American ateliers and artisans are struggling to survive amid record inflation, rising real estate costs and competition from low-cost manufacturing countries.
Realizing what quickly became a “crisis”, hatmaker and accessories designer Gigi Burris O’Hara decided it was time to act. On Friday, she unveiled Closely Crafted — a 501-3C nonprofit aimed at preserving American craftsmanship in the fashion industry and inspiring a new generation of creatives to tap into these legacy resources.
The organization already has strong supporters: Board members and special advisers include Julie Gilhart, Maxwell Osborne, Alexandra O’Neill de Markarian, Natalie Chanin, George Esquivel and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, among others.
“I was able to start my brand because I had access to incredible artisans who are true guardians of American craftsmanship,” said Burris O’Hara, who established his eponymous brand in 2012.
“I work with manual lock headgear factories that have been around for three generations – I trust them. During the pandemic, when our entire workflow as designers dried up, it really squeezed these factories – they lost the work they trusted and some of them closed. A good number of factories are owned by first generation immigrants and support a fair amount of artisans. These artisans were out of work and some of them retired, which took away decades of knowledge,” added Burris O’Hara of his willingness to step in and initiate change.
Craftsmanship, of course, has deep roots in the US that go far beyond fashion; mediums such as woodworking and metalworking are essential to the folk crafts upon which the American aesthetic was built. This was a consideration for Burris O’Hara when she conceived Closely Crafted. She hopes her organization will inspire fashion to follow the page of other craft-dependent industries and position craft products as objects to be enjoyed and paid for.
“The interior industry has always been so good at communicating the quality and value of handmade pieces. People expect to pay an adequate price for handcrafted furniture or household objects. Here in the US I think there’s a lot of competition [in fashion] with pieces made abroad that we lose perspective on how much a handmade object costs and what goes into it,” said Burris O’Hara.
Burris O’Hara considers interior design buyers with an appreciation for handcrafted objects as a built-in audience for Closely Crafted’s mission. “We want to engage with them,” she said.
The designer has already outlined plans for the organization’s coming years. “In its first two years, Closely Crafted will raise critical awareness of the value and quality of American-made pieces and promote the workflow for brands that allows them to support a network of artisans,” said Burris O’Hara.
“When there is consumer demand, we will begin to cultivate economic well-being through apprenticeship programs and workforce training programs to support consumer demand and appreciation of US-made luxury fashion.”
Closely Crafted will leverage the media reach of its partners — with brands sharing special in-house content that showcases the artisanal appeal of their products.
Designers such as Christopher John Rogers, Brandon Maxwell, Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia from Monse and Oscar de la Renta, Brett Heyman from Edie Parker and Jonathan Cohen are now working with Burris O’Hara to find a way to get the message out.
“We want to be in front of as many eyes as possible and we want to shift perspective and create a value-based benchmark. All of these brands have their own audience that they communicate with internally. We’re encouraging brands that produce in the US to share their savoir faire with their audiences and inspire a new generation of creators who, in addition to being fashion designers, can work in an atelier,” said Burris O’Hara.
For starters, Burris O’Hara recruited four female-owned retailers to spread the word about Closely Crafted’s mission. Webster, Mcmullen, Hampden and Vermillion will host special in-store displays and promote the Closely Crafted message on their social media channels and e-commerce sites to raise awareness among their own consumer bases.
This weekend, The Webster will be the first to kick things off with a three-day social media initiative that highlights the American designers available in store.
Closely Crafted also launched its own website and social media channels on Friday with special content and video series that highlight factories and artisans that contribute to the American craft industry.
Burris O’Hara thinks the timing is right: “We’ve shifted as consumers to look for value-based referrals when we buy things. People are hungry for pieces with a story and what better time than now to support the storytelling and the artisans that are a part of it?”