Prized by the Phoenicians and Spanish royalty, merino wool has been restored to its former glory by a luxury Italian brand working with a handful of farms in Australia and New Zealand, Selina Denman writes
Delicate balls of wool hang overhead, like miniature clouds, while bundles of the ultra-fine material cascade down from the ceiling like a plush white waterfall. In The Gift of Kings installation, Loro Piana plots the journey of wool, from raw fibre to woven fabric, and pays tribute to one of the finest materials in the world.
That’s fine in the literal sense. “Wool has existed in the textiles business forever – and I don’t know how many millions of bales of wool are produced each year. But the Gi of Kings is the finest wool in the world – in the sense of how thin it is. It is just 12 microns. Today, depending on the year, there are only between five and six farms around the world that are able to produce the Gi of Kings – and they are not big farms,” says Fabio d’Angelantonio, chief executive of Loro Piana, which creates clothing, outerwear, knitwear, shoes, bags, accessories and scarves, for men, women and children, from some of the most luxurious materials in the world.
Once traded by the Phoenicians, merino is the oldest-known breed of sheep. In the 8th century, merinos were introduced to Spain, and because of the outstanding quality and so ness of their wool, soon attracted the attention of the Spanish aristocracy.
Loro Piana had already established itself as one of Italy’s leading fabric manufacturers when, in the 1960s, it created a new fibre called Tasmanian – turning wool into a fabric that was light, versatile, crease-proof, thermo-intelligent and suitable for all four seasons. At the time, the finest wool on the market was 17 microns.
In the 1970s, it became clear that this top-quality 17-micron wool was becoming increasingly difficult to source. Producing ultra-thin wool of this calibre was labour- and technology-intensive, and also high-risk, since wool that didn’t make the top grade could end up costing more than it would procure at market. Farmers were turning away from the pursuit of everfiner fibres, and increasingly looking towards highvolume production – which was less concerned with protecting both the animals and the environment.
So Pier Luigi Loro Piana set off on a journey across Australia and New Zealand in search of the finest wool, developing relationships with the farming families that were still able to supply the quality fibres he so coveted. He committed to buying certain amounts of the very best wool each year, with the aim of converting it into innovative, super-lux fabrics back in Italy. The Gi of Kings was born.
Loro Piana also created another incentive for farmers – every year, it awards the Record Bale prize to the finest wool produced in both Australia and New Zealand. The all-time record stands at 10.3 microns (to put that into perspective, human hair is 75 microns).
The prize for this year’s Record Bale was presented in Dubai last month, within a custom-made installation created in collaboration with Tunisian artist eL Seed on the grounds of the Dubai Opera. The installation, titled The Gift of Kings, also marked the brand’s official
arrival in the Middle East, following the launch of a flagship store in The Dubai Mall.
“We have quite a nice relationship with Middle Eastern consumers – both men and women. They travel a lot and are cosmopolitan; they are seekers of quality and quite sophisticated. Many of them shop with us in London and Paris,” says d’Angelantonio. “For quite a while, we have been thinking about having a presence in the region. It took some time for us to find a location that could give us the right stature.”
For Loro Piana, the sense of touch reigns supreme, and it was important that this was communicated in both the new store and the installation. “In a world of consumption that is every day more commercial and frenetic, we want to be something else. We want to have happy customers sit in our armchairs and touch cashmere on the armrest,” says d’Angelantonio.
“We are so proud of the depth of what we do and so convinced that it takes time to create quality. We are very happy to do slow luxury, not fast luxury. There is an entire segment of luxury that is running a er millennials and doing things that are very edgy, very colourful, very new, but on the other side, quite frenetic and quite superficial. There are a lot of customers that buy into this proposition, but I am deeply convinced that there is an equally big segment of customers that is still quite interested in understanding the depth and quality of the product they are buying, and the story behind it.”
That’s not to say that innovation doesn’t lie at the heart of the Loro Piana brand. It just favours a more measured, long-term approach to innovation – whether that means working with Chinese breeders for 10 years to convince them to separate out the cashmere sourced from adult and kid goats, so that baby cashmere, one of the rarest materials in the world, can be used to cra exclusive Loro Piana products; or producing the trademarked Storm System, which makes fabrics waterproof and wind-resistant; or extracting fibres from the stalks of lotus flowers to create breathable lightweight fabrics.
Currently under the microscope is linen. “Clearly, we are a brand that has been quintessentially linked to cashmere… but I think it’s quite important that we are able, in the coming years, to articulate our excellences into offerings that are lighter, which are also more suitable for warm regions and warm seasons, which is part of our goal. Linen is an exciting area of development because the quality of linen, in terms of the purity of the raw material and the quality of the transformation process, was much more refined 100 years or 50 years ago than it is today.
“It’s quite exciting for us to go back into history to find the roots of that quality. This company is a sixgeneration family company. A very deep philosophical belief that they have is that beauty originates in nature. Our job, or our mission, is to research the best fibres in nature and transform them –using the least invasive possible industrial processes – into beautiful products, that we will ultimately sell in our stores,” d’Angelantonio concludes.
Opposite page: above, ‘ The Gift of Kings’ installation was created to mark the official launch of Loro Piana products, below, in the Middle East. Above, the brand uses the finest merino wool produced in Australia and New Zealand