Luxury fibres and fabrics: Challenges and opportunities
Clothing labels worldwide are usually a standard read, with fibre names such as 'cotton,' 'nylon' and 'polyester' remaining constant from season to season. But when it comes to luxury textiles, there seem to be more evolving trends in terms of fibres used - along with more dynamic changes in supply and demand.
Richard Gough, managing director at Australia's St Albans Textiles - a major manufacturer of products made from natural fibres such as mohair and alpaca - said that currently, consumers are very much looking for "purity" in the fibres they purchase.
"They want to know the chain in manufacturing, [and] they are happy to pay for luxury with the story," he said.
Presently, said Mr Gough, alpaca and cashmere are two of the most sought after luxury fabrics.
However, he said, there has been a slight shift when it comes to actual cashmere production: "Cashmere [spun and knitted in] Europe is the best - but most product comes now from cashmere yarn spun in China," said Mr Gough.
He added there is an overall trend in terms of sourcing high-end textiles: "With yarn - not so much with fibre - China is a dominant force, and many top European houses have moved their skills to China for the price."
Looking at luxury fibres that have lost prominence in recent years, Gough said that wool in particular "has really taken a beating," suggesting this may be accredited to a combination of factors.
Part of this is technical and about cost - with an increasing trend of 'mixing' fibres. But environmentalist campaigns have also had an effect in dampening wool demand - with campaigns by global animal rights organisation PETA against sheep shearing and wool production having an impact.
Overall, said Gough, the global sourcing of luxury fibres has been affected in recent years by both environmental and economic climate. For example, he said, Australia's long drought (which ended this year) "has played a major role, as has the dollar worldwide...mills are closing and processors are struggling."
Gough added that consistency of supply can also be an issue as, "depending on the animal and country, food over fibre has taken its toll."
Luxury demand holding up
Despite some regional setbacks however, Peruvian luxury fashion designer and consultant José Miguel Valdivia said that demand for luxury fibres in general remains strong.
"Luxury items from all over the world have had an incredible boost over the last few years - despite the big international financial crisis," he said. "People are looking for something more sure and safe in clothing."
Anne Pastré, owner and founder of Muriée, a Germany-based brand specialising in organic luxury cashmere knits agreed: "Luxury fibres have seen a renaissance during the years of [economic] crises - the consumer has become aware of the benefits of purchasing quality."
In fact, she said, her company has been seeing a rapidly increasing demand in recent years for its very high-quality cashmere.
"In economically challenging times, people are seeking warranties when buying an investment piece - cashmere is seen as a quality seal in itself; a fibre everybody connects with exclusivity and traditional luxury," said Pastré, adding that Muriée uses only the finest and longest cashmere fibres it can find, sourced from Inner Mongolia; spun by a specialised, family-run company in the south of Italy; and dyed in Austria with natural products including flowers, leaves and heartwood infusions.
She noted that silk is one fibre that has been disappearing from the luxury world for some years, mainly because of fashion requiring "more structured, polished and stable materials."
However, added Pastré, for about two to three fashion seasons now, there has been evidence of a revival of silk, "especially printed, and very fluid qualities thanks to designers like Phoebe Philo at Céline and Stella McCartney."
Raising the profile of Peru
In Peru, Valdivia, who works to promote the country's alpaca and vicuña fibre industries, said that throughout the global economic crisis, fine garments made of cashmere, vicuña and camel hair have been gaining popularity.
According to Valdivia, the Peruvian government and private companies in the country have been doing much promotional work, too, to help bring attention to these luxury fibres.
In terms of total global production, said Valdivia, approximately 90% of alpaca and 95% of vicuña originates from Peru.
And since the mid-1900s, Peru has been selling these fibres primarily to Italy, where luxury fashion brands have been transforming them into fine garments. "Many of the big companies in Peru have an Italian partner," Valdivia added.
Three years ago for example, he said, Louis Vuitton put out a collection made up mostly of knits fabricated from alpaca fibres.
He argued vicuña is a fibre even more coveted than cashmere, adding that one metre of vicuña fabric can run anywhere between US$1,800 and US$3,000. "It is a very rare and fine fibre, and brands like Armani and Loro Piana are using it very exclusively," he said. "Italy is purchasing fibres that come from Peru and making the yarn."
But with alpaca and vicuña gaining popularity, Valdivia said that companies are now looking to manufacture in Peru.
"In the past, certain countries in South America were not known for quality or security [in terms of manufacturing]...but we are now at a very good level of production, security and delivery - we can sell good products now from Peru on the luxury or high end market."
Lower cost concerns
With some production in China as of late producing mixes - for example, 5% cashmere blends - and more cost-efficient manufacturing, there has been some concern that people might seek out lower cost alternatives to luxury.
However, said Valdivia, "the 'real' cashmere people continue to look for real cashmere."
And when it comes to luxury brands, themselves, Pastré said that most remain loyal to their high-quality fibre and yarn suppliers - despite economic pressures. For Muriée's cashmere yarn, for instance, she said the brand sources from just one Italian company that specialises in that one fibre.
"A personal and lasting relationship with suppliers is fundamental in order to be able to guarantee the highest level of quality in every step - from fibre to finished yarn," said Pastré.
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