- Jul 15, 2009
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Why Does a Vicuña Jacket Cost $21,000?
Rare and implausibly soft, wool from the South American camelid is menswear's best kept secret. But that's about to change
IN 1958, Sherman Adams, President Dwight Eisenhower's forceful chief of staff, was one of Washington's most influential men. His career, however, ended abruptly after he accepted an overcoat from a textile magnate under federal investigation. The gift might seem innocuous enough, but the coat in question was made of vicuña—an incredibly soft, light, rare and very expensive yarn. It was alleged that Mr. Adams, swayed by such luxurious gifts, subsequently tried to influence federal agencies on the magnate's behalf. Despite the politico's protestations of innocence, he resigned in a scandal that some dubbed the Vicuña Coat Affair.
If Mr. Adams were indeed guilty, he would not have been the first to fall under the spell of vicuña. Incan royalty wore it exclusively. In the 1500s, King Philip II of Spain slept under vicuña blankets. Last century, it was favored by wealthy entertainers: Greta Garbo wore vicuña, as did Nat King Cole and Marlene Dietrich.
Now, the silky wool sits at the nose-bleed-high pinnacle of tailored luxury. Each year, only 13,000 to 17,500 pounds of vicuña become available to Loro Piana, a major purveyor of vicuña garments—a fraction of the 22 million pounds of cashmere the company works with annually. The Italian tailoring house Kiton makes only about 100 vicuña pieces a year; an off-the-rack sport coat costs at least $21,000, while the price of a made-to-measure suit starts at $40,000. A single vicuña scarf from Loro Piana is about $4,000. Ermenegildo Zegna produces just 30 vicuña suits a year. Each is numbered, and the most affordable model goes for $46,500.
Not long ago, however, vicuña was even harder to come by. The vicuña, a camelid that looks like a smaller and more elegant llama, is found primarily in the Peruvian and northern Argentine Andes. For centuries, it was poached for its valuable cinnamon-colored coat, a marvel of evolution that, although unusually light and fine, keeps the animals warm in the freezing altitudes above 15,000 feet. By the 1960s, the vicuña population had fallen from an estimated two million in the 16th century to roughly 10,000, and Peru took measures to protect vicuñas from extinction, banning the killing and trade of the animals.
But in the mid-90s, companies eager to provide the uber-luxurious fiber to their customers began working hard to find a way to preserve the animals' population and to shear their hair, instead of killing them. In 1994, three companies—Loro Piana, Agnona and Incalpaca TPX—were selected to join an International Vicuña Consortium created by the Peruvian government, earning the right to humanely process and export vicuña fiber as fabrics and finished products.
In 2008, Loro Piana established an eight-square-mile reserve to study the animals. And earlier this year, the company took a controlling stake in Sanin SA, an Argentinean firm that has the rights to shear around 6,000 wild vicuña living on a 328-square-mile territory in the country's Catamarca province. It's part of Loro Piana's long-term strategy to establish large reserves where the local people can protect, breed and shear vicuña.
"For us, there is a big commitment: keeping the quality, growing the quantity, to do more business, which we think is a win-win situation," said Pier Luigi Loro Piana, chairman and co-CEO of Loro Piana. "It's good for the local people, it's good for the animal and it's good for my company and good for the consumer." With a hand in Sanin SA, Loro Piana hopes to increase the amount of vicuña produced each year by tenfold to accommodate demand from aficionados around the world, including the fastest-growing market—China.
If you're perfectly happy with fine cashmere, all this might seem like a lot of trouble to go through for an extra layer of luxury. But come into contact with vicuña and you might, for a moment, think seriously about blowing your children's college funds. Vicuña coats and jackets have an unparalleled lightness that makes you feel almost buoyant. And then there is the softness. "People love vicuña for the touch," said Mr. Loro Piana. "It's the finest hair on the planet." The diameter of its fiber is 12.5 microns, he explained, while the best cashmere is 13.5 microns and run-of-the-mill cashmere ranges from 14.5 to 17.5.
Not surprisingly, such coats have become cult objects for a sliver of obsessive men. These sartorial trophy hunters are fluent in the language of made-to-measure clothes and luxe fabrics. "Men come into Kiton and ask if we have vicuña," said Antonio Paone, Kiton's US president. "They have a high level of taste and they know what they want." Women's vicuña needs have not been ignored, either: Loro Piana's more feminine sweaters, scarves and robes have their own following.
The most common colors of vicuña wool are navy and its natural beige. Zegna, for instance, offers its suits in three variations of dark-blue worsted wool. Companies have been reluctant to dye vicuña because they didn't want to diminish its signature feel. However, experimentation has led to some success. Kiton makes limited runs of vicuña fabric in difficult-to-produce hues, not to mention patterns like pinstripes and herringbone, at the Biella, Italy-based Carlo Barbera mill, in which Kiton purchased a controlling stake in 2010. "Soon we'll see 100% vicuña in crazy colors, like red," said Mr. Paone. Even more rare is Kiton's $50,000 white coat made from albino vicuña. Loro Piana, in a different twist, treats its vicuña coats to be water-resistant, though you might think twice before striding out into a snowstorm in vicuña.
Domenico Spano, a legendary Manhattan tailor, makes about three or four vicuña garments a year: $22,000 for a jacket, $32,000 for a suit. "Men come in and ask, What do you have that's special?" Mr. Spano explained. He takes them right to the vicuna swatches. Those who take the initial plunge often become converts. "Somebody buys a coat and six months later he comes back and buys a suit," Mr. Spano said.
"Vicuña has such a mystique," said Meg Lukens Noonan, author of the recent book "The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat" (Spiegel & Grau), which tracks the provenance of an extraordinary vicuña overcoat. Ms. Lukens Noonan attended a shearing ceremony in Peru, patterned after the Incan tradition, where the local population forms a circular human chain around the animals and then slowly closes in on them, before taking them into small tents where they're sheared.
A few wisps of hair were blowing in the wind, Ms. Lukens Noonan recalled: "I grabbed some thinking, wow, this is very valuable." It was so light she could barely tell it was there, almost like a mirage.
Ms. Noonan said that, while writing her book, she found that most people were unfamiliar with vicuña. "A certain generation of people think Sherman Adams," she said. "But then there's this very big gap." The exception is that tiny group of people who actually buy and wear vicuña. "Those who like the best of the best make it their business to find out what that is," she added.
Now, with Loro Piana's commitment, vicuña may be more readily available, but don't expect it to become more affordable. "Although the quantities will increase, I don't see a reduction in prices," said Mr. Loro Piana. "I think we have to improve the living conditions of the South Americans who attend the vicuñas. I don't want the price to go lower because then the people in the Andes will lose interest in breeding vicuñas." That would be a blow to those who've developed a pricey addiction to this rarefied fabric, and even to those who just dream about it.
Corrections & Amplifications
A vicuña sport coat from the Italian tailoring house Kiton costs at least $21,000. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the coat cost $22,000 at the low end.
A version of this article appeared September 21, 2013, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: WhyDoes ThisJacket Cost $21,000?.