The best Merino sheep have long been prized for the exceptional quality of their wool. In times past monarchs presented the animals to foreign princes or loyal courtiers to seal alliances and signal approbation. Loro Piana, the Italian company famed for its cashmere and vicuña products, began to shepherd the stoic creature’s fate several decades ago and has now bred lambs that yield the finest fibres in the world.
Pier Luigi Loro Piana is a man who makes measurements. We first spent time together on his yacht in the Caribbean, racing sailboats off the British Virgin Islands. I say “his” yacht, but the 28 metre craft on which we sliced through the emerald seas was actually a loaner, his own vessel being in dry dock for a refit. Nonetheless, “PG” – the name he prefers among friends – was a man on a mission. As Lora Piana’s long time spiritual captain battled the heavy boat’s limitations – his own is much faster – he was calculating to the last inch and breath of wind whatever it would take for him to win the race.
Since he was a child growing up in his father’s fabric business, PG has been this way and his new mission is to measure the width of merino wool in increasingly tiny numbers of microns. The point being that an extremely thin wool filament will produce a fabric of exceptional quality, finer even than cashmere or vicuña. And fine fabric is the heart and soul of the fabrics that Loro Piana has been making for over 90 years.
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The Merino breed of sheep, which produces the finest quality wool, is also thought to be the oldest breed, evolving from a species that lived in the wild centuries ago. The Phoenicians, traded in Merino fleeces, as well as the Greeks, who helped spread the wool around the Mediterranean. The name is derived from one class of Spanish agricultural inspectors from the medieval period that was called merino, which held authority over a merindad (district) and may have inspected sheep pastures. This word is from the Medieval Latin maiorinus, meaning a steward who takes charge of a family or a village.
The Moors introduced merinos to Spain in the 8th century. As the sheep became an accepted source of income, the Spanish kings took possession of all the flocks and enacted a law that made it a crime to sell them. Between the 14th century, when King Alfonso of Spain passed the first laws, and the end of the 18th century, anyone attempting to export even a Merino faced the death penalty.
In the 18th century, the Spanish kings began to present the animals as gifts. Pairs of Merino sheep, which since then have been known as the “Gift of Kings,” were presented to the Elector of Saxony and the royal families of Britain, France and Holland. The Saxons began to rear the sheep intensively and developed the characteristics of the breed intent on improving the quality of the wool. In 1773, Captain James Cook took a pair of Merino sheep with him on his second voyage to New Zealand. Not long after that, in 1797, the breed also arrived in Australia, where it found the ideal conditions to thrive.
Loro Piana began its stewardship of Merinos in Australia. In 1975, Franco Loro Piana, PG’s father, advised his son to keep hold of a few lengths of Tasmanian cloth, made with Merino wool with fibres of just over 17 microns. Supplies of the raw material were beginning to run low, as breeders believed it was unprofitable to concentrate on such a niche product solely for connoisseurs.
Pier Luigi began travelling through Australia and New Zealand, meeting with farmers and forging new partnerships focused on safeguarding the production of Merino wool. In the 1980s Loro Piana began buying the finest bales at annual auctions in Australia and New Zealand, turning them into innovative fabrics, using the newest technologies. The company’s involvement with the farmers and breeders has led to progressive improvements. Whereas 17 microns was once the gold standard for Merino wool, PG has pushed that lower by funding innovation and encouraging competition. Over the last decade his efforts have led farmers to master the art of producing fibres that are just 12 microns, almost one-third thinner than the previous benchmark.
For the farmers the production of the finest Merino wool is a costly, labour intensive business because there are few sheep that produce superfine fibres. These animals require a lot of care, special attention to their diet and considerable investments in genetic selection programmes. Not all breeders are willing to take on these costs to produce such a limited, expensive end result destined for a niche market.
These highly selected flocks are tended with the utmost care, with farmers checking on all the animals every day, along with their fleeces, which are protected using special covers to prevent them from getting dirty or contaminated with leaves, twigs and small parasites. Each sheep produces around one kilo of wool every year. The sheep are sheared in the spring, when the animals no longer need to be protected from the elements, respecting their natural life cycle.
With this in mind, Loro Piana forged agreements with a small number of farmers in Australia and New Zealand for the exclusive purchase of all of their 12 micron wool to transform into outstanding quality casual wear and accessories. It will be known as “The Gift of Kings” range and will be devoted to the most sophisticated, discerning customers.
The new line was premiered in Hong Kong at The Gift of Kings Exhibition at the ifc’s Oval Atrium from October 9 to 12. The range includes jackets made from 12 micron Merino wool lined with mink, scarves in the “Gift of Kings” wool, crewneck and high neck sweaters, bombers and polo shirts.
Australia is home to around 75 million sheep, only 18 million of which produce wool finer than 19 microns. In New Zealand there are 32 million sheep, and only 2.2 million of them yield fibre under 21 microns. And of these, only a few thousand produce Loro Piana’s exclusive “Gift of Kings” wool. The rarity of the product is a testimony to PG’s commitment to quality and innovation. The last time we met was at Hong Kong’s international airport, at the baggage carousel. When his huge pieces of luggage emerged they were made of sails from one of his yachts, which “PG” had recycled.
“I believe in innovation,” he said.
“Luxury needs new ideas, that’s what keeps people dreaming. If we can take an ancient product [like Merion wool] and give it a new life then I feel we have achieved something worthwhile.”
And with Pier Luigi Loro Piana remaining at the heart of the company following its acquisition by LVMH it’s likely that innovation and invention will remain a ley part of the company’s DNA, making it a company that continues to make products that are fit for a king. By Daniel Jeffreys
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