UK culture minister Matt Hancock, whose department is also responsible for digital policy, said in a recent speech: "The hipster is a capitalist." He should probably have been told that calling hipsters hipsters is a bit of a faux pas, but he may have a point. The hipster’s reverence for craft, local fare and artisanal production might seem like a rejection of capitalism in favour of something more romantic, but the capitalists and hipsters haven’t found themselves altogether at odds.
Perhaps that’s because, rather than fighting a battle against global capitalism, cultural homogeneity and economic exploitation in the realm of politics, hipsters have chosen ethical consumption as their arena: the politics of shopping. And, whatever form it might take, shopping is always ready to be harnessed for marketing purposes.
The miraculous economic revival of the famous hubs of urban regeneration, from Shoreditch in the UK to Woodstock in Cape Town and Maboneng in Jo’burg, have all been closely associated with a craft-driven economy.
In some cases the craft economy seems to have brought about this urban revival organically. In others, it seems to have been consciously exploited by developers for the gentrification it can bring about.
The Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair in Hyde Park Corner shopping centre last weekend brings together craft, design, food and wine from around SA. The event was rebranded in 2014 to shift its emphasis from design to handmade objects.
The reason so many people find hipster aesthetics pretentious and such an easy target for mockery is that they have become so homogenous. The new orthodoxy of identical retro hand- stitched leather satchels and exposed wood-and-steel coffee-shop interiors all around the world certainly bleeds the idea of its credibility. Could the answer to local production, regional heritage and craft really be the same all around the world? It can seem as bad as any other type of imperialism.
A lot of the branding of hipster fare, for all its rhetoric of heritage and tradition, involves a romanticised whitewash of the kinds of artisanal skills it seeks to nurture. Many of the crafts and artisanal skills in this country (and in many others) have a rather uncomfortable past, either in the prejudices of white labour under apartheid, or the exploitation of black labour. That’s a tricky one to turn into a palatable brand, which is probably why so many crafters seeking to brand themselves fall back on the leather-working lumberjack hybrid, the most marketable imported archetype.
One of the only design brands that seems tomake any reference to the uncomfortable history of the artisanal skills it celebrates is Dutchmann, a design guild founded by Gavin Rooke that pairs high-level craftsmen with designers. It has created an edition of bicycles by partnering retired frame-builder Duncan MacIntyre with composite specialist Anton Dekker, and an edition of surfboards with renowned 1970s surfboard shaper Spider Murphy, before going on to focus on the Porsche Weekend Racer Series, which Rooke describes as a "unique mix of classic and contemporary Porsche engineering, wrapped in a Dutchmann-inspired package", taking in everything from hand-stitched upholstery to specialised engineering.
Of Rooke’s decision to name the guild Dutchmann, he makes explicit reference to common prejudices. "The Dutchmann branding was based on an SA ethic," he says. "People used to call blue-collar workers Dutchmen, and I was like, sorry, you don’t understand that there are some really gifted, talented craftspeople among them. They tended to be older, more experienced and very humble, but did amazing work."
Rather than the top-down homogeneity of global hipster aesthetics, he says the idea is that local skills can be recognised "as a global standard of sorts". He says: "In other words, we’re not celebrating the likes of roasting coffee – we’re producing complex objects that are ranked in the top few of their type on the globe. I feel that’s not a hipster thing at all – it’s a true recognition of skills that happen to be craft related."
This year the Sanlam fair showed that design and craft still have the power to be globally excellent while locally rooted.
Christine Corkran, of Swaziland’s Gone Rural, says in an e-mail that the company takes the "indigenous skill of weaving and [complements] it with contemporary design to create products that fit into homes across the globe". At the same time, Gone Rural takes cognisance of the real lives of the Swazi craftswomen. "Our rural production model respects the fact that the Swazi woman is a wife, mother and caretaker, with countless responsibilities, so the aim is to provide the highest level of economic empowerment without having to leave the home."
The social and economic upliftment that design can bring is evident in some of the other crafts on the fair. Ceramicist Anthony Shapiro’s Art in the Forest studio in Cape Town deftly melds craft and social upliftment with his mentorship and therapy programmes.
A fine example of an imported craft, hand weaving textiles on a 19th century Hattersley loom, but reinvigorating the craft with local pattern and design is Plettenberg Bay-based textile company Mungo.
And the MaXhosa by Laduma brand has managed the feat of rebooting traditional patterns in its modern Xhosa-inspired knitwear without it becoming merely jingoistic.
Goet, a furniture and design range by architect Georg van Gass, is always a fascinating exploration of Van Gass’s idea that what sets SA design apart from design elsewhere is its unique approach to materials and texture. "Ultimately to me the diversity of textures in SA is related to the diversity of cultures," says Van Gass. "I love mixing textures." In reference to his tables, he explains how he plays off the contrast between the natural wood and man-made steel. By approaching culture through textural sensitivity in this way, he makes the contribution that craft can make to culture seem vital and relevant.
Another, related example is the way that Wren Design’s bags fuse paper recycled from cement bags with fabric, demonstrating how the combination of materials and design can spark a sense of originality that takes it beyond the merely making a fetish of craft.
Beauty, skill and heritage are one thing, sometimes laudable in their own right, but what saves those qualities from devolving into romanticism, conservatism and nostalgia (which historically has proved to be a dangerous cocktail) is the way in which they might revitalise craft in the present. It’s heritage and respect for the past, and the ability to do those values justice by making them part of the future that stops them from being mere heritage industries, or ripe for exploitation as the duplicitous handmaidens of big business.
The hipster may well be a capitalist, but there was enough exciting and original craft at the fair to suggest that perhaps the plaid-shirted, bearded hipster with his Hitler haircut has had his day and that real craft still has a contribution to make.