In­no­va­tion, ar­ti­san­ship and de­sign

Neue Luxury - - News - By Neue Lux­ury

Cloth­ing is a vis­ual lan­guage, a colour­ful and tac­tile lex­i­con that cre­ates an im­pres­sion with­out ever say­ing a word. Func­tion aside, it is why women and men have adorned them­selves with ex­otic fabrics for thou­sands of years. As a species with a pro­cliv­ity to­wards brevity, it would seem only fit­ting for Jakob Schlaepfer to as­sume the role of or­a­tor on our col­lec­tive be­half.

Jakob Schlaepfer is a quiet yet in­cred­i­bly in­flu­en­tial voice in con­tem­po­rary fash­ion. A strange para­dox con­sid­er­ing the tex­tile house has con­spired with some of the world’s great­est art and fash­ion lu­mi­nar­ies for over 112 years. One only has to see the fabrics that be­set the red car­pets of Fes­ti­val de Cannes and the Os­cars, or pick up an is­sue of Vogue to re­veal the depth and breadth of their out­put— an enig­matic polyphony of de­sign, creativ­ity and in­no­va­tion.

The firm was founded in 1904 by Ru­dolf Vo­gel in the idyl­lic Swiss Canton of St. Gallen. The area built its rep­u­ta­tion in tex­tiles in the 16th cen­tury, when lo­cal ar­ti­sans were em­ployed to make linen used to bind the Guten­berg Bi­ble, be­ing pro­duced en masse in Ger­many. The re­gion is at an el­e­va­tion suit­able for the pro­duc­tion of flax, so much so that the fields of St. Gallen were said to glis­ten white dur­ing this pe­riod. The fab­ric laid out to bleach was com­monly re­ferred to as ‘white gold’ due to the wealth it be­stowed on the town— an evoca­tive im­age con­sid­er­ing the mag­ni­tude of be­spoke lux­ury fabrics that are still pro­duced there.

Jakob Schlaepfer pro­duce six col­lec­tions a year each with ap­prox­i­mately 200 tex­tile de­signs in ev­ery col­lec­tion. The dis­tin­guished tex­tile com­pany has wo­ven tex­tiles and mas­ter­ful fabrics for the likes of Chris­tian Dior, Chanel, Yves Saint Lau­rent, Jean Paul Gaultier, Os­car de la Renta and Mai­son Margiela to name a few. Sup­port­ing this pro­lific out­put, an es­ti­mated 60,000 fabrics hang in their archives await­ing the in­quis­i­tive minds and deep pock­ets of their famed clien­tele. Their mon­u­men­tal archives could be con­sid­ered a real life trea­sure chest, a sur­viv­ing Li­brary of Alexan­dria for the cre­ative pil­grims of the fash­ion world. Award-win­ning cre­ative di­rec­tor Martin Leuthold told T Mag- azine, “A lot of de­sign­ers come here for the archives”. One can only imag­ine the alchemy of creativ­ity and imag­i­na­tion that goes into the process of choos­ing from such a colos­sal fo­lio. “There are 600 years of em­broi­dery his­tory in St. Gallen. We know that if you have seen a fab­ric in fash­ion, it’s old,” Leuthold says. And while pres­ti­gious cou­turi­ers are known to make fre­quent pil­grim­ages to the house in search of in­spi­ra­tion, pop icons such as Lady Gaga have been spot­ted scour­ing their col­lec­tions for in­spi­ra­tion and ref­er­ence.

The longevity of Jakob Schlaepfer is per­haps tes­ta­ment to its cu­ri­ous re­la­tion­ship with in­no­va­tion and tech­nol­ogy. Hav­ing long em­braced the changes and chal­lenges of a tu­mul­tuous tex­tile fash­ion in­dus­try, the firm has learnt many valu­able lessons over its ten­ure: from a bat­tery of strong for­eign com­pe­ti­tion and re­forms in meth­ods of cot­ton pro­duc­tion, to do­mes­tic com­pe­ti­tion from those de­ter­mined to mimic their tech­ni­cal prow­ess. In­no­va­tion is al­ways un­der­pin­ning their chameleon like ap­proach to adap­ta­tion.

Speak­ing on this point at the 2012 sym­po­sium Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Tex­tiles, Camilla Or­nella Bern­bach, a se­nior de­signer at the house said that, “Se­quins are the foun­da­tion on which Jakob Schlaepfer was built”. Hav­ing pur­chased the global rights to in­dus­trial se­quin em­broi­dery on shut­tle ma­chin­ery in 1963, Bern­bach said that this mile­stone “put the name of Jakob Schlaepfer out there in the world”. And while their se­quins and tex­tiles can been seen atop the run­ways of Chanel, Miu Miu and Louis Vuit­ton, it is not un­til you re­view the long list of patent ti­tles owned by Jakob Schlaepfer (if you are so in­clined) that you ap­pre­ci­ate how re­spon­sive the com­pany has been over its his­tory: Ap­pa­ra­tus for form­ing a pat­tern of ar­ti­cles on a sub­strate; Ap­pa­ra­tus for trans­fer­ring and plac­ing dec­o­ra­tive ar­ti­cles; or, Ap­plique ma­chines, that is, “An em­broi­dery and ap­plique ma­chine hav­ing a num­ber of ar­ti­cle feed­ing mod­ules, each adapted to sup­ply ar­ti­cles such as se­quins which are to be ap­pliqued in align­ment with a nee­dle”. The list goes on.

Jakob Schlaepfer were amongst the first to adopt com­puter aided tech­nol­ogy as early as the 1960s and graphic de­sign soft­ware in the 1980s— a tech­nol­ogy that was con­sid­ered rad­i­cally mod­ern at the time. In 2001 the firm set up their renowned Inkjet depart­ment that many of the world’s most pres­ti­gious maisons as­pire to em­u­late. Their ad­vances in laser cut­ting tech­nol­ogy aside, each new tech­nol­ogy brings with it the re­sources, knowl­edge and vi­sion to dream of that which doesn’t yet ex­ist.

By any mea­sure, fash­ion and tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing is one of the most chal­leng­ing and fluc­tu­at­ing of global in­dus­tries. Sub­ject to the ebbs and flows of con­sumer tastes and with a sup­ply chain that re­sponds to both whole­sale and re­tail en­vi­ron­ments, Jakob Schlaepfer’s abil­ity to rec­on­cile de­sign and de­mand has been one of the firms great­est strengths. In­no­va­tions such as ‘fan­tasy fabrics’— that is fabrics so plush with colour and tex­ture that de­sign­ers are of­ten at a loss as to what to do with them— are no doubt as de­mand­ing to de­sign as they are to sell, but sell they do. With prices in ex­cess of $1,000 a me­tre, only the most mas­ter­ful ate­liers dare to un­furl each pre­cious roll.

Cre­ative di­rec­tor Martin Leuthold, is one of the minds driv­ing such in­ven­tions. Leuthold be­gan at Jakob Schlaepfer in 1971 at the im­pres­sion­able age of 20, aspir­ing to ac­quire the skills of his well-versed se­niors. He is known for his mag­ni­tude in tal­ent and his equally as­ton­ish­ing mod­esty. Work­ing with the world’s most prom­i­nent de­sign­ers has turned him into one of the most well-re­spected fig­ures in fash­ion. He is of­ten ex­cited by his in­ven­tions and en­joys the ex­change of knowl­edge in­volved in the learn­ing pro­cesses. Leuthold leads a young team, in­spir­ing and ig­nit­ing the cre­ative process of de­sign­ing fab­ric. He be­lieves in the nur­tur­ing and ac­qui­si­tion of young tal­ent in or­der to keep the ideas fresh and en­er­gised, “The dig­i­tal world is in their genes. When we com­bine their imag­i­na­tion with our in­put, all sorts of pos­si­bil­i­ties arise!” Leuthold told UBS magazine.

Freed from the shack­les of con­ven­tion, in-house de­sign­ers are en­cour­aged to un­leash their imag­i­na­tions to es­tab­lish out­comes that de­mand au­da­cious ex­per­i­men­ta­tion— a process that yields the ec­cen­tric nov­el­ties that vi­sion­ar­ies like Karl Lager­feld are at­tracted to. “We make semi-fin­ished goods. As soon as we’ve sold them, they’re la­belled Chanel, Dior, YSL, West­wood or Marc Ja­cobs. It’s good to know they end up in the best hands. That takes the pres­sure off us.” Leuthold is a man who holds his de­sign cards close to his chest, al­ways care­ful not to di­vulge too much in­for­ma­tion about the ex­clu­siv­ity of his most prom­i­nent client’s fab­ric se­lec­tions. Pre­fer­ring in­stead to talk about the suc­cesses and legacy of the com­pany as a whole; “The Queen of Eng­land also fre­quently wears our fabrics,” he told UBS Magazine.

To main­tain the ex­act­ing stan­dards and cul­ture of ex­clu­siv­ity de­manded by con­tem­po­rary cou­turi­ers, the great cre­ative di­rec­tors of Jakob Schlaepfer’s clien­tele will typ­i­cally only be­gin the process of ideation once they are guar­an­teed that a Jakob Schlaepfer tex­tile will be ex­clu­sive to their brand. Each is acutely aware of the stan­dards of their pa­trons, along with their panache for in­vest­ing in the most unique and be­spoke. Cu­ri­ously and per­haps more en­trepreneuri­ally, Jakob Schlaepfer will re­tain the rights to re­pro­duce a tex­tile in any style they choose fol­low­ing the re­lease of any given col­lec­tion. It would ap­pear that mu­ta­tion, rather than in­ven­tion, now de­fines the cut­ting edge.

In cel­e­brat­ing the pro­lific out­put of the firm, Bern­bach at­tests that, “There’s al­ways some­thing sim­mer­ing in the cor­ner, some­thing brew­ing in a caul­dron, some­thing that re­quires more in­gre­di­ents”. This in­vest­ment in ex­per­i­ment is known to evolve into “lovely ac­ci­dents” that of­ten stim­u­late the pur­suit of cre­ative ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. In one such in­ci­dent, a bed of se­quins fell into a full wash­ing ma­chine, the so­lu­tion wear­ing away the fab­ric of the ma­chines con­tents to leave only glit­ter cling­ing to loose threads of yarn, “al­most like knitwear or fish scales,” joked Bern­bach. Serendip­ity aside, these ac­ci­dents have pro­duced fabrics laced with alu­minium, cop­per and bronze, weigh­ing just 10 grams per yard, which in­ci­den­tally Raf Si­mons pur­chased for one of his cel­e­brated Dior col­lec­tions.

In a world at the apex of change, both so­cially and tech­no­log­i­cally, Jakob Schlaepfer’s recipe for suc­cess may seem counter-in­tu­itive. As a cen­te­nar­ian com­pany at the whole­sale end of a fash­ion in­dus­try cur­rently run­ning on over­drive, no­tions of ar­ti­san­ship, in­ven­tion, time and au­then­tic­ity still pre­vail. Ac­knowl­edg­ing the need to re­main nim­ble and re­spon­sive, Leuthold told UBS Magazine, “We’ve had to rein­vent our­selves ev­ery time our prod­ucts be­came too ex­pen­sive. Tra­di­tion com­bined with high tech. That’s what we’re known for around the world. We’re seen as highly in­no­va­tive. It’s im­por­tant that we be­lieve in our suc­cess.”

Jakob Schlaepfer’s com­mit­ment to in­no­va­tion, ar­ti­san­ship and de­sign has se­cured their place as ar­ti­sanal pi­o­neers at the fore­front of their in­dus­try. Through a com­bi­na­tion of lo­cal cul­ture, tex­tile tra­di­tion and fu­ture- ori­ented de­sign, theirs is an oeu­vre that un­like the fast fash­ion’s thinly veiled prom­ises, de­liv­ers through ac­tions rather than words.

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