It sounds like something out of one of Aesop's fables, or maybe the Brothers Grimm: a lowly little beast that struggles to survive in a desolate landscape rewards its keepers with a gift of immense value. The animal in question is the chyangra, the mountain goat that gives us the downy and luxurious wool known as cashmere.
The very best cashmere comes only from the harsh plateaus of central Asia, where winters are bitingly cold and summers bake. Although farmers raise the goats in places like North America and Australia, three-quarters of world cashmere production still comes from Mongolia and China. “There is something about the climate and the terrain of those countries that goes to produce that very fine quality, and nobody has been able to duplicate that,” says Karl Spilhaus, president of the Boston-based Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute. “It's probably the finest animal fibre that's really in commercial production. It is also a finite resource–less than 20,000 tons annually–so you can't find a bargain in cashmere, any more than you could in gold or diamonds.”
Once a year, cashmere is combed from the underbellies of the goats, sorted by hand, and washed to remove dirt and vegetable matter. Then, the stiffer, coarser guard hairs, which protect the soft undercoat, are painstakingly removed. (A single goat produces about 450 grams of wool, with an average of 113 grams and 170 grams of underdown.) The longer the fibres collected, the smoother the wool will be.
The wool may be spun into yarn of one, two, four or more plys, and greased with oil to give it a certain resistance during weaving. Then there's the washing, which opens the fibres and makes the finished wool fuller. For some reason, certain bodies of water–like Scotland's River Tweed–are said to produce a particularly fine result.
Cashmere is remarkable for its “loft” (fullness) and “hand” (softness). “It has a special lustre and a special feel, and you know it when you see it,” says Spilhaus. “But outside of just the esthetics of it, it has the ability to trap air. It's surprisingly warm for its weight. It also drapes to the body very well, which is why women in a good cashmere garment look like a million bucks.”
The wool also makes great men's clothing. “The most common items are the cashmere sweater, the cashmere scarf and the cashmere sports blazer,” says Larry Rosen, chairman and CEO of Canadian men's wear retailer Harry Rosen. “Anybody'll tell you that if you have a cashmere sweater, it's a problem, 'cause all you want to do is rub your body. You just walk around with a big smile on your face.”
For suits, Spilhaus recommends a wool blend rather than 100% cashmere. “You don't really want a cashmere suit,” he says, noting that it would be expensive and impractical. “In Canada, you want a cashmere overcoat, though. You really have reached the top if you have a worsted cashmere sport coat, in my view. It's an investment product. You can keep it a lifetime with proper care, and it will maintain those luxurious characteristics.”
Cashmere is so universally associated with luxury, incidentally, that it seems marketers will try to tie any product in with its allure. In 1999, Canadian paint company Sico Inc. launched a high-end interior latex line called Cashmere. Last year, Scott Paper even launched a new toilet paper called Cashmere from Cottonelle. A stretch, you might think, but when the company commissioned eight Canadian designers to come up with the “White Cashmere” collection for the launch of the toilet paper last August, their extravagant one-off runway creations (made of real white cashmere, not bathroom tissue, of course) got plenty of attention. After all, who wouldn't love an ensemble as extravagant as Farley Chatto's white cashmere tuxedo? Scott Paper now plans to change its brand name from Cottonelle to Cashmere by 2007.
Toronto designer Tam Boyko of Heaven Cashmere was one of the contributing designers. Her shawl-collared women's wrap cardigan is the only piece from last year's White Cashmere collection that's available for sale. “It's very groovy,” she says. “It's totally a designer piece.”
Boyko was an obvious choice for the project, since she designs exclusively in 100% cashmere and cashmere-silk blends. “I have customers who remember when they got their first cashmere sweater,” she says. “It's like a transition into being grown-up, successful, cherished. It's a kind of arrival point in many people's lives.”
And talk about an arrival. “It's like pearls: it's a gift of nature, and it's an uncommon gift because it comes from a certain animal in a particular part of the world,” Boyko continues. “A century ago, no one in North America would even have heard of it; it's our ability to acquire world treasures that puts cashmere on everybody's list these days.”
Boyko, who spent 12 years with Holt Renfrew as the managing director of the private-brand design studio, has pioneered an unusual kind of clothing company. Now in its fourth year, Heaven Cashmere sidesteps the normal retail markup that comes from, as Boyko puts it, “expensive branding campaigns, high-ticket retail outlets and the staff attendant to all of that,” by selling mainly through private parties and corporate events in Montreal and Toronto.
Boyko also sells directly from her Toronto showroom-studio, by appointment only. Her designs are mainly for women, although she also carries scarves in gentlemanly colours. “My products don't reflect a real retail price,” Boyko says. “My bestselling sweater is about $145.” Her cardigans run from about $195 to $350. She carries wide, woven scarves for $250. The sweater from the White Cashmere collection, meanwhile, goes for about $395.
If you're buying a men's or women's 100% cashmere sweater in a standard retail environment, says Spilhaus, “certainly at under US$200 you will not be getting a product that is going to make you happy.” He warns that there is no official label mark for cashmere, so it's important to read labels carefully to determine the true cashmere content, and to shop in reputable outlets. “People can't be expected to be fibre experts, so they have to rely on labelling laws,” he says. “There's nothing wrong with a cashmere-wool blend, especially in a jacket, provided that the wool is of a satisfactory grade. But there's also cheating in the market, because the price of cashmere is just about 10 times the price of wool. There is a temptation for people to substitute wool or even acrylics.”
Some of the world's best cashmere clothing lines originate in Scotland (Ballantyne, Johnstons of Elgin) and Italy (Ermenegildo Zegna, Brunello Cuccinelli, Loro Piana). “Shops tend to be in places like Aspen and Nantucket, where millionaires congregate,” says Spilhaus. You might drop into Barneys New York to pick up something from Ballantyne's men's collection (which is now designed out of Milan, and shows a distinctively Italian freshness of style). Their women's line is available through Boboli in Vancouver and Emma Boutique in Montreal.
In Toronto, Alison Currie sources cashmere fibre in Mongolia to design original men's and women's wear for her own Yorkville outlet, the Cashmere Shop. She designs for fashion-conscious customers from 20 to 90, and can custom-design any type of garment, for about 15% more than the cost of a similar in-stock piece. Her regular line of sweaters ranges from $299 to $950 and is available in spring/summer or fall/winter weights. Scarves range from $115 to $750, and Currie plans to introduce men's and women's pyjamas.
Other Canadian cashmere retailers include Toronto's Marlowe, which carries women's sweaters priced from $495 and up, and women's pure cashmere fall overcoats from $2,900. Mount Cashmere sells traditional men's and women's sweater styles online for about $150 to $300 at www.mountcashmere.com. The company has retail shops in Vancouver and Whistler (its Whistler shop is temporarily closed but will reopen in November), and its clothing is also available at La Bergerie Chasse-Galerie in Mont-Tremblant, Que.
About this time every year, Harry Rosen stores across Canada bring in large quantities of cashmere for fall. They carry Ermenegildo Zegna in Calgary, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. “We do a lot of business with Loro Piana,” says Larry Rosen. Another noteworthy brand is Arnold Brandt. “They do a wonderful cashmere sport jacket,” says Rosen, which sells for about $798 at Harry Rosen stores. (To give you an idea just how wonderful, every 2003 Oscar nominee received an Arnold Brandt cashmere sweater, a Hermès throw and a bottle of La Grande Dame Veuve Clicquot champagne.) Harry Rosen also has an in-house sweater line starting at $298.
“You know what? It's human nature to spoil yourself a little,” says Rosen. “I think that's what makes life special: a great bottle of wine, a fine restaurant, something of cashmere.”