Mirror, Mirror: Local bags, global appeal

Katisa Abate works on a New Bamboo bag at Gucci's "Artisan Corner" event at King of Prussia mall. Artisans are flown in from Italy.
Katisa Abate works on a New Bamboo bag at Gucci's "Artisan Corner" event at King of Prussia mall. Artisans are flown in from Italy. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 04, 2013

King of Prussia's modern, glass-walled Gucci boutique was transformed one recent evening into an old-school piece-goods workshop.

Four artisans - clad in leather aprons marked with the luxury label's double-G logo - tackled the making of different parts of a handbag. One sewed the hides together while another added tassels and punched holes in adjustable purse straps.

Label-loving onlookers, cocktails in hand, were smitten.

"It was very cool," said Hope Cohen of Bryn Mawr, who purchased a handbag, scarf, and sandals. "Being there definitely brought me closer to the product."

At a time when higher-end fashion is pointing to its "locally made" label for cachet, it makes sense for luxury brands - the original suppliers of unique, handcrafted goods - to remind us that they were also among the first to market the homegrown concept as must-have fashion.

In the three years that Gucci has hosted its "Artisan Corner," scores of craftspeople have made bags in front of shoppers all over the world, from New York to Japan.

"Consumers are really sensitive to where things are made," said Pamela Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a research firm based in Lancaster County that tracks the luxury market.

"There is a growing appreciation of 'made in America' and that extends to 'made in Paris' or 'made in Rome.' Those are definitely A-list countries."

(Note: "Made in China" is not on that list.)

According to Gucci's website, the $4 billion-a-year luxury brand employs 45,000 workers throughout Italy, where all of the company's leather goods, shoes, and ready-to-wear collections are manufactured.

This latest fashion phenomenon - the marketing of locally manufactured items with a global appeal - is called "glocal," explained Andrea Bell, associate editor of retail and events at WGSN, a New York-based fashion and trend forecasting analysis company. "Luxury brands want people to know they are sourced locally and made locally. And it's based on patriotism as much as craftsmanship."

High-end brands are going glocal for a few reasons.

Most important, they want to reintroduce themselves to their young, affluent, global customers as niche brands. Thanks to websites like Etsy, it's cool to have something fashionable from a small, unique brand rather than from a big, impersonal conglomerate.

Plus, when manufacturing close to home means leaving a smaller carbon footprint and paying fair, local wages (rather than exploiting cheap overseas labor), you've lured in the younger luxury customer who considers herself a supporter of fair trade.

"Customers want to know if they are spending thousands of dollars on a CĂ©line or Gucci handbag, that it's not just going to last long, but there is a real connection to a community," explained Melissa Hall, founder of the Emerging Designer, a website that tracks the locally made trend.

Two years ago, Louis Vuitton created a "made in France" campaign to highlight its prestigious French heritage. Because the brand also manufactures in America and Spain, customers were able to point to those French bags as more authentic, and they sold well.

Even the British luxury brand Burberry - which closed several plants in England and makes most of its products in Thailand - embarked on a "made in Britain" campaign last year.

"No one needs to know the bulk of the pieces are made somewhere else," Hall said. "The thought is, 'If I make something in that locale, I can market it.' It's fair game."

Touting their homegrown history also gives luxury brands a leg up on the knockoff industry, especially when look-alikes are as close as the nearest Target store.

In contrast, the King of Prussia event was unmistakably posh.

The artists fashioned satchels for the New Bamboo, New Jackie, and Stirrup and soft Stirrup bags, creative director Frida Giannini's versions of Gucci's classic satchels.

They stitched, added metal chains, and monogrammed shoppers' initials inside bags (big hit!) for the event, which would donate 10 percent of sales to Mission Kids, a Main Line nonprofit that helps sexually abused children.

Pauline McDaniel, a cochair for Mission Kids, ended up buying two bags.

"I saw so much quality in the workmanship, it made it hard to choose," McDaniel said.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.

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