Behind the scenes at the Loro Piana factory
When we were talking about Loro Piana on a recent post, a reader inquired about the manufacture and what I knew about it. I thought it would be interesting, therefore, to publish in full this chapter from The Finest Menswear in the World, my book from 2016.
In the process of researching it, talented photographer Andy Barnham and I toured several factories in Italy, and Loro Piana was one of the most memorable. I hope you enjoy this piece, on the company and the factories. More details on the book here.
Loro Piana knitwear, Sillavengo
Many things set Loro Piana apart from its peers, including scale, quality and innovation. But the most important – certainly for knitwear – is vertical integration.
Loro Piana sources all its own raw materials, so the rarest and most luxurious fabrics always find their way into the Loro Piana collection first - only later trickling down into the mainstream.
The company became the exclusive purveyor of vicuña for a decade. Baby cashmere and cloth from the lotus flower were a result of restless exploration by Pier-Luigi Loro Piana. The first discovery, however, was by Pier-Luigi’s father, Franco Loro Piana, in the 1950s.
The family had been wool traders for generations, going back to the early 19th century. In 1924, Franco’s uncle Pietro Loro Piana set up the first family company to sell woollen cloth (the cloth division of the company still bears his name). It wasn’t, however, until international travel became easier that Franco began travelling and bringing back both mechanical innovations and new wools.
The stand-out success was Tasmanian: a 2x1 cloth made from merino wool that Franco bought in Australia. ‘2x1’ refers to the weaving pattern, with two threads in the warp to only one in the weft (cloth had previously all been 2x2). Only the extra-long fibres Franco sourced could work with this much lighter weave.
It made Tasmanian the first four-season cloth, worn almost all year round in Italy. And markedly different from the heavy English woollens that dominated much of the market.
"It was a phenomenal success, selling millions of metres soon after launch," says Pier-Luigi. "Tasmanian was probably the world’s first branded cloth. Men used to keep the labels on the outside of the jacket cuff, to show off what it was made of."
In the 1980s, Loro Piana was the first company to bring cashmere back from Mongolia, establishing relationships with the local producers which enabled the company to control the quality more effectively.
Today, it is still the only brand that works in Mongolia on this individual level, with its own local trading company. Outside the company’s tent there is a sign that says ‘We buy cashmere 24 hours’. Herdsmen trust it over other traders because of its long-standing relationships (and electronic scales).
The other first came in Peru, where for many years it had been illegal to sell vicuña. The camelid the wool comes from had been hunted to near extinction – a long decline that began with the import of rifles by the Spanish. By 1950, there were only 6,000 animals left.
Both Franco and Pier-Luigi [below, being interviewed for this chapter] had known about the legendary material, which was so soft only the king of the Incas was allowed to wear it (woven with gold, and discarded at the end of each day), but had been unable to import it.
Then in the 1980s, Loro Piana began working with the Peruvian government to help the numbers recover, bringing in fences, breeding expertise and advice on how to harvest the wool without killing the animal – which had been normal practice until then.
As a result, the company won an exclusive contract to buy and sell vicuña for 10 years, from 1994 to 2004. Even today, Loro Piana buys the majority of the annual production.
The next innovation was baby cashmere, following a long campaign by Pier-Luigi in Mongolia.
He found that the underhair of hircus goats in their first year was a good degree finer than adult cashmere – around 13 microns as opposed to 15. Normally the nomadic herdsmen would put all cashmere into the same delivery – it was enough of an effort just to separate the soft underhair from the coarser body hair of the goat.
But gradually they were persuaded to sell baby cashmere separately, for a higher price. Again, for a long time Loro Piana was the only company selling the material, and still has the bulk of world supply.
The latest discovery was cloth woven from the filaments of the lotus flower. And it is this story that demonstrates the primacy of exploration at Loro Piana. Pier-Luigi travelled to Myanmar, where it is produced, many times before he was able to source any of the material.
After five years, he established a small group of women who could weave 40 metres a month on the old wooden looms used locally. Two years later, the company offered its first product – a run of 150 jackets.
It's strange to think it now, but Loro Piana only started selling clothes - rather than raw materials - in 1994. Since then revenue has increased rapidly, culminating in the sale of an 80% stake to LVMH for 2 billion euros in 2013. It has grown from two stores in Milan and Venice in 1998 to over 100 today. It is a giant.
You get a sense of that size, as well as the inevitable results of consistent experimentation, in the stock room. Based in Loro Piana’s Quarona headquarters, which house the weaving, finishing and quality control, the room is astonishing in its scale.
It is filled with 5,000 small grey crates, each of which contains a dozen or so cones of yarn, classified by their purpose and date of creation. The shelves, 30 or 40 crates high, recede into a blurry vanishing point from the viewing gallery half way up one wall.
The only other occupant of the room is a scuttling robot that whizzes up and down, out and back, fetching crates requested by the designers (above). It is an industrial sorting office for 250,000 kilos of cashmere.
Down the road in Sillavengo this wool is turned into knitwear. Cones of cashmere are trucked down the road to the small, one-storey building where around a dozen knitting machines produce the individual panels that make up Loro Piana sweaters.
Like most quality knitwear, Loro Piana’s is fully fashioned, meaning that the back, front and sleeves are knitted to size and then knitted together. More unusual is their range of knitting machines, from the large and rapid to the small and delicate.
It is the latter type - hand operated, sometimes referred to as 'flat bed' - that enables more experimental pieces, while the range of machinery makes it easier to produce made-to-measure knitwear relatively inexpensively (usually around a 20% surcharge).
It is not too much trouble to insert a unique order, with a different body shape, arm length and perhaps depth of the ‘V’ neck. The operator just has to generate a new code – either on a digital pad or a cardboard punch card, depending on the age of the machine (different types are preferred for different knits or details).
Pier-Luigi admits that design was a big concern when the new readymade line was launched in 1994.
The company’s history was in cloth, not fashion, and it was entering a crowded market for luxury Italian clothing. Anyone who visits the Pitti Uomo trade shows will be aware of quite how many Italian brands there are offering the same grey cashmere and brown suede aesthetic.
But in a few short years, Loro Piana became the paradigm of that Italian off-duty look. Its ‘Roadster’ pullover was one of the most popular, the zip-up neck and full body designed for those lucky men driving their open-top sports cars around Italy’s mountain roads. And jackets like the ‘Horsey’ and 'Icer', the former designed for the Italian Olympic show-jumping team, were staples long before the company's sneakers became so popular.
All of them demonstrated the company's mastery of materials - in particular the Storm System waterproof treatment, which has been patented and is widely licensed. But it was knitwear, with its soft tones and suede accents, which started everything.
"Baby cashmere, vicuña, the finest wools are the cornerstone of what we do – and so it is natural that everything in the readymade collection begins with thinking about knitwear," says Pier-Luigi.