by erin lentz | December 1, 2014 | Style & Beauty
As high-end fashion houses target a luxury sector increasingly concerned with sustainability, Loro Piana is decidedly—and beautifully—on course.
The stalk of the lotus flower produces a strong and lightweight fiber that is harvested and extracted by hand.
We’ve just set sail off the British Virgin Islands with the official Loro Piana race crew during the 2014 Loro Piana Caribbean Superyacht Regatta & Rendezvous. Pier Luigi Loro Piana, vice chairman of the Italian textile and luxury goods brand, and Matthieu Brisset, Loro Piana’s new CEO from LVMH, huddle near the massive helm, strategizing with top sailors from around the globe. Dressed as one of the crew, Pier Luigi, 63, grins. “Jazz and sailing are my passions,” he says, “besides wool and cashmere.”
Discussing his decision to sell a majority of his family business to LVMH—the European luxury conglomerate acquired an 80 percent stake in Loro Piana in July 2013 for 2 billion euros (about $2.6 billion)—Pier Luigi, who remains hands-on, is quick to smile. He feels his company is tacking in the right direction.
And although he may sail the largest yachts in the ocean, he can also be found in a dinghy scouring the far reaches of the earth for the kinds of exquisite textiles his customers associate with his brand. His latest gem, the fiber of the lotus flower, is a front-runner in the company’s evolving commitment to sustainable luxury—a buzzword among top-tier brands vying for the attention of a discerning clientele, one that increasingly prioritizes a social conscience.
Workers at Loro Piana’s Sillavengo factory, in Piedmont, Italy, testing fabric elasticity.
According to a recent study published by the World Jewellery Confederation, luxury brands may lose business if they fail to emphasize corporate and social responsibility (CSR). Jonathan Kendall, the confederation’s president of marketing and education, notes, “Corporate responsibility will be directly linked to a luxury company’s profitability in the future.” The 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global Study on CSR found that nine out of 10 global consumers want companies to exceed the minimal standards required by law for operating responsibly.
“We are looking for quality—that strategy will never change,” Pier Luigi explains, “but with the mentality to respect the environment in how we produce and manufacture. This is very important—to do less damage to this world.”
Established in 1924 by Pietro Loro Piana—yet with origins dating back to 1812 with the vision of Pier Luigi’s great-grandfather Giacomo Loro Piana—the company was the first to brand and label a textile, during the late 1800s. “We were known for making good, thick woolen coats—and high-quality fabric, particularly for men,” says Pier Luigi. “After World War II, [my father] made a strategic change, with products for both men and women.” Pier Luigi and his brother, Siergo, took over in the 1970s and began exporting fabrics—with the mantra of continuing a multigenerational commitment to high-quality craftsmanship—and today the Italian house is the world’s largest cashmere manufacturer and the biggest single purchaser of the globe’s finest wools, with 150 retail outlets, 16 of them in the United States, including Las Vegas.
Unlike brands that outsource steps in production, Loro Piana’s sheep-to-shop process allows for tight quality control. At its group headquarters in Corso Rolandi, Italy, one will find artists with tweezers working over swaths of cashmere, while huge, high-tech machines support a large-scale modern operation, as the six-generation brand remains rooted in its dedication to high-quality craftsmanship. “In the ’80s we invested in a lot of new technology,” Pier Luigi says, “but the machinery can do nothing without people who can manage it, and sometimes perfection is still guaranteed by the fine mending made by hand.”
Traveling with a small circle of two to three trusted researchers, Pier Luigi frequently leads international trips to uncover new materials. “It’s important that somebody who wants to judge new products has a deep knowledge of the raw material,” he explains.
Much of the fabric used in the brand’s most coveted pieces comes from the vicuña, a South American relative of the llama. Due to poaching, at one point only 5,000 vicuña remained. In the 1980s, Loro Piana began working with local governments to safeguard the animal, and in 2008 it established the nature reserve Dr. Franco Loro Piana Reserva (named after the founder’s nephew). Today, the vicuña head count is approximately 180,000. Loro Piana is the top producer of vicuña, considered the finest fiber that can be legally culled from an adult animal. Only 12.5 to 13 microns thick, the resulting wool is incomparable in softness and quality.
Loro Piana’s sheep-to-shop production process allows for tight quality control.
But it is an ancient natural fiber once utilized for handcrafted monks’ garments and sacred to the Buddha that is Pier Luigi’s latest preoccupation—and with good reason. “An old friend of mine, Choichiro Motoyama, gave me a piece of fabric made in Myanmar. He said, ‘This is from the lotus flower.’ I touched it, and it was different than anything else; it looks like raw silk, has the shine of a linen, but it’s soft.” Immediately smitten, Pier Luigi decided to fast-track production, and in 2010 he contracted with the local community to produce the lotus-f lower fiber. “This fabric is the greenest textile fabric of the world,” he notes. “There is no electricity involved, no engine that works on the machinery, nothing.”
The stems of the aquatic plant produce an extremely fine raw material akin to linen and raw silk. But it has to be hand-worked on wooden looms; from the moment the flowers are destemmed, the filaments must be extracted within 24 hours or the material is no longer usable. It takes 6,500 stems to obtain a little over four yards of the breathable, light-as-air yarn needed for a single cut length of a blazer. The production supports an ancient art and economy in jeopardy. “We will not lose this tradition, which was ready to die,” Pier Luigi says.
Given this hands-on approach, a limited number of blazers are produced each year. Packaged in a beautiful, handcrafted lacquer box, the Lotus Flower Jacket—available only in its natural ecru color—is custom priced, and limited-cut lengths are available for made-to-order blazers.
To some, the merger of Loro Piana with LVMH, which also owns prestigious brands such as Veuve Clicquot, TAG Heuer, Dom Pérignon, Céline, Loewe, and Givenchy, was a surprising move. For Pier Luigi, however, it made perfect sense. “The group has the know-how, the system, management, and the potential to continue and develop the strategy Loro Piana already put in place,” he says. “That’s why we selected LVMH for the future of the company.” LVMH is also a committed advocate of environmental protection and a member of the United Nations Global Compact, which requires its signatories to apply and promote 10 principles in the fields of human rights, labor, and the environment.
“Quality is the prime character of everything we do,” Pier Luigi says. “We’ve built a consciousness that high quality is related to natural fibers.” By “quality,” he refers to unparalleled texture, color, refinement—and the avoidance of a detrimental impact on the environment. “If you put a jacket of wool under the dirt, it will die. The nylon jacket never dies.” 748 Madison Ave., 212-980-7961
photography by andy barnham (factory); brUna rotUnnIo/coUrtESy of Loro pIana