American ateliers and artisans are struggling to make ends meet amid record inflation, rising real estate costs and competition from lower-cost manufacturing countries.
In noticing what had quickly become a “crisis,” milliner 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 dig into these legacy resources.
The organization already has heavy-hitting endorsements: Board members and special advisers include Julie Gilhart, Maxwell Osborne, Markarian’s Alexandra O’Neill, 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 real stewards of American crafts,” said Burris O’Hara, who established her namesake label in 2012.
“I work with hand-blocking millinery factories that have been around for three generations — I rely on them. During the pandemic when all our workflow as designers dried up, it really squeezed these factories — they lost the work that they relied on and some of them closed. A good amount of factories are owned by first-generation immigrants and they support a decent amount of artisans. Those artisans were left without jobs and some of them retired, which took away decades of knowledge,” Burris O’Hara added of her eagerness to step in and initiate change.
Craftsmanship, of course, has deep roots in the U.S. that extend far beyond fashion; mediums like woodworking and metalsmithing are integral to the folksy crafts that American aesthetics were built upon. This was a consideration for Burris O’Hara as she devised Closely Crafted. She hopes her organization will inspire fashion to take a page from other craft-reliant industries and position handmade products as objects to appreciate and pay a premium for.
“The interiors industry has always been so good about communicating the quality and value of handmade pieces. People expect to pay a proper price for handcrafted furniture or home objects. Here in the U.S. I think there is so much competition [in fashion] with pieces made overseas that we have lost perspective of what a handmade object costs and what goes into it,” Burris O’Hara said.
Burris O’Hara considers interior design shoppers with an appreciation for handmade objects as a built-in audience for Closely Crafted’s mission. “We want to engage with them,” she said.
The designer has already drawn up plans for the organization’s next few years. “In its first two years Closely Crafted will grow critical awareness around value and quality for pieces made in America and foster workflow for brands that allows them to support an artisan network,” Burris O’Hara said.
“Once there is consumer demand, we will start to cultivate economic well-being through apprenticeship programs and workforce training programs to support consumer demand and appreciation for luxury fashion crafted in the U.S.”
Closely Crafted will leverage the media reach of its partners — with brands sharing special in-house content that spreads awareness of their products’ handmade appeal.
Designers including Christopher John Rogers, Brandon Maxwell, Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia of Monse and Oscar de la Renta, Brett Heyman of Edie Parker and Jonathan Cohen are now working with Burris O’Hara to find a way to get the message out.
“We want to get in front of as many eyes as possible and want to change the perspective and create a value-based benchmark. All these brands have their own audience that they communicate with internally. We are encouraging brands that produce in the U.S. to share their savoir faire with their audiences and inspire a new generation of creators that, not only can they be a fashion designer, but they can work in an atelier,” said Burris O’Hara.
To kick things off, Burris O’Hara has enlisted four female-owned retailers to spread Closely Crafted’s mission. The Webster, Mcmullen, Hampden, and Vermillion will organize special in-store displays and promote Closely Crafted’s message on their social media channels and e-commerce sites to drive awareness within 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 American-made designers available at the 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 crafts industry.
Burris O’Hara thinks the timing is right: “We have shifted as consumers to look for value-based benchmarks when we purchase things. People are hungry for pieces with a story and what better time than now to support storytelling and the artisans who are a part of that?”