I’ve got a collection of choppy thoughts and notes after Laptops and Looms, but two themes stuck in my head. One was about scale and opportunity, the other about interaction and engagement.

The first bunch was triggered by Dan Hill’s talk, which plugged the decline of Britain’s manufacturing industry into Heaven 17 and ‘dark matter’ – the space occupied by governmental and corporate authority that offer us opportunities for exploration.

Dan described Napoleon I’s description of the English – “L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers!” – as a point of opportunity; if we, the English, are a nation of shopkeepers then that means we’re well-versed in setting out our stall and marketing ourselves.

But what’s the nature of the future market? The French translation of ‘shopkeepers’ into ’boutiquiers’ resonated. Jerry Della Femina had a few things to say about the boutique in From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbour

Most of the loose nuts in town work for the boutique agencies, which is the derogatory term used when the large agencies want to put down the small agencies. As far as I’m concerned, boutique advertising is the new advertising. – p.148

By definition, a boutique is small. The establishment says that boutiques are cutsie-poo, very superficial, very flowery. Their idea of what a boutique is comes from what their wives tell them about the cute little boutique they found on Madison Avenue. The guy running this boutique might be standing behind the counter without a shirt on, maybe just some beads, and in the mind of the establishment this is no good. So they sat around and tried to come up with the worst name they could call this new type of agency, and boutique was it…
But think about the boutique for a moment. It means that when you go into the boutique to buy something you’re going to be dealing with the man who owns the store and you’re going to get a lot more service and a lot more attention from him. Second of all, the item you buy from a boutique has to be perfect, otherwise you would go to another store. It’s as simple as that. – p.149

[Like a department store] the object of a boutique is also to sell, but with a maximum of personalized service into the bargain. – p.150

A nation, then, of agile operators, tailoring solutions to personal demand and producing the highest quality work possible. That’s a motivating image.

Of course, Femina’s definition comes from a place where his agency – a boutique agency – is under attack from larger operators. To which he has this to say.

The small agencies are going to win, no matter what they call us… The establishment can’t change, it can’t give the people anything different, it can’t make the turn. – p.150

We’ve seen it in music, digital start-ups and holiday packages and we’re seeing it in publishing; niche products that target the demands of smaller groups, finding homes among tighter-knit communities and making a product that fits the quality demands of that group, and now we’ll see it in the manufacture of things.

5 thoughts on “Boutiquiers

  1. I’m not sure it is inevitable that small will win – more likely that the majority will fail.

    That said, I think the nub of the issue is a lack of ambition and imagination.

    In the Souk in Cairo, tailors wait for customers to bring them fabric which they turn into garments. In the UK that simply doesn’t happen for things other than wedding dresses.

    And although we have people with very high level skills who are unable to get work, it is hard to imagine a workable circumstance where people could go to buy sewing skills. OK, repair shops exist, but they are expensive and usually low quality because the demand is low.

    But as a thought experiment, given that it is possible to imagine people sending £150-200 for a high quality pair of jeans, it ought to be possible for an individual machinist to produce jeans for that kind of price. It wouldn’t be possible to produce something competing with a Tesco £4 pair of jeans, though.

    The question is how to dissimulate information – perhaps a central pool of exciting patterns which can be picked up and taken to a local craftsman to complete – like the 3d printer but with a skilled person at the end rather than a machine.

    And although I’ve been talking about clothing, clearly the same kind of thing could be done with many other products.

  2. In all honesty, I’m not sure even I could commit to the position that small will win. I’d like to though. And I think there are enough examples of your thought experiment that it bears out. I believe It’s closer to where production in the UK will end up, and I think the likes of Howies and Brompton are nice models for that kind of thing.

    Of course, both of those examples have taken a long time to come to fruition. And that’s the adjustment I think the Laptops and Looms crowd will have to make; accommodating slow processes. As Rachel alluded to, we can network that, distributing the information and opening up a little more access.

    (‘Access’, ‘imagination’ and ‘ambition’ are all words bubbling away in a different part of my head, hopefully I’ll get something down later about that…)

  3. I don’t know about Bromptons, but I’m fairly sure that Howies are not into local production. In clothing, the pattern used to be to use local British factories whilst getting your brand on your feet and then move offshore to move to the mass market. But even this is hard to do now as the local British factories are few and hard to work with.

  4. I’m still not sure where I sit on the tension between ’boutique’ and ‘mass market’. That was definitely a theme of the three days, but I honestly don’t have enough experience in production to speak to mass market.

    I can say that as a boutique publisher who also works for a global communication company, I get a satisfaction and connection from the former that I wish had the reach and potential impact of the latter.

    (I’ve also only had positive experiences of printers, which colours my views. I know plenty of people who have had terrible experiences with them who wouldn’t be hopeful about grokking other forms of manufacturing)

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