Where Does Italian Luxury Brand Loro Piana Source Its Best Cashmere From?
Weather is destiny—this adage rings particularly true when you are traversing the steppes and deserts of Mongolia. These vast landscapes look primordial, but their captivating beauty belies a harsh climate. Temperatures can soar beyond 40°C in the summer, and plunge to -50°C during long, hard winters. Rainfall tends to be modest and snowfall is light, except when there is a dzud—the local term for an intense, devastating blizzard.
Mongolia’s centuries-old nomadic culture was shaped by these conditions. The lack of rain wasn’t conducive to farming. Instead, herders live in tune with nature, letting their animals graze in the cooler highlands during summer, then moving to low-lying areas in winter. This seasonal migration gives pastures time to regenerate, which is particularly important for those who own goats, voracious eaters who tend to pull grass up by the roots as they graze.
Having evolved to survive Mongolia’s extreme climate, the local capra hircus is exceedingly resilient. This goat species not only has a coarse outer fleece that shields them from the sun and rain, but also an exceptionally soft undercoat that insulates them against bitter cold. We know this fine fleece by another name—cashmere.
Cashmere is old-school luxury, literally. It derives its name from Kashmir, the region between India and Pakistan from which Roman emperors once obtained this prized fibre. Today, China and Mongolia are the world’s leading producers of cashmere, and Italian fashion house, Loro Piana, has been sourcing the finest cashmere fibres from Mongolia and the neighbouring Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region within China) since the 1980s.
To spotlight its long-standing quest for such exquisite fibres, and support for the communities and ecosystems that make the cultivation of these materials possible, the brand enlisted French film-maker Luc Jacquet to create a three-part documentary. The first instalment of this project focuses on cashmere. Titled Cashmere—The Origin of a Secret, it will premiere this month at MIFA 1862, an arts venue in Shanghai. Besides private screenings, it can also be viewed on Loro Piana’s website and social media channels.
Months earlier, a select group of journalists were invited to watch Jacquet’s shoot in progress. Which is how I found myself at a herder’s home in Inner Mongolia’s Tengger Desert one afternoon, watching the director and his crew film the herder as she combed cashmere fibres from the underbelly of a goat in sure, practiced strokes. It was the last day of filming for the cashmere-focused section of the documentary, and this exclusive behind‑the‑scenes peek capped a months-long shoot that spanned different parts of the region and various seasons of its extreme climate.
But on this day in the merry month of May—murmurings of a potential sandstorm notwithstanding—the weather was relatively mild, and sunshine gilded the herder’s thatched roof in a way that pleased Jacquet. Later that night, the crew celebrated with a bonfire at their base camp, the wrap party culminating with fireworks blooming over dark desert sands—a dream-like juxtaposition; a mirage inversed.
About 24 hours later, we were in Beijing, an alternate universe of weeping grey skies and forbidding skyscrapers. It was time to interview Jacquet in a hotel suite. Best known for directing the Oscar-winning 2005 documentary March of the Penguins, Jacquet is a gentle giant of a man, speaking with a thoughtfulness that is punctuated by glimmers of mischievous humour. “I have a problem with these goats,” he replied when I asked what it was like to film these animals. “I find them penguin-like.”
It was a funny-sounding pronouncement at first blush, but he was actually being perfectly serious. What he meant was this: like penguins, these goats are animals that most people tend to view as adorable, even mundane, when in fact, they are simply extraordinary.
“These are amazing creatures that have adapted to one of the harshest climates in the world,” said Jacquet. “I want to help people see them the way they might see an elephant or a tiger. We have to explain why they are special, how the cashmere fibres help them to survive, and show their connection with the landscape and the herders. The goats cannot survive without these communities, and the same is true vice versa. Telling this story is a big challenge,” said Jacquet.
Connection with Nature
Crafting such stories has been his life’s work. As a child, he spent most of his time observing nature at close range, in the French countryside and on his grandparents’ small farm. At university, he decided to study behavioural ecology, specialising in the relationship between living beings and extreme environments. In 1992, when he was 24, he spent 14 months working in a scientific monitoring station in Antarctica—an experience that changed his life.
At this station, he had worked alongside people with different skill sets, not all of which were science-related, and Jacquet found that he was able to help them better understand the meaning of the animal behaviour that they were witnessing. “I realised I could help people to learn more, to be connected to nature.” Suddenly, “science alone was not enough for me”, he recalled. Jacquet decided to become a film-maker, and that early hunger to spark an emotional connection between people and the natural world still drives him.
His fervour for extreme environments also remains undimmed. Besides the physical challenge, arduous conditions also reveal a person’s true character. “You must be who you are, you cannot pretend to be someone else,” he said with a knowing smile. “I like that.”
All these passions were in play for this cashmere project with Loro Piana. He had always dreamed of exploring Mongolia, and the reality of its singular landscapes far exceeded his expectations. In the desert, “the light changes all the time, so each minute means something different than the next. Shooting there is like playing a game with the light, the sky, the dunes”.
In Alashan, Inner Mongolia, his driver told him about an obscure spot that locals call the Canyon of Strange Rocks. “When I checked it out, it was very obvious to me that we had to shoot there. I am not able to say why this special location gives me a certain vibration, but I have learned in my life to hear this kind of vibration.”
I was able to visit the canyon during this trip, and its sinuous rocks were indeed strange. The canyon felt otherworldly, like a land before time where you might see dinosaurs around the next bend; or perhaps like a different planet altogether. But these surreal rocks actually embody forces that are quite concrete—their curves were sculpted over a long period of time by the wind, thus making the implacable impact of these invisible elements visible.
Because, of course, this is not a region untouched by time, as ancient as it may still look to untrained eyes. Climate change, that haunting spectre of the modern age, has made its presence felt here. According to the United Nations, average annual temperatures in Mongolia rose by 2.1°C between 1940 and 2014—three times the global average. Blistering dzuds, which used to occur once every decade, have become more frequent.
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One contributing factor: since the 1990s, when the region’s socialist economies gave way to more capitalist models, an expanding livestock population has led to overgrazed pastures that are more susceptible to erosion. Desertification, the process that sees fertile soil turning into powdery desert unable to sustain plants, is a growing problem. More animals and less grass also means undernourished livestock; and when it comes to cashmere goats, that means a coarser fibre that fetches a lower price on the market. In response, some herders breed bigger herds, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
In 2009, Loro Piana decided to do its part to help restore some balance to this ecosystem, believing it was not only important for safeguarding the quality of its products, but also an ethical responsibility. The brand launched a selective breeding programme called the Loro Piana Method, breeding smaller herds of cashmere goats that could yield higher quantities of quality cashmere. The initiative seeded both social and ecological sustainability. Besides easing pressure on the land, herders were able to make a decent living even with fewer goats.
The Loro Piana Method was first introduced in Alashan, and later extended to the whole of Inner Mongolia. It was developed in collaboration with China’s Jilin Agricultural University, the Academy of Science of Inner Mongolia, Italy’s University of Camerino and the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development. This has led to more opportunities for the brand to develop sustainable practices with local partners. Loro Piana is the first foreign company allowed to conduct research on cashmere in Chinese territory, and it also promotes training courses on genetic improvement of the region’s cashmere goats.
A Delicate Balance
The way cashmere is inextricably intertwined with these scientific and ecological issues is one key reason Jacquet was attracted to the project. “I really want to give people the opportunity to have an emotional connection to what we are really talking about when we talk about cashmere.”
So what are we talking about? The finest fibres from a cashmere kid goat are 30mm in length and 13.5 micron thin, while those from an adult goat could reach 38mm in length and measure no more than 14 microns in width. These gossamer dimensions translate into very precise qualities—items made from the best cashmere are enchantingly soft, smooth, lustrous, and able to bestow warmth without weight. These qualities are the result of a highly specific climate, and they are compromised when this climate strains to support more life than it can bear. Truly exquisite cashmere, by definition, can only be a scarce commodity.
For Jacquet, cashmere is about this delicate balance. The herders he spent time with reminded him of his grandparents. “They all have this very precise relationship with nature, because they depend on it,” he explained. His grandparents had to decide, for example, when to cut the grass in order to make hay—do it too early, and the weather may not be dry enough for haymaking; do it too late, and the animals would have less to eat.
The herders have to decide when to comb their goats for cashmere fibres—do it too early, and the combed herd may not stay warm enough to survive the cold; do it too late, and much of the fibre could be shed out in the grasslands. “Nature changes every year, and you have to make your own decisions, based on your knowledge and perspective. It’s really a balance, and you have to try and stay on balance all the time,” explained Jacquet.
Roiled by desertification and climate change, this ecosystem is perhaps no longer in equilibrium. But evidence of the age-old harmony man seeks with nature is still visible in these herder communities, and there is much we can learn from their way of life. So much of what seems exotic turns out to be different ways of responding to the rigours of these vast landscapes.
During special occasions, for instance, families prepare a whole boiled sheep, carving out a strip of tail fat for the most honoured guest. Its lingering grease is a kind of benediction, providing additional protection from the cold and wind. The renowned warmth of Mongolian hospitality also springs from the nomad’s awareness that one cannot hope to survive the steppes and deserts alone. Show a stranger kindness, the thinking goes, because you could be the one who needs help in the future. “Having one more friend means having another path you can take,” said a herder pithily during one of our meals of boiled sheep.
After all, if weather is destiny, then perhaps culture is persistence, our way of turning lived experience into stories, traditions and practices that illuminate different paths to survival—humanity’s very own fine fleece.
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In 2015, Loro Piana launched its annual Cashmere of the Year Award. Herders throughout Inner Mongolia and other Chinese regions compete in this contest, submitting cashmere fibres to be judged on fineness, length and performance. The winners are invited to an award ceremony and receive a cash prize. Besides helping the brand to nurture strong relationships with herders, the submitted fibres are subjected to a detailed laboratory analysis that yields very useful data. Fibres from herders using the Loro Piana Method, for instance, have shown an impressive improvement in quality. The data also gives the brand a clear idea of the kind and quality of cashmere fibres available in different territories.
(Related: 5 Ethically Sourced Wools To Look Out For)
Baby, It's You
Loro Piana pioneered the use of baby cashmere, which is what the brand calls fibres collected from cashmere kid goats. Such fibres can only be gathered once in each kid’s lifetime, when it is around six months old, and the yield of usable fibre is about 30g per kid (much less than what an adult goat would yield). It took Loro Piana a decade to convince Chinese breeders to set aside baby cashmere fibres rather than mix them with fibres from adult goats, which is testament to the brand’s commitment to creating textiles of the highest quality.
- Images Loro Piana