Inside the Business of Vicuña, the Wool Worth More Than Gold

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From Business of Fashion

There’s a reason why the Incas worshipped vicuña, the miniature cinnamon-hued cousins of the llama. The doe-eyed creatures, which inhabit the chilly Andean plateaus, produce a fleece so fine that it was considered to be cloth of gold. Only Inca royalty was permitted to wear it. About three million vicuña once roamed the rocky terrains of the Andes — until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, who made guns the primary method of obtaining “the silk of the new world” which was used to line King Philip II’s divans. And, for centuries, the animals were hunted, rather than sheared, for a material substantially finer than cashmere.

By the 1950s, vicuña had become synonymous with two pop cultural references. The more notable related to a scandal concerning Sherman Adams, US president Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff, who was forced to resign in 1958 after accepting a vicuña overcoat from a textile mogul who was under federal investigation. The case would become known as the Vicuña Coat Affair. The other was a scene in the 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard,” in which a tailor urges American actor William Holden, “As long as the lady is paying, why not take the vicuña?”

Both of those moments did much to reinforce the expensive allure of vicuña wool, which, by 1960, was incredibly scarce due to the fact that there were less than 5,000 of the creatures left in the Andes. After many unsuccessful attempts, the government of Peru, where much of the population lived, put its proverbial foot down and banned the hunting of the species, which were soon classified as officially endangered with an embargo placed on all trade of its wool by The Washington Convention (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Nature reserves were established for the preservation of the animals, and slowly vicuña became less relevant to a younger generation of luxury consumers. But a couple of vicuña admirers, inspired by their father’s love of the fibre, saw opportunity in the material: Sergio and Pier Luigi Loro Piana, the co-CEOs of Loro Piana, the Italian mill that was a part of the mid-century ‘Made in Italy’ movement and would eventually grow into one of the world’s largest producers of cashmere — and its biggest supplier of vicuña.

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