Late last year, a petite Frenchwoman named Claudine sat stationed near the entrance of Holt Renfrew's flagship store in Toronto. Laid out on the black lacquered table in front of her was a perfect row of Chanel No. 5 perfume bottles and various tools, including a pot of black wax atop a portable heater.
For four days, Claudine demonstrated the art of baudruchage, the process that seals the world's most famous perfume. As she normally does at the Chanel factory near Paris, she began by sheathing the bottle's neck with an airtight, waterproof membrane, then unravelled a strand of black pearl cotton thread and wrapped it twice around the casing. To secure it, she affixed a peppercorn-sized disc of black wax, which she then stamped with a seal bearing the company's signature logo. There was not a stray edge or irregularity in sight.
Claudine is one of 10 women in the world employed by Chanel to do baudruchage. After they undergo six months of training, they can complete up to 100 perfume bottles an hour. To watch the precision with which they work is to understand (at least in part) all that goes into a luxury product. And that's precisely the point.
These days, long-established luxury retailers with a history of craftsmanship are highlighting that heritage with vigour, dispatching artisans like Claudine on multicity tours to show off their unique skills. Last year, Paris-based Hermès, which has a tradition of integrating its craftsman into retail environments (there is still a functioning workshop in its flagship on Rue Faubourg), sent a master leather craftsman to its stores in Vancouver and Calgary to demonstrate how its bags are created; one will descend on Toronto this April for a similar four-day visit.
Tod's, meanwhile, set up temporary workshops last year in London, Paris and Toronto's main Harry Rosen store, where a skilled Italian craftsman assembled its iconic driving moccasins for appreciative footwear fans. This year, it plans to take the road show to the U.S. in March and, later, to Asia.
And in October, Gucci transplanted a mini-version of its Florentine factory to its Bloor Street shop in Toronto. Customers could watch as artisans hand-stitched the handles of, affixed tassels to and embossed its latest bag styles, the New Bamboo and the New Jackie. In 2010, the Gucci maestri also visited San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Chicago and New York.
"Parties [as brand promoters]aren't working any more," says Nathalie Petitjean-Gallereau, a recruiter with Poleluxe, a Paris-based company that specializes in luxury retail training. "They attract people, not clients." But while the artisan demos may result in a spike in purchases, they're more than just exercises in show and sell, their organizers insist. "It [craftsmanship]has always been important to us; it's part of our DNA," Marco Giacometti, chief executive officer of Tod's USA, says from New York. Although Tod's, he notes, would have to dispatch a whole team of craftsmen to demonstrate, say, the assembly of a shoe from start to finish, its travelling workshops paint enough of a picture for clients to get a better understanding of the work that goes into each pair. "It's a way to educate the customer or people who don't know the brand."
In a post-recessionary retail landscape, this human touch - be it a stitch, a seal or a stamp - can go a long way toward suggesting and reinforcing value. And it's a major attitudinal shift from the days when companies simply splashed bigger, bolder logos across a luxury good, says Larry Rosen, chief executive officer of Harry Rosen.
"Lately, the customer has become more sophisticated and wants to know why - why that item is so prestigious, why it's a premium price - so there's a greater need to educate people about quality and design," he says. "When we bring in an expert, whether it's an artisan or a representative, [customers]love to come in and ask questions. They're not afraid to invest in luxury, but they want to understand [it]"
Indeed, baudruchage is as difficult to appreciate as it is to pronounce until it has been witnessed. "Even in the era of technology, we never stopped [doing it]" says Danielle Pépin, communications director for Chanel Canada. "We could produce by machine, but we don't want that. It's in the spirit of Coco that things are personalized."
What's more, she says, Chanel's sealing demonstrations open people's eyes to the fact that craftsmanship isn't limited to haute couture. "You don't necessarily associate that same level of luxury with cosmetics," she says. "To show that was our objective."
Of course, the installation of workshops that evoke their counterparts in Florence or France can be highly atmospheric, creating an ambience that feels less like a seminar and more like "retail-tainment," Rosen says. Customers "don't want to look at racks," he says. "They want to have fun."
Jennifer Carter, president of Hermès Canada, agrees. "These exchanges are not really a form of marketing," she says. "They're an opportunity for our craftsmen to travel the world and meet their clients and for all to gain inspiration from cultural exchanges." For 2011, the luxury leather-goods brand has chosen Contemporary Craftsman since 1837 as its annual theme. It is also launching its Festival des Métiers, "a living exhibition of Hermès know-how and craftsmanship," this month, kicking it off in the U.S. before sending it around the world.
Asked how they measure the success of these events, many of the retailers who undertake them cite the long-term benefits. "Sometimes, these things are purely economical," says Giacometti of Tod's. "But when you're working on brand heritage, you're working on something that is about more than the business done that day." Rosen echoes the sentiment. "When [customers]buy is irrelevant," he says. "It's that they sense the quality and have the experience."