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.
There, on desolate plains, in some of the harshest conditions known man, the Kashmiri goats are cared for by nomadic tribes whose sole source of income is the wool. Others (including the Scots) have tried to raise Kashmiri goats elsewhere, but no other conditions have produced a fleece as soft, as light, as special as those coming from Inner Mongolia. The combination of the extreme temperature--blistering heat giving way to great cold--and poor grazing seems to be essential in encouraging the goat to produce long, soft, insulating underfleeces. Each goat has two layers of hair, an outer, relatively coarse one and an under layer of very soft, warm hair, which is what provides the finest cashmere. The colder the temperature, the thicker the under layer.
Unlike sheep, which are clipped, the goats are combed by hand, and only the soft under hair closest to the skin of the goat is fine enough to be used. The goats can only be combed once a year--in the spring--and each goat yields only between three and four ounces. The fiber is so fine that its diameter is measured in thousandths of an inch. To make a single sweater takes the yearly crop of three goats; to make a coat, the fleece of 24 goats; while one goat will produce only enough cashmere to make a scarf.
When the thread is spun the fibers are twisted together, capturing thousands of minuscule air pockets, all of which give cashmere its unbeatable insulation. Ounce for ounce, cashmere gives three times the insulation of its nearest rival. One has only to stroke it to feel the difference. Where other wools merely fold, cashmere drapes and falls like silk.
It is not just in recent times that cashmere has become the world's most coveted fabric. In Italy it was for many centuries the preserve of the wealthy and aristocratic. In Imperial Rome it was so prized that only the Caesars and wealthiest senators were allowed to wear it and centuries later when Marco Polo brought the softest, lightest wools to Italy again, it was still out of reach of anybody but the very rich.
In France the delights of the cashmere shawl were discovered in the suqs of the Middle East by the officers of Bonaparte's marauding armies, and Josephine, his empress, mesmerized tout Paris with her richly patterned, divinely soft Kashmir shawls. Shawls so fine that they could be pulled through a wedding ring became popular state symbols, and cashmere became a byword not just for the fiber but for the patterns that came to be associated with the shawls.
To this day shawls, blankets or rugs made from cashmere are luxury products, sought after by those whose purses allow them to indulge their taste in the finest and the best. So fine, so beautiful a they that few of the pure cashmere blankets remain confined to the bedroom. They are thrown nonchalantly over sofas or chairs, are kept on the back seat of the Rolls or Bentley, and some are even worn with great panache as shawls.
At Asprey, one of London's oldest, grandest stores, they sell a double-bed-size blanket, light as goose down and twice as warm. The blanket goes for £565 (about $865) and comes in dark traditional colors like aubergine, brown or forest green. For those who prefer something more intricately patterned there is a Paisley shawl, all rich, Renaissance colors, for £690 (about $1,055). Toss it over a chair or sofa, swirl it around your shoulders, or use it to keep the knees warm if you find yourself invited to one of those vast Scottish houses where the heating is nearly as antique as the brickwork. There are Prince of Wales plaids 'A at £295 (about $451), and for those who like cashmere but can't afford it pure, there are shawls-cum-blankets made from 70 percent cashmere and 30 percent wool which sell for as little as £295.
If your tastes turn to the more exotic, N. Peal, the cashmere specialists in London's Burlington Arcade, carries shawls in tartans or Paisleys, leopard prints or zebra patterns at £490 (about $750), whilst a traditionally woven Paisley, fine as can be, sells for £660 (about $1,010).
Ralph Lauren has always loved using cashmere for his shawls and blankets, and each season brings new colors to his home collection. Last fall his classic cashmere cable-knit throws came in white, purple, rust or teal and ran £1,757 (about $2,688). For the gray flannel collection there is a gray cashmere throw trimmed with amber suede for £1,050 (about $1,606). All of Lauren's blankets and shawls come big and casual and are designed to be used in a relaxed and informal way on a person or around the house.
The hard times the cashmere industry has been through seem to have forced the major players to rethink their strategies. For many years the knitwear industry in Scotland, where most of the finest cashmere in the world has been produced, had it easy. Classic V- and round-necked sweaters and stolidly traditional cardigans sold in droves. The Scottish knitters had a deservedly fine reputation for quality, but the designs were often, whisper it quietly...just a little dull.
All that has changed. The simple classics, the slipovers and cardigans, the round- and V-necked sweaters are still there, but they have been gently updated with easier shapes, looser, dropped shoulders, and more deeply cut armholes. And alongside these has come truly exciting high fashion from some of the world's leading designers.
There is hardly a high-profile designer, whether it be Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent or the house of Hermés, that does not have some cashmere in its collection. As the teams of designers arrived at the Scottish mills, bringing with them new and even avant-garde ideas, the homegrown designers began to realize that there was much, much more to cashmere than simple classics.
Ballantyne, for example, went on doing its bread and butter lines, but it also brought in Alastair Blair and Oscar de la Renta to zip up its collection. Leggings and over-sized tunics, frock coats and slinky dresses joined the sweaters on the shelves--all the components of the contemporary fashionable silhouette reworked in cashmere.
Jean Muir started using cashmere to produce strong kimono-shaped jackets with great slabs of color that at £800 (about $1,224) to £I,000 (about $1,530) sold out almost as fast as they hit stores.
Belinda Robertson, a Scottish designer whose Edinburgh showroom at 22 Palmerston Place is well worth a visit, fairly rocked the cashmere world by bringing out some sassy sarong skirts. Cashmere, as it soon emerged, was not just for the twin set and pearls brigade; cashmere was for everybody.
Designers at McGeorge, possibly Dawson International's most luxurious label, started doing exciting things for men--things like sumptuous smoking jackets with shawl collars and big, heavy-ribbed cardigans. Their cashmere and silk shirts are some of the most luxurious garments a man could own while the heathery sweaters say Highland castles and moors.
In the United States, designers embraced cashmere with New World exuberance. They led the way in showing that simply because a fiber is rare and expensive does not mean it has to be treated with undue solemnity.
Ralph Lauren, that master of casual chic, and never one to be awed by any material, no matter how exclusive, showed how to use it in the most relaxed of all ways--from vests to socks, from dressing gowns to leggings and jogging pants, no garment in the male or female wardrobe was too humble to be done-over in luxury style.
Last winter he redid the big hit of 1991, the Polo bear sweater, in cashmere and a cashmere baseball cap, which must have appealed to the Elton Johns and Telly Savalases of the world.
Donna Karan has shown it is possible to be just as laid back when it comes to handling cashmere and, winter 1992-93, produced a black cashmere dressing gown so packed with knockout simple chic that it would be a sin to leave it in the bedroom. And just as she was the first to give women the delicious luxury of cashmere sweatpants, so, last fall she gave her male customers a chance to swank, though tastefully of course, around in the gym.
Karan sees cashmere as the ultimate pampering fiber. "Cashmere sweaters," she says, "are sleek and streamlined and look as great outside as they do worn in front of the television. The cashmere sweatpant is the new jean--it looks great under a twill jacket or under a cashmere anorak...cashmere...in gray, white, black or red is the perfect gift for the man who has everything."
At Hermés last winter they experimented with what they call washed cashmere," a kind of relaxed, straight-from-the washing-machine matted look, combining it with suede to produce suede-fronted jackets. At £1,200 (about $1,836) per coat they were never going to be a mass seller, but they sold in record time.
But besides the knitwear, which has become ever more inventive, cashmere is used increasingly in the finest tweeds. To the Scottish mills come designers from all over the world to pore over threads and colors, patterns and tweeds.
Ermenegildo Zegnal for instance, one of Italy's finest menswear houses, always has a cashmere collection. It seems slightly awed by the wool, describing it as "more than just a noble fiber, it is a philosophy." This inspires Zegna every year to produce a "collection within the collection," all cashmere-based. For last fall there were jackets in double-worsted cashmere, combining warmth, lightness and a sturdier wear; in addition the jackets were completely reversible. There were blue pin-stripe cashmere suits as well as wool-cashmere blends for those who wanted something a little sturdier and a little less expensive. On a more relaxed note, there are dustercoats in pure cashmere, lined with silk, which are incredibly light and fully reversible. The designer house hasn't abandoned cashmere this spring or summer either. This year, cashmere is being used in light weaves in pale pastels for definitely spring-weight jackets.
Whereas once cashmere was the fiber for the coldest of climates, these days with air-conditioning and lighter plies and weaves, cashmere is a fabric for all seasons and all wardrobes. Whether it is used with casual throwaway chic to line a coat or make a simple T-shirt or whether it is used for those intricate intarsia patterns so beloved by the Japanese, it can be worn anywhere, anytime--by anyone who loves the best.
Lucia van der Post is a feature writer for The Financial Times of London.