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Fantastic Fabrics

The fashion industry keeps raising the bar on fabric fineness, but at what point does it go from the sublime to the ridiculous?
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

(continued from page 1)

"Touch it." Alan Katzman is proffering the sleeve of a suit jacket custom tailored from fabric woven of 93 percent vicuna and 7 percent silk. The suit, made for a very wealthy customer whom the proprietor of Alan Couture in Manhattan requests that we not identify, will sell for $30,000. "It's heaven, isn't it?"

Katzman is right. The cloth, which until recently was illegal to sell, is celestial. Not only does it feel wonderful, it's beautiful to the eye and impossibly light. But at its price one might expect some harp music to herald its indescribably soft touch. The buyer, however, is in a rarefied financial world where there is a certain logic to spending that much for an article of clothing just because it feels so good and almost no one else can have it. "You make him one of these," Katzman says of his customer (you'd recognize the name), "and this is worse than cigarettes. He'll have to have more."

Vicuna, made from the coat of tiny wild camelids of the same name that roam the central Andes at elevations of 16,000 feet and were near extinction only 30 years ago, represents the top echelon of a movement by fabric makers to create ever more elegant, expensive, exclusive and, sometimes, impractical cloth for suits. Vicuna, for instance, is so delicate that silk—usually thought of as pretty fine fiber itself—was woven into the cloth mentioned above to give it more guts. "Pure vicuna pants," Katzman says, "would be a disaster."

The cloth would wear out too fast and never hold a pressing. As it is, he would suggest dry-cleaning this suit as little as possible.

But, for the man who buys vicuna or Super 200 wool or baby cashmere or pashmina or any of the succession of hyper-quality cloths that seem to constantly raise the bar for men's suits, durability or the number of dry cleanings a garment can take is not a large concern. "He's got 50 suits in his closet. How many times can he wear this one?" says Katzman.

Certainly, the high end of cloth is not for everyone—mainly because everyone can't afford it—but those who can might question an atmosphere of escalation that seems to hold no end, where pattern choices are limited and some products fall into realms that Katzman flatly calls phantasmagoric or even tasteless: e.g., Super 150s blended with gold fibers or diamond chips and the phantom "white vicuna," an elusive breed of ruminant that even Captain Ahab didn't pursue.

The spiraling quality and cost of cloth began with the introduction of Super 80 worsted woolens. The Super numerical designation was created by the British Wool Textile Export Corp. and represents a complicated function of the length of fiber that can be spun from a pound of wool. The finer the wool, the greater its length per pound. Recently, the industry has been recognizing a second designation of fineness—the micron, or mil mil, width—which is inversely proportional to the Super designation and more to the point. A micron is a distance of a millionth, or one thousandth of a thousandth, of a meter. A human hair is about 50 microns wide, the average sheep wool about 24. Worsted wools are considered Supers when they measure less than 20 microns across. A fiber with a width of 19.5 microns is equivalent to a Super 80 fiber. A Super 100 has a micron count of 18.5. A Super 150 is down at 15.5 microns, which less than a decade ago was the fineness limit. Now there are Super 200 fabrics at 13 microns.

That is not the last frontier. Sheep raisers in Australia have been treating fineness barriers like Chuck Yeager once did airspeed records. In June, a group of farmers sold a bale of wool that crossed the 12-micron barrier at 11.9. That puts it in vicuna's league and makes it slightly finer than the best cashmere. The price to renowned fabric maker Loro Piana (also the purveyor of Katzman's vicuna) was $140,000 a pound. By the time the wool is made into a garment, that suit will cost $30,000 or more.

Ian Gill is in the Old King Cole bar of the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, some 14,000 miles from his family's sheep farm northeast of Melbourne, Australia, and trying to explain how one coaxes wool of that fineness out of a merino sheep. "There have been 18 bales of wool under 13 microns and we produced three of them," he mentions matter-of-factly. "There's another six [such producers] elbowing around [that caliber of wool delicacy]."

A reconciliation of science and art is the common thread he shares with his competitors, he says. To reach this quality, sheep need not only exacting breeding (by artificial insemination) and careful attention to diet, but a certain amount of pampering. Most spend their lives in temperature-controlled, chemical-free ventilated sheds, wearing nylon coats that protect their wool. On top of that, each farmer provides special diets and amenities. One even pipes music into his sheds for the sheep's listening pleasure.

For his part Gill says: "I reckon we take care of the social needs of the sheep better than anyone else."

By that he doesn't mean providing a dating service for the rams and the ewes, but that timid sheep are separated from what he calls barbarians, thereby ensuring consistent feeding for animals less inclined to fight for their grub. If it seems far-fetched, it is more reasonable than how Spanish conquerors reacted when they first encountered the vicuna. They slaughtered them to obtain what the Incas called "the fiber of the gods."

Current wisdom holds that you can shear an animal many times, but skin it only once. Gill produces the proof of the method in all this madness: a shawl that his company, Jemala. It is pure gossamer, sensually soft and light as a feather. It is hard to imagine how this virtual cotton candy of a textile could translate into a suit.

And that's the point that Martin Nicholls, custom tailor for Alfred Dunhill, is making from his office in London. "It's makeable," he says of the prospect of creating a suit from wool of such fineness, "but, let's face it, a suit is a piece of outerwear."

Not only will the final product be far less durable, but his job of hand tailoring becomes far more difficult, because the tailor is working with finer components. The flimsier cloth stretches more in the cutting and requires finer threads to sew the pieces together and a more delicate inner shell. He explains that an integral part of the process that makes a Savile Row so personal to the wearer is the obsessive ironing that is done to form the curves that conform to the customer's body. "At the back and shoulder seam, you're moving cloth, forcing it in and pressing it away. You're putting too much cloth in an armhole and then making it right by pressing. The lighter the cloth, the less you can press it away."

Nicholls judges that Super 150s or Super 120s blended with cashmere are the points where finer cloths can still hold the tailoring—"and a crease, that's quite important."

Above those levels? "If you're a billionaire, yeah, go for it. But you almost need someone to take care of your wardrobe."

Like Katzman, he suggests dry-cleaning only when necessary, and finding someone who understands how to treat a garment of that quality.

While Nicholls doesn't necessarily ascribe to the spiraling Supers trend, he sees the allure. "It's a great tool for driving the market. Whereas Super 100s were once the height of luxury, now that seems almost like a Farmer Brown suit."

Dunhill, Nicholls says, is focusing on local mills and celebrating English cloth, which tends to be more robust and keep its shape better. The look is classic patterns with revived surface interest, such as pinstripes with light blue and beige lines or stripes formed from tiny x's. There's also a multicheck fabric that harks to the classic tweed jacket meant for wearing in the bush, but made from fine worsteds: "the kind of thing you'd wear if the deepest jungle you're going to be in is a sale at Harrod's."

If Savile Row suits made of sturdy English cloth that just get better with age is the British way, the world market seems to be responding more and more to the Italian approach, which uses lighter fabric that won't necessarily last as long, but has instant appeal, especially in a climate-controlled world in which comfort, not warmth, may be the first consideration. People have been spinning wool for some 5,500 years, and recognized mastery with the material has passed from realm to realm. At one time the Spanish monopolized the prized merino sheep and had the lock on great wool. By the eighteenth century the torch had been passed to the English, who kept solid hold until now. The Italians have been nipping at their heels, not just with their own spry sensibility, but with a willingness to learn from the Brits and incorporate their tradition into the Italian look.

While solid, smooth cloths took the Italians to the top of the fashion tree, they are now creating fabric with texture and pattern in the British mode, only softer and lighter. Designer Joseph Abboud sees the fashion pendulum swinging away from the "sea of dark sleeves" that dominated menswear not too long ago. He is designing with texture and personality. Nevertheless, he goes to Italy for 90 percent of his cloth. Abboud's Black Label line includes Super 120s, 150s and cashmere/silk blends.

John Kalell, creative director of Southwick, a traditional New England company that makes suits for Brooks Brothers as well, also sees the Italian tech surges. "Much of what's happening in fabrics is related to finishing, and the Italians do it best," he says. "A lot of it has to do with the water and how the wool is washed. But there are secrets they're not telling. The Italians boast, but they don't inform."

Southwick, itself, is on an interesting course. "The key note to suits as we see it is the return of real seasonal suiting," Kalell conjectures. Where the trend had been to year-round weights and looks, Southwick, which makes suits for presidential candidate John Kerry, is producing clothing for fall that is clearly autumnal in the look and feel. Some of it is done in the traditional rough-hewn, short-staple Donegal and Harris Tweed wool, a distinct departure from the softness trend. Other of his garments, however, come in finer cloths such as cashmere blends with patterns that only echo the short-staple aesthetic. "It's a vintage notion that hasn't been seen for a while."

Djordje Stefanovic, fashion director of Italy's Ermenegildo Zegna, agrees to an extent: "The rustic look is great, but the touch and feel must be soft and supple. That's the game."

He further feels that one of Italy's advantages is "we've also been better in marketing ourselves."

He admits that Zegna has gone to England to find out how the English do what they do best. The result, he says, has been a mix of applying new technology to old methods. "There are some old secrets that you just can't replace."

Among the great fabric houses, which include Dormeiul, Loro Piana, Holland & Sherry and Scabal, Zegna is unique in that it is also a fully vertical operation, sourcing its yarn, weaving fabric, tailoring clothing and distributing its products through its retail shops. Stefanovic came up through its textile division, which has a 40-year history of buying merino wool through Australian farms, and played "the very interesting game" of selling fabrics to customers who are also Zegna's competitors on a finished-goods level.

Zegna also creates a number of lines of clothing, the highest of which are Couture and Sartorial. It is in that arena that you'll find its exclusive 15 Milmil 15 fabric sold, which Stefanovic describes as "absolutely our favorite."

Besides the cloth, the other hallmarks of Couture are details like hand stitching, a subtle light interior and working buttonholes as well as a bright color sensibility. "It's not about safeness, it's about a passion."

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