LONDON — “Our society today honors all the wrong people. Those who do good now live on the last pages of the newspaper. Then there are these footballers making millions. Fashion designers who just stand on the end of a catwalk after a show. Or women who sit on a front row and are paid to wear ridiculous clothes. It really makes us shudder, the level some people will go to for attention. I’m sorry, it is so banal. Where are our values?”
Johann Rupert, 66-year-old South African billionaire, chairman and controlling shareholder of the luxury goods group Richemont, owner of brands such as Cartier, Montblanc and Van Cleef & Arpels, was in full rant behind a gleaming mahogany meeting table in his London Mayfair office last month. But instead of just talking about his issues, he is actually doing something about them.
In October, quietly and without much fanfare, he co-founded the Michelangelo Foundation. A Geneva-based nonprofit organization, it aims to champion master craftsmanship (initially focusing on Europe) by building networks of like-minded artisans and their supporting institutions, facilitating apprenticeships and nurturing global recognition for the Continent’s applied arts culture, hoping to bolster its future.
Franco Cologni, an Italian author and former Richemont business executive, is the other founder; so far, the foundation has a full-time staff of four.
“Over the last 15 years I’ve repeatedly had discussions on what had been happening to the cultural heritage of Europe, but it had got to a point where we basically realized we had to start this right now or let it go completely,” Mr. Rupert said as he puffed on a cigar. “And with it, the decline and disappearance of a generational handover of precious skills and disciplines. I simply wasn’t about to let that happen.
“It will be fun, that’s for sure. But boy, it’s also going to take a hell of a lot of time, and a lot of patience to boot.”
Magnates of the luxury world taking charitable steps into the arts and opening the world to new audiences is hardly new. Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and France’s richest man, unveiled the 126,000-square-foot glass and steel contemporary art museum and performance space Fondation Louis Vuitton in 2014 on the outskirts of Paris, attracting 1.2 million visitors last year. François Pinault, founder of the holding group that became Kering, owner of brands such as Gucci, Alexander McQueen and Christie’s, announced plans in April to create a private museum in Paris to display his vast collection of contemporary art.
Mr. Rupert has something a little different in mind, however. His focus is not art but artisanship, not the already famous, but the little known. One key objective of the Michelangelo Foundation is to build a digital platform that would showcase all the applied artistry that Europe has to offer; exactly what form that might take is still being decided.
In five years, Mr. Rupert said, the site might have a TripAdvisor-style recommendation system, where people could leave comments and critiques on a database, as well as verification of history and provenance related to a specific business.
Mr.Cologni, 82, a close friend of Mr. Rupert’s whose work on Fondazione Cologni provided much of the inspiration for the new foundation, added via email that other proposals included underwriting collaborations between designers and artisans; developing a title and recognition at the national level for master craftsmen; and creating an apprenticeship program.
“Look, we’ve been very lucky and made more money than we ever thought possible out of luxury goods. But uncovering the raw or enduring talent — for me, that’s the best part,” Mr. Rupert said. “What’s not fun anymore is going to Bond Street or Fifth Avenue or Via Montenapoleone where the shops and product all look the same and have done now for the last 30 years because all the smaller, independent artisans have been pushed out by the retail rentals. We have to protect their livelihoods.”
“This will not be a moneymaking thing,” he said. “It is going to be an open platform, a place where people can explore unique products in the one area where Europe is still better than America or Asia.”
There will be no direct relationship between the Michelangelo Foundation and Richemont or any of its portfolio brands. Mr. Rupert said an effort such as this one is made because it is “the right thing to do,” not to sell products. “I hate that corporate and social responsibility stuff — people telling me how happy I must be because I’m green,” he said. “Of course we are going green. You can’t destroy the environment anymore; otherwise, that will eventually destroy you.”
“In order for our foundation to be seen as neutral, it has got to be truly neutral,” Mr. Rupert stressed, noting that to reassure business rivals that they could place products on Yoox and Net A Porter, he deliberately has never visited the head office of the luxury e-commerce site in which Richemont controls 50 percent of shares. “Artists need to know that whoever they worked for in the past, or even who they work for now, that they can still come to us and get a fair shot.”
With a nickname of “Rupert the Bear” because of his predictions before the 2008 financial collapse, Mr. Rupert emphasizes that the most important issue for the luxury industry and global economy is the unemployment that will be caused by the expanded use of robots, artificial intelligence and the new machine age. Millions of jobs will be lost, he believes, while social inequalities on which the luxury industry thrives will be reinforced.
“There is rising unemployment across the Western world, and it is going to take a generation to re-skill people. Capitalizing on the discontent that has arisen from that is a large part of the Donald’s success,” he said not long before Donald J. Trump won the American presidential election.
Mr. Rupert warned of the deep unrest that could stem from a gulf between the haves and have-nots — a disconnect that many of his brands already heed.
“Luxury has got to be more discreet; the day of bling is gone; forget it. The hatred of the rich is going to expand, and people will not want to show their wealth off and put it in people’s faces, like they have in the past. Designers need to start understanding that,” Mr. Rupert said, adding that he told his watch houses five years ago to steer clear of “great big hamburger watches” and instead “go slim, white gold and platinum.”
Yet despite its chairman’s design directives, sales for Richemont have slowed as of late, as the entire watch and jewelry industry has continued to grapple with China’s recent crackdown on “gifting” between officials, exchange rate volatility, the impact of terror attacks on European tourism and sluggish economic growth. But Mr. Rupert remained upbeat about the sector’s prospects, as long as it nurtured its roots in local craftsmanship.
“Ultimately, luxury is not something made by a machine in a repetitive fashion,” he said. “It needs a human element — that is what makes it unique and different. That will always pique curiosity. And we need to protect that talent at its source, while teaching customers that it is always worth paying 20 percent more for something that will last three times as long.
“The problem is most either don’t have the time or just can’t be bothered to walk the back streets and find the individuality. We have to show them exactly where to go.”
Mr. Rupert spoke passionately about his favorite personal finds over the years in Europe, such as an Irish linen mill, a ceramic shop in Palermo, a Milanese bookbinder and a family-owned Ferrari body work restoration shop in Modena. He attributed what he called a widening disconnect between the shopping habits of the global wealthy and those of earlier generations to the expedited rate at which wealth could be made in the 21st century, an era where many luxury shoppers began to track currencies before determining where they should buy.
The Michelangelo Foundation, he said, would go some way to preserving an important thread of social fabric on the Continent: respect for exceptional workmanship that embodies culture and place, and preserving and protecting the boundless creativity of human beings in a rapidly changing world.
“Ultimately, nobody who hates the successful can really complain about an artisan who does really well,” Mr. Rupert said. “Genuine products made by genuine people in a little town somewhere that really understands beauty and its own history: That is and always will be something special, and I know I have to do all that I can to protect that.
“I feel honor bound to do all that I can for this foundation, and start something that we can finish properly, too.”