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Lucia van der Post
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93

The texture evokes silk. The warmth reminds of wool, but from an uncommon origin. The price concerns no one who understands its true worth. Like diamonds in the universe of jewels, cashmere's allure goes beyond the boundaries of normal clothes. The lovers of cashmere treasure its rare, expensive and sought-after touch, guarding the garments as they would rare gems, wearing them in public like secular vestments with a self-satisfied aloofness, and then retiring them in old age to the privacy of libraries and weekend retreats, where, until they are outgrown or faded away, each piece is protected with a tenacity only afforded cherished childhood mementos.

The finest designers today know the appeal, almost instinctively. Donna Karan, Ermenegildo Zegna, Ralph Lauren, Hermés and a host of others lace their collections with fine pieces of only the best cashmere. Suits, sweaters, jackets and other articles are meant to draw men into the lap of luxury. Blankets and shawls--yes, shoulder throws for men--provide other pleasures for the cashmere devotee. Each element insulates and wraps around the wearer and protects him against the chill of winter or the penetrating damp of a late fall rainstorm or the brisk breeze of an early spring morning--a barrier against the outside world.

For almost the first time in recent memory the price of cashmere--the finest, softest, lightest wool known to man, a premium product if ever there was one--has fallen. On the elegant mahogany shelves on the finest emporiums in the world the butter-soft sweaters stopped moving. Department stores noted for their quiet elegance became quiet as the grave. Retailers who had become accustomed to looking on their stocks of cashmere rather like a hoard of gold--a treasure house that could only go on becoming more and more valuable--were in shock. It had always seemed one of those immutable laws, unconfined by logic, that the price of cashmere could only go on going up.

What happened was almost unprecedented and largely unforeseeable. The Chinese, the largest providers of the finest cashmere in the world, decided to encourage free enterprise and decentralize distribution channels. Chaos broke out. According to Ronald Miller, chairman of Dawson International, the Scottish company which is the largest single user of cashmere in the world, "Literally hundreds of new organizations and enterprises started trading in the fiber."

Mongolian goat herds, who are the chief custodians of this precious fiber, sold whatever hair they could to whoever would pay the most. With no central body to control either quality or price, cashmere sweaters of dubious quality began to hit Western markets. As prices rocketed and quality became less reliable, consumers became wary. The Gulf War broke out, tourists stayed home, credit cards began to gather dust and sweaters remained on the shelves.

The gentlemen from China, having long lived in a carefully controlled and isolated world, misjudged the market and learned the hard way one of capitalism's most immutable rules--that the price of anything is only worth what somebody is willing to pay for it. What they found was that the world at large was not ready to pay the prices they were asking.

But devoted fans of this most delicious of fibers--the foie gras, you might say, of the fashion world--can breathe once more; order is being restored.

In China the powers-that-be have realized that the reputation of one of their biggest hard currency earners has been seriously undermined. Central control has been reasserted, quality is again being guaranteed and, the best news of all for the consumer, prices this year are already considerably down from last year.

Classic roll-neck collars selling in London's smart Burlington Arcade for £182.50 (about $280) in 1991 are £142.50 (about $217) this year; chunky three-ply ribbed sweaters which were selling at £312.50 (about $477) last year are likewise dramatically down to £245 (about $375) this year. A classic Professor Higgins cardigan which was sporting a price tag of £292..50 (about $447) can now be had for exactly £63 (about $96) less.

To understand, however, why cashmere commands such a premium price one needs to look at where the whole story began. The finest, most luxurious fibers today come from Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region within China), followed by Outer Mongolia (an autonomous republic of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), then Afghanistan and Iran.

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