The Finest Wool in the World: The Legacy of Loro Piana
The Finest Wool in the World: The Legacy of Loro Piana
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date April 2, 2018
Amongst every luxury commodity, certain brands grow into veritable behemoths following years of growth and consistently exceptional product. When looking at the massive numbers these companies churn out year after year, its easy to forget their humble origins. In the lucrative world of cashmere and fine fabrics, Loro Piana stands above the pack. Originally a family-run company, the cashmere connoisseur was bought by the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy group (LVMH) in 2013 for an eye-popping 2 billion euros, and after decades of quitely producing some of the finest fabrics in the world—with prices that often sit in the tens of thousands of dollars—the company was suddenly pushed into the fashion limelight. To understand the purported reasoning why Loro Piana fetches such a princely sum, you need to understand a family that has traded textiles since the 1800s, then simple wool merchants in Northern Italy. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Loro Piana family developed a network of textile suppliers, before ultimately founding a wool mill themselves in the Italian village of Quarona. Nestled between the Quaronian foothills still sits the company headquarters, its exterior walls covered in decades-old ivy.
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Pietro Loro Piana was better known as an engineer rather than a textile producer, when he completed the Quarano headquarters in 1924. Perhaps it was his structural background that pushed him to seek out foundational stability—for both the newly built office space and the family business as a whole. With almost a century’s worth of experience trading wool, and decades producing it, the Loro Pianas could easily have stayed the course. Instead, Pietro pushed to shape the company as we know it today, founding the Lanificio Fratelli Lora e Compagnia factory—and subsequently the Lanificio di Quarona di Zignone & C.—in Valsesia at the beginning of the twentieth century and ramping up production.
If Pietro is the one responsible for devising the corporate structure for the current Loro Piana, it was his nephew, Franco Loro Piana, who consolidated the company’s textile distribution arm, expanding the family’s reach across the globe. Following World War II, Franco saw an opportunity to export fine fabrics outside of Italy, and throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, Loro Piana grew from providing Italian tailors with fabric to being the fashion world’s purveyor of luxurious threads. More Savile Row tailors than not offer Loro Piana fabrics and by the time Franco stepped down, top designers and manufacturers from Milan, Tokyo, Paris and New York were using Loro Piana textiles, with giants like Yves Saint Laurent and Giorgio Armani relying on the Loro Piana family for the basis of their collections.
In the 1970s, Franco’s sons, Sergio and Pier Luigi Loro Piana took the reigns and, like their father before them, saw an opportunity to take the family business to new heights. Pier Luigi recalls buying fabric from his father to sell ties while he was studying at a university in Milan—he sold a fair amount of ties, but failed a fair amount of exams. After speaking with his father, Pier Luigi understood he needed “to finish university before joining the family business.” But, that desire to take the luxurious Loro Piana fabrics and turn them into finished goods would remain a driving force for both Pier Luigi and his brother.
Firmly entrenched as a supplier to the most prestigious brands in the world, Sergio and Pier Luigi sought to turn Loro Piana into a luxury brand in and of itself, producing seasonal menswear and womenswear collections sold through select high end retailers and through Loro Piana flagship stores. In 1994, the brothers established the brand’s dual identity: there is Loro Piana, supplier of the finest textiles in the world and there is Loro Piana, purveyor of premium finished menswear and womenswear. Sergio and Pier Luigi turned Loro Piana into a vertically integrated company that controls the quality of its product from conception to distribution, ensuring that both the textiles and craftsmanship are of the highest standard. It was a change of course for the company that paid of in spades. Today, Loro Piana finished goods account for roughly 70% of the company’s sales, while the remaining share comes from supplying fabric to tailors, designers, and couturiers.
On both accounts, as a supplier and finished garment manufacturer, Loro Piana’s prestige can be boiled down one factor: Loro Piana is the largest single buyer of fine wools in the world and the premier purveyor of cashmere worldwide. The company is uncompromising in its commitment to finding—and then using—the best textiles in the world. While Pietro, Franco, and their ancestors didn’t skimp on the quality of the fabrics they traded, Sergio and Pier Luigi introduced a new gamut of incredibly rare and fine textiles from around the world that elevated Loro Piana to a new level of luxury.
Cashmere had long been considered to be one of, if not the, most luxurious fabric. In addition to being the world’s foremost supplier of the soft textile, however, Loro Piana distinguished itself through the discovery and implementation of Baby Cashmere. Loro Piana cashmere is harvested from the undercoat of Hircus goats, with the finest batches of the fibre coming from animals in Northern China and Mongolia. When the brothers discovered baby cashmere, previously mixed with the fibres collected from adult Hircus goats, they saw its potential to revolutionize the family business. Following a decade of lobbying and building relationships, Sergio and Pier Luigi finally convinced the Mongolian and Chinese goat herders to have the exceptionally rare fibre set aside for them. To illustrate how rare the Baby Cashmere is, an adult Hircus goat can supply about 250 grams per year—though the total usable material produced by each animal is about 100 grams once coarse outer layers are discounted. By contrast, Baby cashmere is harvested once—when the kid is between three and twelve months old—and produces just 80 grams, only 35 grams of which are usable. Despite being exceedingly rare—Loro Piana produces these pieces in very limited quantities—Baby Cashmere is considerably finer and lighter, while still just as warm. This exhausting exercise, plus the steep price it demands, is a perfect example of the companies steadfast commitment to luxury–and the massive profits it has rewarded Loro Piana.
The company is also a pioneer in the sourcing and implementation of merino wool. Harvested from Merino Sheep in Australia and New Zealand, Loro Piana is also the sole purchaser of Pecora Nera, a rare, black merino wool. Unbeknownst to many, sheep were initially bred to produce white wool—which could then easily be dyed. Before the animals were domesticated, however, they produced dark wool that ranged in colour from brown to black. By using Pecora Nera, Loro Piana produces garments that possess a unique, dynamic range of dark tones that require no additional dyes. Much like baby cashmere, the use of Pecora Nera typifies the genius of Loro Piana: scour the world to discover premium fibres, ensure exclusivity and then harness their natural wonder to produce stunning garments and luxurious textiles.
The company’s crowning achievement, however, is the use of Vicuña. A small member of the camel family, both in stature and in population, the Vicuña looms large over the Andes. Sacred to the Incas, the so called “Queen of the Andes” is internationally acclaimed for it’s beautiful tan-coloured, lightweight and hyper-soft fleece. Extensively poached, first by Spanish colonizers and, more recently, by criminals, the population was nearly decimated, falling to a mere five thousand in the ’60s.
In 1994, Loro Piana struck a deal with the Peruvian government and local communities to give the Italian company “the exclusive honor of buying, processing and exporting vicuña in the form of textiles and finished products.” Trading vicuña had already been banned in their native Peru in an attempt to save the species, but poachers were still decimating the population. Since Loro Piana stepped in, they have ensured that the animals are not killed, but instead combed for their precious fibres once every two years. Additionally, the company shears the animals according to the Incan Chakku tradition, in respect of indigenous peoples that worship the animals. In neighbouring Argentina, Loro Piana similarly acquired a majority stake in a local company with permission to shear the vicuña living in the province of Catamarca.
Loro Piana claims vicuña to be "the rarest fibre in the world; the adult animals produce just 250 grams of fibre every two years and after the de-hairing process, this results in less than 150 grams.” Like cashmere, the resulting fabric is exceedingly soft and light, and boasts a quasi-otherworldly ability to retain body heat. Exponentially more rare than cashmere, only 12 tonnes of vicuña are produced annually, with each kilo of raw fabric worth around $500. Referred to as the “Fibre of the Gods” in Incan culture, today it fetches a princely sum: the company’s classic Icer Jacket retails for $20,000.
In addition to the price, the Icer Jacket is a quintessential Loro Piana piece: it takes a textile revered for generations—vicuña—and offers it in a contemporary way, outfitted with the brand’s proprietary StormSystem technology. An uber-luxurious equivalent of Gore-Tex, StormSystem harnesses the power of osmosis and micromolecular science to create a stain-resistant, hydrophobic barrier that prevents moisture from penetrating garments, but stillow allows for humidity to escape. Loro Piana doesn’t only strive for greatness in the realm of ‘traditional’ textiles like wool and cashmere, they also seek to be at the cutting edge of contemporary technologies and possess a unique ability to blend tradition and modernity. Then again, if you’re paying thousands—and, sometimes, tens of thousands—of dollars for a piece, it’s expected that it be nothing but the absolute best.
The Icer Jacket also represents what makes Loro Piana such an influential, and popular, brand in the luxury goods market: the jacket is relatively casual. “Loro Piana’s innovation was to use [quality fabrics] in casualwear...in the 1990s, we were the first to make a cashmere ski jacket – backing it with a waterproof and windproof membrane,” said Pier Luigi Loro Piana to the Telegraph. Beyond offering suits made from the finest fabrics, the company pioneered what Pier Luigi called “Monday to Monday” luxury: applying fabrics traditionally reserved for suiting and applying them to weekend clothing. While there’s no denying that casual luxury certainly represents a big chunk of Loro Piana’s appeal —and market share— Pier Luigi may have been underselling Loro Piana’s achievements over the last two decades.
The company has also developed a Patagonia-esque commitment to sustainability by maintaining and fostering the ecosystems from which their naturally marvellous textiles derive. There is the guarantee they gave to the Peruvian government to not kill the vicuña when shearing them, which has allowed the animal’s population to double since the 1994 agreement and has helped save the animal from extinction. The company also created the Dr. Franco Loro Piana Reserve in Peru, which was the first private nature reserve in the country. During the first five years, the number of animals living in the protected area doubled. This commitment to sustainability and the company’s emphasis on working with local stakeholders is an integral part of Loro Piana’s business strategy: without ensuring the continued survival of the immensely knowledgeable local population, the animals and the surrounding ecosystem alike, it would be impossible for the company to offer their rare fabrics.
Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy certainly thought that Loro Piana was more than just a purveyor of casual cashmere when they bought 80% of the company from the family in 2013. The largest luxury conglomerate in the world, LVMH—which owns Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Christian Dior, Loewe and Kenzo, among many others—paid $2.2 billion for a controlling stake in the company. The remaining 20% remained in the hands of the Loro Pianas, until Pier Luigi sold off half of his shares in 2017, bringing the family’s stake down to 15%. Many feared that by changing hands, the brand would lose its magic—after all, the company, in its current form, had been family-run for over 90 years and the long-standing relationships between the Loro Pianas and suppliers in the far-reaches of the world had had a tremendously positive impact on the brand.
But, any fears of a dramatic decline have proven to be largely unfounded. Since changing hands, Loro Piana has become increasingly present in the mainstream—at least compared to the limited exposure that its hyper-niche luxury market afford it. Sure, there was a curiosity factor that drove some newfound interest in the brand: people wanted to know why LVMH acquired the company and why its garments were so expensive; but there has also been a series of collaborations—including maharishi, Isaia, Canada Goose and recently Mackintosh— that have pushed the brand onto the radar of new customers radically different than traditional Loro Piana enthusiasts.
There’s no better example of this than the brand’s recurring partnership with Supreme. While ostensibly the streetwear stalwart and luxury fabric manufacturer have little, if anything, in common. Yet, they have repeatedly managed to create capsule collections that appeal to both brands' consumers. The resulting product has ranged from bucket hats to wool overcoats. And, while the collaboration with Supreme originated before LVMH purchased the controlling stake in the company, it persisted after Loro Piana changed hands. It’s a partnership that is indicative of the one place where LVMH’s impact has been most felt: the public perception of the brand. “It’s a question largely of communication,” explained then-CEO Matthieu Brisset, appointed by LVMH, to Business of Fashion. Yes, Loro Piana will always offer pieces that cost tens of thousands of dollars, but there are cashmere sweaters that are priced in the same range as other designer brands. BoF, citing ContactLab, estimates that between the Spring/Summer to Fall/Winter 2015 season, Loro Piana introduced items that were 30% less expensive, while the median price of items dropped by 2%. It’s a tactic that LVMH has used in the past with brands under its umbrella to help grow the customer base and, thus, revenues.
The Loro Pianas, who no longer have a say in the company’s affairs, are understanding about the change, but insist that the quality that Loro Piana offers must not waver. "You don’t have to make things which are just expensive, but I don’t see a possibility for Loro Piana to be successful changing the [quality]. The strategy should remain the same,” said Pier Luigi. Ultimately, the hope is for LVMH to simply expand the Loro Piana offering without diluting it. The company has proven to be relatively impervious to bearish luxury markets over the years, with Pier Luigi stating that “quality will save the company” time and time again. After all, Loro Piana pieces are investment pieces: customers are buying the warmest, lightest and softest sweater or jacket that money can buy, one that will (hopefully) last decades.
True luxury involves an uncompromising commitment to quality, regardless of price, that is what Loro Piana has always stood for. Whether that means harvesting fibres from Burmese lotus flowers or Andean vicuña, or insisting that garments be finished at the foot of the Italian Alps, rather than in China, the family has held steadfast. For generations Loro Piana has been betting that customers who have the means will see the value in the quality of the goods they produce, and, for decades, they have won. Let’s see if under new ownership, it keeps winning.