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The Modern Artisan: a covetable capsule collection of wear-forever luxury pieces

Models wearing pieces from the YOOX NET-A-PORTER for The Prince’s Foundation Modern Artisan collection

Designed by students and made by trainee manufacturers, The Modern Artisan is the culmination of a visionary collaboration between YOOX NET-A-PORTER and Prince Charles’s educational charity, the Prince’s Foundation, with far-reaching ambitions for sustainability, craftsmanship and communities. SARAH BAILEY talks to those involved in the project to find out more…

Fashion

If there was a eureka moment for Federico Marchetti, chairman and CEO of YOOX NET-A-PORTER, when he was devising fashion initiative The Modern Artisan – to create a sustainable luxury collection, designed by students and manufactured by trainee artisans – it was during a conversation he had with His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales about Italy.

Marchetti, along with British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful and other British fashion luminaries, had been invited to Dumfries House in 2018, the storied Scottish estate now home to The Prince’s Foundation, to discuss ecology, craft and the preservation of artisanal skills in the textile industry under threat from the behemoth of fast fashion.

“When I went to Dumfries House and spoke with the Prince, he definitely showed me his strong appreciation of Italy,” recalls Marchetti. “He told me about his travels through the Italian countryside, the paintings he’d seen as a child… So, when he asked me to come up with something to do together, that was the spark – the starting point to invent something that connects Italy with the UK. I was also inspired by the work Prince Charles does to help young people, and everything he has been doing at Dumfries House, and I wanted to do the same. So at that point, I just connected all the dots.”

SHOP THE MODERN ARTISAN COLLECTION

Tutor Alison Struthers (right) works with Nicole, one of the Modern Artisans, on a womenswear coat

The dots led to the Politecnico di Milano, where, one September morning last year, the six students who had been selected to conceive and design both a men’s and womenswear collection were presenting their sketches and prototypes for The Modern Artisan to the manufacturing trainees from colleges in the UK. The latter had been recruited to the Prince’s Foundation Future Textiles program at Dumfries House to make the garments.

Fittingly, Leonardo da Vinci (the ultimate art/science polymath, after all) had been chosen as a muse for the collection and the conversation flowed back and forth between the young teams and their tutors. These ranged from the design details inspired by da Vinci’s magnificent drapery to harnessing the possibilities of technology and big data for more sustainable production. The Modern Artisan students had also been given access to five years of YOOX NET-A-PORTER data, allowing them to test their creative assumptions against customer-preference insights, with the intention of reducing waste.

“The opportunity to visualize and analyze what the target audience is looking for and consequently design the collection,” was a game changer, according to one of the students, Giulia Albini, who has since gone on to a master’s degree in marketing and communication. “I think this project will always remain in my heart because of all that I have learned – and that it will be a starting point for what I will do in the future,” says Albini.

I have always been fascinated by putting things together that are distant from one another – but when they come together are fantastic. When you see all the pieces together, the collection is so beautiful, like a perfect mosaic
Federico Marchetti, chairman and CEO of YOOX NET-A-PORTER
Drawings of The Modern Artisan collection
Italian artisans working on prototypes in Milan

A few weeks later, in the magnificent environs of Dumfries House in Scotland’s Ayrshire (“which feels like stepping into a fairy tale,” as Albini put it), a return visit for the Italian students to the Prince’s Foundation Future Textiles workshops is in full swing. Here, the wide-legged checked suit, navy blue midi dress and sumptuous camel coat, to name just three standout pieces from the collection, are about to go into production – using the finest sustainable cashmeres and silks from Scottish mills, with organic eco silks from Centro Seta in Italy. Celebratory tots of whisky and homemade shortbread are being shared, only adding to a palpable sense of excitement.

As the artisans move on to the next stage of their careers, I very much hope that they are able to combine the skills and expertise they have learnt to pursue fulfilling careers in the industry
His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales

“One of my earliest visions for The Modern Artisan was for it to encourage a real spirit of practical collaboration between Italian and British artisans through a common thread of understanding and appreciation of each other’s heritage and skills,” explained Prince Charles, who mingled with the young people. “The artisans have worked closely together over two countries, which I hope will give them an insight into the global workings of the fashion and textile industry and the value of working together collaboratively. I have often found that it is this kind of collaborative working that generates surprising and even more impressive results. As the artisans move on to the next stage of their careers, I very much hope that they are able to combine the skills and expertise they have learned with the platform they have been given, to pursue fulfilling careers in the industry. More than this, I hope they will take care to keep sharing the skills and sustainability ethos that they have learned with others so that their craftsmanship can continue to thrive and serve as an inspiration to a new generation of artisanal makers.”

Prince Charles and Federico Marchetti at Dumfries House
Italian Modern Artisan Andrea Parolini working on early prototypes in Milan

The trainee makers from the UK are from a diverse range of backgrounds. Graeme Bone, who accessorizes his kilt with multiple piercings and a shock of peroxide hair, recalls playing in the grounds of Dumfries House as a boy. He has spent 10 years as a steel erector in the construction industry, only recently reconnecting with the aspirations of his youth to pursue his deep-held love of fashion. Another mature student, Jillian Halfpenny, had been suffering from anxiety and depression before enrolling at Clyde College in Glasgow for an HND in fashion and manufacturing. “I had lost my business, so I had been out of work for a wee while,” she explains, adding that being chosen for Modern Artisan has helped her rebuild her confidence. Once the program is finished, she plans to go into small-batch production with her daughter.

To see this project come to fruition, and to watch the trainees develop skills that are in such desperate need of preservation, has been enormously heartening to observe
His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales

Strengthening communities by providing training and keeping traditional skills alive is, of course, at the core of the Prince’s Foundation mission.

“Since its inception in 2015, one of the main ambitions of my foundation’s Future Textiles program has been for it to evolve so as to support the growth of British manufacturing by delivering intensive training for those with an interest in working in the luxury market,” commented the Prince of Wales. “To see this project come to fruition, and to watch the trainees develop skills that are in such desperate need of preservation, has been enormously heartening to observe.”

Fast-forward to fall 2020. The covetable, pin-sharp finished pieces from The Modern Artisan collection have been photographed in all their glory by the YOOX NET-A-PORTER creative teams. At Dumfries House, Jacqueline Farrell, the energetic leader of the Future Textiles program, who has guided the artisans through every aspect of the small-batch production process, is overseeing final details before the collection is shipped to YOOX NET-A-PORTER warehouses around the world, from London to Hong Kong, New York and Italy.

The Modern Artisan collection
The Modern Artisan collection

Even before the manufacturing challenges brought about by Covid-19, the ambition of the project – to produce an elevated, luxury collection designed and made by students – was immense, Farrell explains. “It’s been a learning curve for us all. The students had to be quite serious about their education. There was just a different sense of importance about what we were doing on a daily basis.”

Beyond the meticulous sourcing of environmentally sound fabrics and the revelations of data-driven design, Farrell speaks most passionately about the human side of sustainability. “We’ve seen what happens when we ignore nature, don’t pay attention to supply chains and don’t value people in manufacturing. To take things back to the purest craft form is really good for the individual maker, but it’s also good for people who are looking to buy things and appreciate them. Every piece in this collection is someone’s heart and soul. There is no justification for the idea of fast fashion, wearing something once and throwing it away. You can’t argue the business case or the moral case. Our project is the antithesis of all that. Fashion is a beautiful thing; it’s an art form, and the skills that go into it should not be lost.”

Federico Marchetti chats with Modern Artisan Graeme Bone
One of the best things about this project is that most of the students now have a job within the industry – and its legacy is that sustainability will be given a real boost by these young people, wherever they are
Federico Marchetti

For Marchetti, it is the apparent contradictions of the Modern Artisan project – marrying data-driven design with small-batch production, the convergence of analogue and digital, luxury and sustainability – that give it its personality and cutting-edge appeal. “I have to confess that, ever since I was a teenager, I have always loved oxymorons,” he reflects. “Don’t ask me why, but I have always been fascinated by putting things together that are distant from one another – but when they come together are fantastic. When you see all the pieces together, the collection is so beautiful, like a perfect mosaic.” (For the tech entrepreneur, born in the Italian city of Ravenna, the historical birthplace of mosaic, the metaphor is most apt – mosaic tiles being the pixels of the ancient world.)

Marchetti goes on to explain that each piece in the Modern Artisan collection comes with its own digital ID, documenting not only the provenance of the materials, but the garments’ human stories, too. “Not only do we trace the exact origins of each item, but also the story of their creation by the students, which is very romantic,” he says.

The collection is freighted with many layers of meaning that are acutely relevant for now. “Perhaps too many,” Marchetti laughs. “It’s also the grand finale of YOOX NET-A-PORTER’s 20th anniversary. So I think, as the accomplishment of my career, it is a beautiful project – and that is why there are so many stories. It puts together 20 years of work.”

It’s a mark of Marchetti’s personal passion for the collection that he has arranged for the early delivery of a suit for his wife’s birthday. Meanwhile, he has eyes on the handsome bomber jacket from the men’s collection, which is lined with silk from Lake Como, where Marchetti and his family have a home. “I think it will feel very good,” he smiles.

Of course, the legacy of the project goes far deeper than such sartorial pleasures, as Marchetti himself is the first to recognize. “One of the best things about this project is that most of the students now have a job within the industry – one is going to Max Mara, another is going to Off-White, for example – and its legacy is that sustainability will be given a real boost by these young people, wherever they are.”

And will the project continue with future seasons? “For me personally, it’s a long-term thing. I have been in my job for 20 years… I am a long-term guy. I like to start a project that will continue for a long time – and I believe the Prince shares that same desire.”