goods industry a few years ago had to do with the way it made me feel overall. After years of excitement in the fashion fast lane, I found myself overwhelmed by its shallowness that left me increasingly empty. Even the "luxury" brands were losing their core of craftsmanship and selling out to the mass-market, driven by the need to satisfy stockholders. In the storm of marketing, messaging, editorials, and bling, I started to feel sick. When you witness someone splitting an "it" bag across three credit cards for the hundreth time, it starts to get to you. I asked myself: "How long can a brand remain "aspirational" and "white hot" before it burns iself out?"

The question still hangs over me when I take a look at the luxury fashion world these days - from a lot further out, happily, which usually gives some great perspective. Perspective, or common sense?

Consider the current unpleasantness of the economic world; there are a lot of people in big, expensive homes all over the country, homes full of clothes, electronics, cars, shoes, and it bags, who are wondering if they're going to have jobs next week. This, is a big portion of the "new" luxury market, and the rose-colored glasses have been lifted recently. Now comes the dawn of perspective: is any of that stuff really lasting and fulfilling, or is it just stuff?

Belt Buckle, Kolo Moser, 1903, silver, opal & rubyLast week, The Cut by New York Magazine published a post entitled " 'It' Bags ARe About to Be So Embarrassing". In it, there is a quote from Claire Kent, a former luxury analyst from Morgan Stanley who now works as an industry consultant, from a speech at the recent London Luxury Briefing conference. Kent mentioned a "luxury fatique", that people were afraid of debt and that customers would be steering clear of aspirational brands. She also said "An 'It' handbag will become an embarassment - a clear sign that you don't have your own view of fashion." Well, we all knew that was the case...

Today, Jezebel published a post about "Luxury Shame" - the phoenomenon of rich people feeling bad about throwing money around. They cite certain luxury shoppers telling others that their gown is an "old Phillip Lim" as opposed to a new Balenciaga - because that makes it okay. (I say, if you have the good stuff, wear it proudly! Don't lie to people, just maybe...buy a little less?) Jezebel also cites ecommerce sites like Gilt Groupe whose big appeal is the discretion of anonymous delivery boxes - so no one will know you're dropping your now-diminished 401K on Jimmy Choos. Yes, assuage your shopping guilt and extravagance in a nice brown wrapper...it's shopping porn!

Brooch, Josef Hoffmann c. 1910, silver & semi-precious stones

Brooch, Josef Hoffmann, 1908, silver, partly gilt & semi-precious stonesBrooch, Josef Hoffmann, 1910, silver, gilt & semi-precious stones

All of this guilt about shopping and high-priced products has put me in mind of one of my favorite periods of art and design: the Wiener Werkstätte. Also known as the Vienna Succession, this brief period of design began at the beginning of the 20th Century and continued until just before World War II. Vienna was the epicenter of the arts, being led by a group of artists that wanted to fuse graphic and applied arts - seeking a union of form and function in design. The Werkstätte was formed in response to increased mass production of products and overall industrialization. They sought to return art and design to fine craftsmanship, logic, beauty, and usefulness. The most famous Werkstätte artists are likely to be Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann, but the group included hundreds of artists across all aesthetics.

Left - Emilie Floge in 'reform' dress & necklace by Kolo Moser c. 1910, Right - Necklace, Kolo Moser, 1903, silver, white chalcedony & carnelian (This necklace was given to Emilie Floge by Gustav Klimt.)I have been thinking of the Werkstätte lately because of their jewelry; it perfectly suits our current climate and I'm sure it will be only a matter of time before we return to this kind of aesthetic. Simple, elegant, modern, colorful, and beautifully crafted.

The most significant Werkstätte jewelry was designed by Josef Hoffman and Kolo Moser. While most worked with silver and gold, the focus of the work was on the metal designs and the unique arrangements of semi-precious stones. You see, during the early part of the 20th Century in Europe, times were tough. Economic depression, wars and revolutions... It was all pretty unsettling, and it was considered to be in bad taste to wear real gems. (Remember, this was also the time when CoCo Chanel invented costume jewelry too.)

Does any of this sound familiar?

Luckily for the patrons of the Werkstätte, their pieces were usually custom-made by hand as individual art pieces, which made them beautiful, tasteful, and lasting. Luckily for us, they are still as modern and wearable today as they were then! Perhaps with all of this luxury guilt going on, designers will take some cues from the Wiener Werkstätte and make things that move away from mass-market bling and into hand-crafted, wearable art... After all, history is repeating these days.

All images scanned from "Wiener Werkstätte - Design in Vienna 1903-1932" by Christian Brandstätter