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

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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

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