The Craft of Britain
With the second London Craft Week taking place in the first week of May, its Chairman Guy Salter chats about the opportunities for British craft manufacturers in a world of ever evolving consumer sophistication
Article by Rupert Watkins
Over a varied and ever challenging career in the retail and luxury industries, Guy Salter has seen both British craft and the wider luxury market steadily grow and evolve. In a world of instant communication, consumerism and gratification, the flair, craftsmanship and timelessness of genuine artisans is becoming ever more sought after and respected. Despite the increasing success of British craftsmanship – especially abroad – Guy feels that misconceptions still unfortunately creep in about the craft and luxury industry, both amongst consumers and those in decision making positions.
Following a brief spell as a subaltern in the Welsh Guards, Guy then moved to the Arcadia Group, cutting his teeth in the arenas of retailing and brand development. He was then appointed Assistant Private Secretary for Industry and Commerce to the Prince of Wales, before his initial move into the luxury industry with Laurent-Perrier. This was followed by being appointed CEO of the Asprey Group at a tempestuous period for Britain’s oldest luxury business. Indeed this to date has been his biggest career challenge. Despite turning around a business operating at a £200 million loss, when the Group had a management buyout, the new owners fired both Guy and his team: “the opportunity was there to renew Asprey” but instead he found himself looking for a new role. However, as one door closed, another opened for him into the world of Private Equity.
Guy remarks that there is a huge difference both practically and psychologically between running a business day-to-day and taking a stake in it as a shareholder – this proved an interesting challenge to him as he immersed himself in the PE field. Yet there is also the daily satisfaction of working with small, rapidly evolving and fleet-footed businesses: “difficulties are constantly worked through and new ideas and opportunities are set up and pursued from scratch.” There is the ability to call upon London’s unique and world beating role as a nexus for creative and financial muscle to provide backing for successful projects.
Despite the economic wobbles of early 2016, Guy feels that both success and failure are overhyped in the luxury world: “the arena is going through a slightly difficult time – no more (than that).” Given that it rarely impinges on the business pages, it is all too easy for good or bad news to be overanalysed. His confidence in the innate strengths of the British luxury and craft world is based on a belief that is rooted on solid fundamentals. It is an industry focused on quality. It is also, in his view, a massively undervalued and misunderstood soft power tool for the UK.
One of Guy’s proudest achievements has been his involvement with the government’s GREAT campaign. The campaign takes the best of Britain to a global audience, across all areas of commerce and education. It is the quality and widespread recognition of British made craft and luxury goods that Guy feels has been a potent aspect of this campaign. Government funded, it was originally set up as a one-off in 2012 off the back of the nationwide, and worldwide, interest in the London Olympics. But Guy is immensely gratified that it has now become an on-going project and that the Exchequer has recently released extra funding for it.
One of the biggest challenges facing the entire luxury industry is what Guy calls, “the discernment curve.” The level of consumer sophistication and knowledge is getting ever higher and more demanding. Fuelled by the omnipresence of the Internet, “what you spend your money on” is becoming a more careful and rigorous decision. Guy argues that the 20th Century saw a huge dip in consumer knowledge and respect for true craftsmanship as the world moved from a very narrow band of essentially aristocratic clients who had had the time to understand, patronise and expect the very best of their artisans to a more egalitarian mass market. This meant understanding and discernment dipped as quality also wavered to supply an ever larger and more voracious audience. In the 21st Century, information has stoked a huge upswing in judgement and discrimination. Indeed, Guy believes the discernment curve will overtake the growth curve in wealth.
This ever-rising tide of cultured understanding has large ramifications for smaller artisan and craft brands as well as the luxury conglomerates. London Craft Week helps fill a gap in the education of an audience now more likely to seek out off-piste brands. The buzz words of “authenticity” and “provenance” are already hugely discussed. As Guy says, “there will always be people who buy to make a statement” and while this may not change, wavering buyers may become more immune to blanket consumerist advertising by large, and possibly increasingly soulless, brands.
Despite the increasing success of and attention focused on the British craft arena, Guy does feel there are some misconceptions that still hamper the sector. He feels that until recently the UK luxury industry was not taken as seriously as it warranted. Despite the fact the luxury world as a whole is very balanced across consumer types, there is still a lingering and incorrect sense it is the preserve of an UNHW individual, despite the fact that, as Guy says, they make up an exceedingly small percentage of sector turnover; “Too many myths surround the sector in the media.” He points to a number of small start-up brands he has backed as an investor – including some jewellery companies – who offer truly attainable items and style. More importantly in Guy’s eyes, most decision makers – both private business and governmental – are themselves consumers of luxury items and they frequently under-estimate the sensitivity needed to nurture the sector. It is harder than business sometimes believes to maintain constant and consistent creativity.
Recent debate about the power of the “Made in Britain” concept leaves Guy a trifle underwhelmed. Whilst he acknowledges it is useful that it is debated and talked about, he does not feel the idea should be overplayed. As he points out, Britain is good in many areas but countries such as Italy and Spain have equally magnificent and eccentric traditions and artisan standards. In the past, the UK has not been as flexible as it should have been – he points even to Savile Row as an area that initially took time to fully understand and adjust to the new luxury market dynamics.
Training remains a problematic issue and certainly one that Guy feels is a weakness in the British craft world. Despite clearly enormous strides being taken and energy being put into the industry, he feels at times we are still not quite as good at long-term, holistic planning as we could be. Guy feels strongly that the developmental emphasis should not just sit with artificially creating new training academies to “hot house” talent but in creating the structure to ensure that businesses remain viable and that they are supported to retain the ability to train in-house and thus invest in themselves. He helped found the programme Crafted in 2007 and is Chairman of it. A mentoring programme, it pairs craftsmen with business guides to enable small businesses and individuals to understand wider market dynamics. So far over 50 small artisans have been so supported and Guy feels, “there has been a renaissance of the independent craftsman.” London Craft Week is seen as a natural, organic progression to both educate and enable savvy customers and the creators.
Having worked for the Prince of Wales and currently working in an industry where the influence of the Royal Warrant is still critical, Guy believes the Monarchy remains a unique and enormous bonus: “people do not realise the business asset they are and the reach they give us.” In China this merging of Royal patronage (symbolised by the warrant) with the desired quality and panache of British craft is virtually unbeatable. Prince Charles is genuinely passionate about and connected to the defence and support of true craft and, as Guy stresses, not merely in the UK.
Be it Manchester or Mongolia, the Prince’s passion also taps into Britain’s greater ability to understand and empathise with foreign craftsman and their way of life. This outward ability to communicate and craft, “it’s in our blood” as Guy pertinently puts it, allows us to, when needed, transcend the idea that it’s merely another branch of UK plc manufacturing. That ability to get under the skin of fellow craftsmen, be it in the traditions of great British travellers such as Freya Stark and Wilfred Thesiger or regardless of where they are in the world, lifts British craft into a pretty formidable proposition. With over 150 brands involved in this year’s London Craft Week, the interest and strength of this flourishing sector continues to moves ever forward.