WATTENS, AUSTRIA — Swarovski applied a veneer of trademark bling to the Manufaktur, its airy new birch plywood and concrete factory, to welcome a jet-setting crowd that descended on its Austrian hometown this week.
Fashion designers, journalists and clients of the historic crystal maker gathered to see the 28 million euro investment — a 75,000-square-foot space dotted with machines and workshop stations — and hear how the family-owned company plans to secure future business.
“Of course it’s a factory, but it’s also a laboratory for Swarovski. It’s a place where they can be innovative and work together, but especially together with people from different disciplines, different backgrounds — they can invite people into their working environment,” said Patrick Lüth, an architect with the Norwegian firm behind the design, Snøhetta.
Bringing various stages of the production process under one roof, Swarovski intends to use the place to woo clients with an infinite amount of samples and machinery for drawing up prototypes on the spot, offering everything at a faster clip than before.
It is also a giant showroom of sorts — a sporty BMW with a clear, crystal gear shift sits under the giant, sparkling world globe presiding over the ground level — offering another example of how companies are cultivating physical spaces to figure in the digital sphere.
Slicing through the space, a coffee bar, also in light, polished birchwood, serves as the social center of the space, which is lit by filtered light from the glass-paneled roof.
“Light was one of the highest priorities in the design of the building and why we designed this big roof of enormous daylight and like I say, it’s the physical space that enables and promotes interaction,” added Lüth.
The architect noted that adding machinery to the mix reflects a forward-thinking approach that changes the working environment for factory workers, too.
“Even for people who’ve been with Swarovski for a long time, it’s the first time they actually see the machines that produce their product. People have been working for Swarovski for 10 years and they don’t know how crystal is actually produced,” he added.
“This culture of openness, this idea to share knowledge — people have specialized knowledge, there are people who are working on specialized crystal machines; people working on applications, devices; people who develop the product; who market the product, and then there’s the client that comes from the outside and wants to do something cool with this project and they come here and they sit together at the same table and drink the same coffee and have the same conversation about what can we actually do together,” Lüth said. “This is at the core of what we actually think is interesting about this building.”
Markus Langes-Swarovski, executive board member of the company, welcomed guests, who perched on colorful velvet stools near the coffee bar and sat on the stairs flanking one side of the factory floor.
His cousin, Nadja Swarovski, who is also an executive board member, had clients on her mind as she reflected on her role in offering a glimpse of her family’s business to a broader public.
“We’re a very private family, we’re kind of protective, but this is not to give it all away, this is to include our customers more in the entire process,” she said.
The executive spoke from a room hovering above one side of the factory floor — a space decorated with carpets and lined with floor-to-ceiling shelving displaying designer accessories — including Oran sandals from Hermès covered in tiny black crystals and a spiky anklet signed by Maison Margiela. Numerous rows of drawers were filled with crystal samples, in all sizes and hues, organized by colors, which made for a candy-shop flavor to the place.
Asked about shifts in the industry, she flagged demand for personalized products from the company’s crystal business, which counts over 27,000 employees and generated around 2.7 billion euros in annual revenue. The privately owned company does not provide earnings figures.
“In terms of the crystal itself, what we are certainly seeing is the personalization and I think that’s why the machines here are really responding to that, to be able to personalize quickly, to create stones specifically for fashion houses or designers,” she said, rattling off past product cuts specifically designed for Dior, Versace and Jean Paul Gaultier.
“We’re engineers — it’s a matter of adjusting our machines to cater to that personalization,” she noted.
Swarovski also leans on designers for clues about future trends, she added.
“It’s so important to get the feedback from the designers like my grandfather got from Christian Dior when they created the Aurora Borealis stone, which is that stone that kind of has that shimmering effect and it’s still one of our best stones — it’s a coating actually,” she said, lifting herself out of her chair to point to an example in the chandelier hanging overhead.
“We need that feedback,” she added. Name dropping another well-known designer, Swarovski recalled a request from Alexander McQueen for a chandelier component in a particular yellow.
“The marketing team here said, ‘Well, yellow’s not a trend color’…so guess what kind of chandelier components we sold most of thereafter — the yellow ones!” she said emphatically.
“The designers, to me, are always on the pulse of the trends…what they feel comes way beyond the trend forecast report and that is what’s important to listen to. So hopefully this facility will really enable that process,” she added.
Olivier Theyskens also stressed the importance of interaction between different players in an industry, citing executives of a textile factory and a designer as an example.
“When you bring together minds, it’s always a good thing,” he said, looking around at the factory, which he deemed to be “highly modern.”
“We always need something else as a designer, another color, another purpose and if we can be put in touch with where you have technicians or where you have the rules also to understand what works, what doesn’t work — it’s always a good thing,” he added. “It’s important not to be stuck in your little box.”
While the factory floor was being transformed for the gala dinner, Swarovski entertained guests in a nearby villa that had belonged to the founder — outfitted for the company event, in a first.
“For years, nothing happened here…this is life,” said Etienne Russo, surveying a packed room of the vine-covered house he helped spruce up for the occasion. Swarovski and her children — her daughters aged 10 and 12 were wearing traditional dirndl dresses — worked their way through the crowd.
Bronze busts of forebears were arranged in a row to greet guests; outside, extra fog was pumped out from behind lit-up trees, adding a mysterious aura to the place.
Chantal Thomass said she enjoyed using crystals in a project for the Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris — such embellishments are not well-suited for lingerie, she noted. Inspired by a cane she found at a flea market 15 years ago, the designer accessorized outfits for the cabaret with crystal-encrusted canes made with Swarovski.
“I made lingerie especially for the occasion, and for the finale — I love blending masculine-feminine sides — the women had top hats and lingerie…and canes covered in crystals,” she recalled.
Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert wore a Prada dress embellished with Swarovski products — but her stone-encrusted earrings had real diamonds. Six months pregnant, she is expecting her first child in January.
“It’s very interesting to discover this world, and the house as well which is bohemian style, from Bohemia which I haven’t seen before,” said Peter Dundas, noting an “interesting landing” of his flight to the mountain-flanked town nearby, which reminded him of his native Norway.
The designer said he was pleased to find “our fun girls — Natasha [Poly], Mariacarla [Boscono], Carolyn [Winberg] — they’re all our girls so we’re very happy to be with them,” he said.
Dinner was next, and guests were shuttled back to the factory in town cars.
“It looks like Christmas,” gasped one guest. It was a mist-and-mirrors affair, with lights beaming around the room, refracting light from large crystals that hung over mirrored tables — rotating slowly.
Langes-Swarovski thanked people for braving harrowing landings — known to be a challenge for pilots, the local airport strip had delivered some non-manufactured thrills to a number of guests in the room. With a claim that he learned that very morning it was the 156th birthday of his great-great-grandfather Daniel Swarovski, the exuberant executive was joined by Nadja Swarovski to lead a round of “Happy Birthday” to the long-deceased relative.
Tarun Tahiliani said he left the site earlier in the day with fistfuls of crystals, arranged in different color assortments in clear plastic bags — mixes he had in mind for spring. Although he was “blitzed out by the crystals,” the designer assured his neighbors that he kept it toned down compared to the decor of the gala dinner.
“The next couple of weeks and months will be critical for us because we will see if our hypothesis works,” Markus said of the factory, speaking to WWD before the dinner.
He was referring to hopes the new site will help instill loyalty from clients.