Crafted Society
Luxury for good made in Italy

Crafted Society – Luxury for good made in Italy

Imagine a modern luxury brand you really connect with. It would offer best in class quality, would not exploit its craftsmen, but support them in every way. Pay them fairly and see them as partners and friends rather than anonymous workers.

In a nutshell that’s what the brand Crafted Society is all about. Lise and Martin Johnston started in 2016 to pursue their lifelong dream of fusing their passion for hand crafted lifestyle products with their personal commitment to operate transparently.

We talked to Martin about his path, the brand and several journeys to Italy that changed everything.

Lise and Martin Johnston – the Founder Couple
»We realised that we wanted to use luxury as a force for good but without the traditional luxury mark-ups.«
Before you founded the Crafted Society, you had a career in the fashion industry. Please tell us a little bit about your path and how it all began.

I wanted to be a professional football player when I was younger, and I started out at Everton football club, from the blue side of Liverpool, before signing schoolboy terms with Barnsley FC. When I was 17 and after recovering from a serious knee injury a university from the United States saw me play in England. They offered me the opportunity to go to university in America on a full soccer scholarship. The decision was easy, and after four years I graduated with an honours degree in Sports Marketing.

At the same time, I realised that I didn’t have the physical strength needed in my knees to carry on my football career, so, I started to think about my future and set new goals, with one being to one day work for the biggest football brand on the planet: Adidas.

I went from the United States via Holland over to Moscow, and within a couple of months working in Russia, I was Head of Sports Marketing for Eastern Europe for the Adidas Group, at the age of 23. After a some years working with Adidas I got introduced to the former CEO & Chairman of Tommy Hilfiger. He offered me a new opportunity in Amsterdam, working directly for him and learning as I went along. That’s really where my fashion industry journey started and ultimately where I met my wife Lise.

What made you change your path from corporate world to the entrepreneur world?

In 2015 I had reached a career crossroads as it is called and needed a break from the rat race to reflect and spend some quality time with my family, which I hadn’t seen an awful lot of during my last role as CEO for TOMS shoes in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

During that period of reflection, I remembered a quote “If you don’t go out and build your own dreams, someone else is going to hire you to help build theirs.” That really resonated with me and very quickly Lise and I decided to bet on ourselves and embark on the path less travelled.

Creating Tassels at Lanificio Arca, Tuscany
Marco Cini – Owner of Lanificio Arca
The scarf weaving process at Lanificio Arca
How did the idea for Crafted Society come about?

For us it was clear from the beginning the what: handcrafted leather bags, shoes & accessories because we both have a passion for it. We knew the where: It had to be Italy, because they have the best artisans in the world for the type of luxury products we wanted to create not to mention that Italy had stolen our hearts  some 20 years earlier. We just didn’t know by who.

In November 2015 we packed our bags and started our journey to see if we could actually find these mythical artisans that the luxury labels always talk about, but never reveal how to find them.

Vincenzo Toressi – Master Artisan at Laboratorio Artigiani Torresi
Sneaker Production at Laboratorio Artigiani Torresi
The Matteo Low White Green
... made for Crafted Society by Laboratorio Artigiani Torresi
»Our company, we said to ourselves, should become the makers’ voice.«
Matteo Toressi – Head of Laboratorio Artigiani Torresi
... and his wife Josie
Quilting of a Matteo Low tongue
How did you manage to find the artisans?

I had been connecting with old friends, colleagues and industry connections and through one of these connections we were introduced Marco Cini at Lanificio Arca, a 70-year-old luxury fabric weaving company based in Tuscany. That’s where everything started and after that we constantly traveled in and out of Italy and met all kinds of manufacturers and workshops dedicated towards excellence in our field.

As we travelled, we were still searching for our WHY, our purpose for being other than to turn a profit. The easiest way to find your purpose is to ask the right questions. During our frequent visits to Italy, we asked every artisan we met one question: What is your biggest challenge? The answer was unanimous, there is a lack of young talent, people who are willing to continue the craft tradition.

When we thought about it, it makes a lot of sense that the artisans are struggling to identify the next generation of apprentices to come in and pick this work up because the new generation don’t know the makers even exist, let alone how cool it is to create objects of beauty which they can sell all around the world.

In a lot of instances, the artisans are forced to sign confidentiality agreements especially if they want to work with the big labels, which basically confines them into anonymous existence. It’s as bitter and simple as that.

So, these insights ended the search for the purpose?

Yes, after months of meeting multiple artisans in every part of Italy, we had unknowingly stumbled upon our purpose which is celebrating the makers as the real heroes of luxury and returning them to the spotlight, just like in the days before brands took center stage.

Our company, we said to ourselves, should become the makers’ voice. Lise and I just automatically came up with “Crafted Society” when we were talking about the whole context, because that is what we want to preserve, a Crafted Society, where all future generations can still appreciate objects made by the poetry that the master artisans possess in their hands, before automation kills craftsmanship for good.

All of a sudden it became more than just another brand selling luxury products …

Yes, we realised that we wanted to use luxury as a force for good with all the transparency our customers should expect from a modern luxury brand but without the traditional luxury mark-ups.

But surely you also confronted the local authorities and ministries with this plight. What was their reaction?

The Italians asked us to contact the Dutch authorities as we are a company based in The Netherlands, and when I spoke to the Dutch government, they asked us to get back to the Italian government as our manufacturing supply chain is all in Italy.

Maybe one day, though, there’ll be someone in Brussels that listens to this story. Hopefully one day, someone who wants to take responsibility and help us to maintain and preserve the cultural legacy of Italy & Europe known as artisanal craftsmanship.

Sauro Tiberi – Master Artisan at Ales in Tolentino
Luisa Baldini
Lisa working on the bag which was named after her: the Luisa Tote Bag
Talking about transparency: how does the cooperation with the craftsmen and the pricing work?

Traditional luxury brands can mark up their products anywhere between 8 to 12 times cost price. That is a lot. By selling directly to our customers we eliminate the unnecessary markups and mark-up our products up just 3 to 3.5 times cost price inclusive VAT, nothing more.

We also donate 1% of our turnover to provide artisan scholarship programmes to educate the next generation, and thereby help solve the single largest threat to the longevity of our artisan’s business; the talent pipeline and the cost associated with that.

When a customer purchases Crafted Society they receive the highest quality goods for beyond a fair price. The artisans win, our customers win and ultimately we do too, all by making the entire chain fair. We ensure that our brand is good for your feet while being good for your wallet all while ensuring your purchase is good for your conscience.

What happened when you were initially ready to enter the market?

Before we decided to build up the business model as it is today, we were rejected. When we presented our products to a very prominent luxury e-retailer, they recognised the high quality of our products straight away. But they quickly realised that the transparency of our brand regarding artisans would automatically put pressure on all the other brands in their portfolio.

So this rejection was the best thing that could happen to us as we decided to sell direct to the end consumers and cut out all the middle men and all of their costs. But to be honest, it wasn’t that easy to set everything up and get attention. We had 100.000 Euros worth of stock in a warehouse with no one visiting our website.

What did you do?

I did the only thing that came naturally to me. I called my old mates at the Everton Football Club and asked if I could come to the training ground to the show the players all the new sneakers. It worked and in the summer of 2017 I left Everton’s training ground that day with orders for sixteen pairs of shoes.

But more importantly, I left with photographs of the players with my shoe box and those pictures kickstarted our awareness on social media.

Back to Italy – you mentioned in our preliminary talk, that you just came back from a very special event of yours…

Lise and myself had an idea when we started the brand. Wouldn’t it be great if we could act as the catalyst to bring all of these wonderful master artisans together so that they can share knowledge with each other and join together in unity so they have a stronger collective voice?

So, with this concept in mind, we launched the first ever “Night of the artisans”. It happened in Tolentino in the Marche region at the Castello della Rancia which the City of Tolentino very graciously provided for the evening. The original idea was that we would invite twenty or thirty of our artisans to dinner, provide a nice evening and honour and thank them.

But it turned out to be such a amazing event with more than 120 people at this beautiful old castle. Even people from the Dutch Embassy in Rome came over. We had customers fly in from as far away as Los Angeles and Oslo, so we had customers rubbing shoulders with our ‘celebrities, our artisans, and it was hugely successful. It will become an annual event, so the next Night of the Artisans will be held in summer 2022.

Did you ever consider expanding the portfolio and getting in touch with artisans in other countries?

Absolutely. It’s part of our thinking of how to expand the product categories within luxury, while always choosing the best in class. And for true best in class, we will have to expand our geographical reach to more countries around the world as we grow.

Thank you very much, Martin!

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