EXPLORING THE WOOL MORE PRECIOUS THAN GOLD:
The vicuña is one of the rare, smaller members of the camel family, indigenous to the Peruvian Andes. A long time ago, it was a sacred animal, revered by the Incas for its incredibly soft, sun-coloured fleece. Only Inca royalty were permitted to wear garments made from vicuña, with over three million of these doe-eyed animals grazing the rocky Andes at the time.
But, as is always the case when the “civilised Westerners” come in, the Spanish conquistadors invaded the South American continent and discovered the beautiful vicuña with their precious fleece in the Andes. Instead of shearing them like reasonable men with an entrepreneurial spirit, the conquistadors took to guns and started hunting the animals down.
Soon afterwards, vicuña trade exploded throughout the Americas and Europe, to the point where poachers also came into the picture, further contributing to the rapid and heart-breaking decline of the vicuña population.
It was considered to be “the silk of the new world”, used to adorn King Philip II’s divans as a material finer than cashmere. By the 1950s, the vicuña was a staple of ultra-luxury and, in one particular case, the subject of a memorable political scandal in the United States – Sherman Adams, Chief of Staff to President Dwight Eisenhower, was forced to resign in 1958 after accepting a vicuña coat from a textile mogul who was under federal investigation at the time. It was known as the Vicuña Coat Affair. The wool was also mentioned in the 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard”.
But, as iconic as the name was, the vicuña was slowly but surely dying out. By 1960, there were less that 5,000 of them left in the Andes. The Peruvian government ultimately caved in and banned the hunting of the species, with the vicuña soon classified as an officially endangered species. An embargo was placed on all vicuña-related trade by The Washington Convention, and nature reserved were created in order to help preserve the animals.
As it stood, man’s greed and vanity had cost him the pleasure of adorning his body and home with the finest and most precious fleece. The material soon became irrelevant to the younger generation of luxury consumers.
At the time, Sergio and Pier Luigi Loro Piana were inspired by their father’s love of the vicuña wool and decided to bring the material back in a more responsible and sustainable fashion. The CEO’s of the eponymous luxury brand transformed Loro Piana into one of the world’s largest producers of cashmere, and its biggest supplier of vicuña.
They became actively involved with the Peruvian authorities by officially investing in nature reserves and preservation initiatives back in the 1980s, in order to gradually reintroduce the vicuña to the commercial world. By 1994, The Washington Convention relaxed its restrictions, as the vicuña population had slowly but surely roamed off the critically endangered species list.
The Peruvian government chose Loro Piana as their exclusive partner in the procurement, processing and export of vicuña, in recognition of their efforts over the course of two decades to restore the vicuña population in the Andes. The wool was responsibly sheared, coming out of Peru in the form of fabric and finished products.
The total global supply of vicuña today that can be pulled into yarn is only about 12 tonnes, as opposed to the circa 25,000 tonnes of cashmere. It is obviously still extremely precious and quite rare, racking up between $399 and $600 per kilogram. By comparison, cashmere fetches approximately $85 per kilogram.
“It is seen as the finest and most luxurious of these fibres and it’s very exceptional to see 100 percent vicuña as it’s so expensive,” said Pascaline Wilhelm, the Fashion Director of Première Vision, Paris’ prime textiles and fabric fair.
The high price of the vicuña may be its biggest selling point to begin with. In high-end locations such as Harrods, London, vicuña seems to be quite popular amongst shoppers. The demand is quite high, prompting the ultra-luxury department store to provide pieces from Berluti, Zegna, Brioni, Zilli, and even Falke’s pure vicuña socks worth $620, along with the kings of vicuña themselves, Loro Piana.
Speaking of which, the Loro Piana boutique on Bond Street is where you really want to be when shopping for vicuña. The Italian brand pays homage to the Peruvian creature from the moment one walks through the door – a wide screen TV plays images of the vicuña roaming the Andes, while raw vicuña wool awaits to be touched and experienced the way it should be. By comparison and after touching vicuña, cashmere simply doesn’t cut it anymore.
Nevertheless, in keeping with their ethos of responsible and carefully measured sourcing, Loro Piana only offers one of each style at a time, with vicuña products making up a very small percentage of all the items on display in their Bond Street store.
Unwilling to consider the vicuña as an element of couture, but rather “an expression of creativity and the highest level of quality”, the Loro Piana brand believes that its vicuña should be present in the wardrobe of each of its customers, even if it’s just one item.
Loro Piana now control most of the world’s vicuña market, after having opened the 2,000ha Dr Franco Loro Piana Reserva in Peru in 2008, as well as purchasing a majority share in an Argentinian firm with legal permission to shear wild vicuña across an area of about 85,000ha in 2013.
However, until three years ago, Loro Piana was selling its vicuña yard to other brands. But today, the company only sells vicuña-cashmere blends to third-party brands, reserving its 100% vicuña wool for its own superb creations.
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