A visit to Loro Piana's Madison Avenue flagship promises a smooth landing. There are givens: The lighting will always be impeccable; the color palette will always be pleasingly neutral; the knits will always be impossibly soft. On a recent visit, a decadent cashmere coat beckoned despite the still summery weather outside. “It’s an investment piece,” the sales associate said. It was an apt choice of words. In today’s luxury landscape, investing means far more than adding to your wardrobe. You’re buying into a kind of a story, one braided into a chain of craft and technology made of people and ideas that begin a world away from where you stand.
Which brings us approximately 7,000 miles east of Madison Avenue, to the region of northern China called Inner Mongolia. This is where Loro Piana gets its finest cashmere, and where smooth landings are less assured—journeys here are best undertaken by a person with a nomadic herder’s sense of direction and the stomach of someone who might enjoy a seat on the space shuttle during launch. But should you happen to be lacking in either of those things, as I was when I visited with the Italian fashion brand last spring, you can still make it there with a reliable four-wheel drive.
Take the new, straight, largely empty highway several hours north through the stretches of the Gobi Desert in Alxa Prefecture (a territory northwest of the city of Yinchuan, itself a two-hour flight west of Beijing). After a certain point, there will be only sand dunes, which gives the fact that you will have to eventually drive through them an air of destiny. There didn’t used to be roads, my driver told me via translator, so if you wanted to go where we were going, you just had to go off-road the whole way and hope you were right. (He also said that if you get lost in the desert, the best thing to do is to follow a camel: They’ll lead you to water. Eventually.)
The 500,000 or so square miles of the Gobi pose a very real threat to the rest of China: Due to deforestation, overgrazing, and climate change, the arid, barren landscape grows in size every year, and the result is brutal sandstorms that have been sweeping through northern China with increasing frequency, paralyzing cities with a thick dusty murk. But it’s also here, among all this inhospitable sand and unyielding sky and sudden bursts of landscape-carving wind, that some of the world’s finest cashmere goats live. This is the region where Loro Piana works with nomadic herders and gathers the cashmere fibers combed from their Capra hircus laniger, shaggy white goats with pale twisted horns and a facial expression I’d call permanently unimpressed.
These goats are bred for their smooth, fine fleece. The long, strong fibers are turned into thick, supple yarn that allows Loro Piana’s cashmere to maintain its integrity (no pilling) and hold its shape. Here’s how it works: The goat’s ultrafine undercoat is combed out using handheld metal rakes and sent to a factory in Alxa. There, machinery separates the raw cashmere from grease and dirt and the outer layer of goat hair, leaving nearly transparent clouds of fleece that, when gathered in the hand, are so soft they almost feel wet. The results are sent in barrels to the company’s mill at the foot of the Italian Alps, in Quarona, where they’re made into yarn and then textiles that are used by the brand or sold wholesale.
A few useful fiber facts to keep in mind when buying cashmere: The thickness of the yarn matters in terms of durability. (Thinner yarns tear more easily.) The smoothness of the strands affects softness. Quality comes down to where the garment is manufactured and how much cashmere is in any given blend; in the case of some low-priced products offered by fast-fashion brands, it can be a negligible percentage. In fact, the ubiquity of low-priced cashmere blends over the past few decades has driven the price of the fiber down to stultifying lows for the people who produce it. More and more, traditionally nomadic Inner Mongolians are decamping for cities, one of the translators told me, because they are repelled by the increasing harshness of the environment and discouraged by the plummeting price of cashmere. You don’t have to look too far for a worst-case scenario in terms of what this could mean for fiber production. Across the border in Mongolia, around 200,000 farmers and their families have left the countryside and their agrarian lives behind for Ulaanbaatar, and have settled in what’s now called the G District, a tent city named for the gers, the circular, felt-lined tents that fill it.
At the home of a herder and his family in Alxa, I met a flock of their goats. The youngest kids nipped at my fingers, budding horns barely perceptible under their soft, snowwhite forelocks. It’s a moment made for social media, but Loro Piana is here for more than a photo op. The brand carefully maintains its relationships in the region, and it keeps a small cadre of employees stationed in Beijing. It’s these youngest goats that are the official purpose of my visit. Of Loro Piana’s fine cashmere, the finest of all is its baby cashmere, pioneered by Pier Luigi Loro Piana, who realized in the 1990s that the fleece of the young Capra hircus laniger could be harvested separately to create a superior cashmere product, and spent the next 15 years or so trying to persuade herders that it would be worth the time and effort. Baby cashmere fibers measure 13.5 microns in diameter, compared with 15 microns for an adult’s, which is in itself around one-fifth the width of a human hair, and are combed out when the kids are around six months old, the only time it can be done in the goat’s lifetime. A kid produces around 80 grams of fleece, and in an attempt to curb overgrazing, the Chinese government has put a limit on how many goats a herder can raise at one time; this rarity, combined with its softness, lightness, and durability, has made it one of the world’s most exclusive natural fibers.
With all apologies to their comely crew of human models, these goats are without question Loro Piana’s best advertisement. Thanks to their fleece, they are able to withstand whatever the Gobi throws their way: long, dry, frigid winters and blizzards; spring’s vast, dangerous sandstorms; unforgiving, scorching summers. Theirs is a story of survival in some of the world’s harshest conditions—one compelling enough that earlier this year the brand enlisted Academy Award–winning documentarian Luc Jacquet (March of the Penguins) to make a film about it.
Over lunch one day in a herder’s ger, Jacquet joined a small group around an enormous lazy Susan that bore heaping trays of delicacies trotted out for guests: boiled mutton, sheep intestines, thousand-year eggs, chicken feet, camel dumplings, blood sausage, and thick hunks of a sweet-tasting dried curd called aaruul. With a portrait of Genghis Khan behind them, our hosts toasted the party with large gulps of a local grappa-like liquor served out of a shared silver bowl. Jacquet explained that his aim for the film is less to sell sweaters than it is to give the viewer a sense of the extreme, exquisitely brutal beauty of the planet. It was also important to Jacquet that the lives of the herders share the screen with the animals they raise. He hopes to invoke an emotional response. “I’m talking about storytelling, really storytelling, and what nature can tell us,” he said.
At the crew’s base camp, a ger had been kitted out with electricity, candy bars, and a Keurig coffee maker—true luxuries after weeks of aaruul and surfing the dunes in the back of a dusty 4x4. It was the last day of filming, and there was a celebratory dinner featuring a slightly more Gallic take on the traditional parade of grilled meats, an enthusiastic barrage of toasts, and a pair of traditionally attired folk musicians, one of whom played an electric keyboard.
It’s these moments that make what the brand offers so special, one member of Loro Piana’s team explained, as cutlery clanked and the singer’s repertoire turned to ballads praising 13th-century military victories. By taking an active role in the process—from a combing in Inner Mongolia to the factories in northern Italy to the boutique on Madison Avenue—the company is doing its part to protect and preserve more than a yarn. “In a sense,” she said, “we’re protecting a natural resource for the next generation.” In other words? A very good investment.