by erin Lentz | November 21, 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.
“It’s like your first date being with Marilyn Monroe!” exclaims the captain of the Rainbow, describing the 131-foot, J-Class superyacht—one of just six in the world. Stealthily slicing the azure waters of the British Virgin Islands, we’ve just set sail with the official Loro Piana race crew during the 2014 Loro Piana Caribbean Superyacht Regatta & Rendezvous. If one’s first introduction to yachting is aboard this beauty, her curves are seductive indeed.
Pier Luigi Loro Piana, vice chairman of the eponymous 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. The mood is intense, yet jubilant, and when the Rainbow’s captain barks “high side,” a flurry of navy hats and shirts flee to the opposite side of the deck. We round Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island, and once steadily at sea, Pier Luigi surrenders the helm to Brisset and sits beside me. Dressed as one of the crew, at age 63 his casual salt-and-pepper hair, groomed mustache, and tanned laugh lines befit a savvy Italian aware of his good fortune. He launches into explanation of his love of jazz, saying, “I named my yacht My Song. Jazz and sailing are my passions,” he grins, adding, “besides wool and cashmere.”
Considering his recent decision to sell a majority of his sixth-generation family business to LVMH—the European luxury conglomerate acquired an 80 percent stake in Loro Piana in July 2013 for 2 billion euros (about $2.5 billion USD)—Pier Luigi, who remains hands-on in his vice chairman role, is quick to smile, explaining that the two entities share similar values. In turn, he feels his company is tacking in the right direction.
Pier Luigi is known to seize the moment, whether at sea, with family, or in a boardroom. And though he may claim world-class jazz musicians among his coterie and sail the largest yachts in the ocean, he can also be found in a dinghy on Lake Burma, scouring the far reaches of the earth for the kinds of exquisite textiles his customers associate with his brand. His latest gem is the fiber of the lotus flower, which is woven into an exclusive, lightweight blazer. This discovery is a frontrunner in the company’s evolving commitment toward sustainable luxury—a buzzword among top-tier brands vying for the attention of a particularly discerning clientele, one that increasingly prioritizes social conscience along with fabric quality and design innovation.
According to a recent study published by the Swiss Company CIBJO, the World Jewellery Confederation, luxury brands such as Loro Piana may lose business if an emphasis on corporate and social responsibility (CSR) isn’t achieved. Jonathan Kendall, CIBJO’s president of marketing and education, elaborates, noting, “Post-recession luxury consumers have changed for good, and corporate responsibility will be directly linked to a luxury company’s profitability in the future.” Additionally, during the Sustainable Luxury Forum held in Geneva in June 2013, the Ethical Consumer Research Association (ECRA), a UK nonprofit, warned that if luxury brands don’t practice ethical standards, they will experience exceeding pushback from increasingly educated consumers. According to the 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global Study on CSR, nine out of 10 global consumers want companies to exceed minimal standards required by law to operate responsibly; 87 percent surveyed said they would actually boycott companies that practice irresponsible behavior.
As such, Pier Luigi explains, “We are looking for quality—that strategy will never change—but with the mentality to respect nature, to respect the environment; how we produce and manufacture. We try to discover what nature can give us without trying to pollute. This is very important—to do less damage to this world.”
Workers at Loro Piana’s Sillavengo factory, in Piedmont, Italy, testing fabric elasticity.
It’s readily apparent that Pier Luigi’s dedication to uncovering rare fibers is rooted in his family’s longstanding affair with fine textiles. Officially established in 1924 by Pietro Loro Piana—yet with origins dating back to 1812 with the prescient vision of Pier Luigi’s great-grandfather, Giacomo Loro Piana—the company, originally named Lanificio di Quarona di Zignone & Co., was the first to brand and label a textile during the late 1800s. Today, Loro Piana is the world’s largest cashmere manufacturer and the biggest single purchaser of the globe’s finest wools.
Renowned for its trademarked baby cashmere, vicuña wool, and fine merino wools sourced from Australia and New Zealand, the family business produced solely wool during its infancy. After Pier Luigi’s father, Franco Loro Piana, took the reins in 1941, the company introduced high-fashion woollen fabrics, including cashmere.
“We were known for making particularly good, thick, woolen coats when textiles became an industry—and high-quality fabric, particularly for men,” Pier Luigi explains. “After World War II, [my father] made a strategic change to the company, with products for both men and women.”
After Pier Luigi and his late brother, Sergio, took over in the 1970s and began exporting fabrics—with the mantra of continuing a generational commitment to high-quality craftsmanship—Loro Piana’s global footprint was solidified during the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, during which the company’s Horsey Jacket was worn by Italy’s equestrian team for the first time. Sport has since continued to be part of Loro Piana’s DNA.
Today, the Italian house claims 150 retail outlets—including 16 in the United States—located in regions, such as Aspen, populated with particularly affluent consumers. In addition to its lines for men and women, Loro Piana Interiors was established in 2006 (only sold through architects and designers)—imagine a home with cashmere walls or a jet replete with Loro Piana’s “One Step to Heaven” organic cashmere carpet. By 2011, an accessories collection was launched, featuring blankets, eyewear, small leather goods, and more. Unlike many brands, even in the luxury sector, that outsource steps in production, Loro Piana’s fully integrated from-sheep-to-shop production allows for tight quality control. At its group headquarters in Corso Rolandi, Italy, one will find workers with tweezers hunched over swaths of cashmere, while huge, high-tech machines support a largescale, modern-day operation. Perhaps it’s this juxtaposition that has enabled the sixth-generation Italian brand to remain rooted in its quest for high-quality craftsmanship.
“The quality is a value that is untouchable,” Pier Luigi explains. “We desperately need the hands and professional skill of our Italian workers—this is a given. In the ’80s we invested in a lot of new technology, new machinery, 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.”
Loro Piana’s sheep-to-shop production process allows for tight quality control.
An ancient, natural fiber once utilized for handcrafted monks’ garments and sacred to the Buddha 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 f lower.’ He knew about the lotus-f lower fabric and story, because in Japan, they developed the lotus-f lower fabric a thousand years ago. 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. I told him I wanted to go to Myanmar and buy the raw material. He said, ‘Better I come with you and show you everything I know.’”
Immediately smitten by this fragile find with so much promise, Pier Luigi decided to fast-track production, and in 2010 contracted the local community to produce the lotus-f lower fiber (Nelumbo nucifera). He now employs nearly 500 Intha locals.
“It’s impossible to bring the raw material to Europe because it’s basically wet,” he notes. “This fabric is the greenest textile fabric [in] the world. There is no electricity involved, no engine that works on the machinery, nothing.”
Rather, the stems of the aquatic plant produce an extremely fine, raw material that has to be hand-worked on wooden looms; from the moment the flowers are de-stemmed, 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 light-asair, breathable yarn needed for a single cut length of a blazer. The final product is available only in its natural ecru color. Upholding Loro Piana’s passion for tradition, the production supports and perpetuates an ancient art and economy in jeopardy of being forgotten. “We will not lose this tradition, which was ready to die,” Pier Luigi notes. 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 is custom priced.
Pier Luigi’s intuitive way of uncovering and working with raw materials has been the driving force of his career. Indeed, he cites “a big group of people”—approximately 65—who are trained to take the raw material from fiber to production, “technicians for spinning, wheeling, manufacturing; they learn from me,” he says. But Pier Luigi himself can be found, year after year, leading international trips to uncover new materials. He travels with a small circle of two to three trusted researchers and prefers to be hands-on. His wanderlust for textile discovery and improvement may be his biggest passion; even his yacht My Song can’t compete.
“I was in charge of purchasing raw materials since the beginning of my career,” he explains. “I received from my father a very good base; I was already working with high-quality fabrics. But it’s important that somebody who wants to judge new products has a deep knowledge of the raw material. We try to push the natural raw material [to] the highest level of performance. I like to go in deep. I want to know the feeling [of the material] and what is really happening [in the region].”
Preceding his latest revelation in flower power was the company’s establishment of the Dr. Franco Loro Piana (named after the founder’s nephew) private nature preserve in Peru. Much of the fabric used for the brand’s most coveted pieces comes from the vicuña, a South American relative of the llama, which has been rescued from extinction. The vicuña is a small Andean camelid, coined the “Queen of the Andes.” Its coat is so rare that it was protected by the Incas and only worn by the Incan emperor and his family
Word of this exquisite fiber, however, traveled quickly, and eventually Spanish conquistadors hunted the animal to near extinction. The vicuña became endangered as poaching continued; by the 1960s only 5,000 remained. Loro Piana began championing the species in the ’80s, working with local governments to safeguard the animal, and by 2008, it officially established the Dr. Franco Loro Piana Reserva. Today, the vicuña head count is approximately 180,000, and the number of vicuña on the reserve has doubled since its inception, according to company claims. Furthermore, just last year, Loro Piana expanded its vicuña efforts to Argentina, acquiring 60 percent of Sanin SA, an Argentine company with rights to shear wild vicuña. Loro Piana is currently the top producer of vicuña, considered the finest fiber that can be legally shorn from an adult animal. Only 12.5 to 13 microns thick, the resulting wool is incomparable in softness and quality.
When at home in Italy, Pier Luigi drives a Tesla and takes pride in being a family man. But when he’s driving business—akin to how he navigates the sea during race day aboard the Rainbow—he’s highly strategic. 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. LVMH is also a committed advocate of environmental protection and a member of the United Nations Global Compact, providing further evidence that it was a good fit for the family-run business. An initiative launched in 2003 by Kofi Annan, [then] secretary-general of the U.N., the UNGC requires its signatories to apply and promote 10 principles in the field of human rights, labor, and the environment.
“Quality is the prime character of everything we do,” Pier Luigi notes. “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 effect on the environment. “If you put a jacket of wool under the dirt, it will die, like a sheep that dies in the grass. The nylon jacket never dies.”
On the day we set forth on the Rainbow, despite best efforts, the crew didn’t cross the finish line first (but the team went on to win second place overall in Division A). Yet as we disembarked and wished Pier Luigi good luck during the ensuing regatta race days, he winked and said, “We may not have won today… but we’re certainly the best dressed.” 316 S. Galena St., 970-544-0502
photography by andy barnham (factory); brUno rotUnnIo/coUrtESy of Loro pIana