One of my favourite events every year, the Vancouver International Film Festival, is in its final week. This year’s festival was a good one for me – I saw seven movies, and every one of them had something to recommend it. But the one that I enjoyed the most was a French documentary entitled Handmade with Love in France. It is a heartfelt tribute to some very talented artisans, and – although I am pretty sure the filmmaker didn’t explicitly intend this – it also illustrates the organizational theory of population ecology.
Population ecology in organizational theory is based on the biological theory of evolution; it tries to explain why some organizations survive and prosper while others don’t. It suggests that organizations exist within populations, and within those populations the larger and more powerful organizations set the norms that new organizations have to follow to succeed. There can be variations within the population, but there are usually practices or features that all organizations are expected to have to be considered legitimate members of the population. However, the organizations setting the norms can become complacent and not adapt appropriately to changes in the environment – or become too big and slow to adapt quickly enough. That gives new organizations a chance to succeed, either by successfully adapting to the changing environment – which could entail the start of a new population – or by growing into dominance as the older and larger organizations fail.
Handmade with Love in France takes us to visit three ateliers – a pleater, a maker of wooden hat forms, and a artificial flower maker – which provide speciality services to the haute couture fashion industry in France. All three firms are run by talented craftspeople with incredible skills, but all three are among the last independent organizations in Paris providing those services. The film tells us that international fashion manufacturers such as Chanel and LVMH have bought many of the ateliers’ former competitors, and brought the services they provided in-house. One striking sequence in the film shows the embroidery department at Chanel, located in an unremarkable Paris suburb. A harried supervisor – a former employee of an atelier – reveals that she is supervising 13 projects at once, as opposed to the projects she worked on one at a time at the atelier. We also learn that the in-house workers are under incredible time pressures to finish garments for new product lines released all throughout the year.
There are some small notes of optimism in the film. We meet a designer who only uses independent manufacturers because she wants to support the specialized skills that made the French fashion industry so revered. We also meet a former employee of one of the large fashion companies who has started his own atelier, because he doesn’t believe those companies are providing a quality product in his area of expertise. But we also see that many fashion consumers are more interested in wearing a famous label, or in having something “right away”, than in having a beautifully made product that takes time to produce. And we also see that the atelier owners are all worried about finding someone interested or skilled enough to keep their businesses going.
To put this in population ecology terms, the international fashion manufacturers are the dominant organizations in the population – and they can maintain that position because of their access to resources and because of their reputations. By buying the independent ateliers, they have also managed to reduce some of the uncertainty in their environments by controlling more of the steps in their production process: what economists call ‘vertical integration’. However, to maintain their position of dominance, they have also had to expand their size and their range of activity, which creates new environmental pressures for them. The film tells us that most French fashion designers used to have shows of new designs in Paris twice a year – spring/summer and winter/fall – but that now most of the larger fashion houses have shows throughout the year and throughout the world.
The ateliers, as the smaller organizations in the population, follow the norms of the population by providing whatever services the larger organizations demand. As the film shows, a developing norm in the population is for the larger organizations to have these services in-house, rather than sub-contracting the work. This norm is clearly a threat to the survival of those smaller independent organizations – as is their insistence on working at a pace which consistently produces a world-class product, rather than at the pace of a demanding mass-market global industry. But there are also “outliers” in the population – the new producers, and the designers that support the ateliers. They see the vulnerabilities in the way the larger organizations operate, and they have positioned themselves to do what the large organizations are too big or too inflexible to do. Population ecology theory suggests that the “outliers” will survive if they can find a niche in the market that they can serve – and if other organizations copy what they are doing, they then may become the dominant organizations and the norm-setters in their own population.
As relevant as the film is to population ecology theory, it is anything but a dry and dull case study. Handmade with Love in France is a wonderful film that is very much worth seeing. The products made by the artisans in the film are unbelievably beautiful – I wasn’t the only person in the audience going “ooh” at some of the shots of their work. But it is also a very insightful look at a great example of population ecology, and I hope it’s an example in which the smaller organizations find a way to survive.