Sign up to BQ Breakfast to receive daily news:

The land of luxury

Friday 23 November 2012 13:00

Age-old italian brand loro piana is an exclusive club in which luxury, above all else, is what matters, as Josh Sims finds

Some €3000 for a jacket might seem like a lot, but when only 20 could be made, it is presented in a lacquered box and, most incredibly of all, it is woven from lotus leaves, the price tag might seems less bank-breaking.

“In fact,” says Pier Luigi Loro Piana, joint-CEO of the Loro Piana family business and Italian luxury goods label, “in the end I don’t care how much the resulting jacket might cost. Of course, long-term we have profit in mind. But right now this is more about keeping alive an artisan community making something unique, about saving a very antique tradition from being lost.”

That antique tradition happens to be an ageold and little-known craft on the shores on Lake Inle in Burma, where fibres are extracted from lotus leaves by hand and then woven within 24 hours before deterioration sets in. This produces just 120gm of a raw silk-like yarn.

Small wonder then that the esoteric and labour-intensive craft is on the point of dying out. Or that Lora Piana, when it heard about it, decided to back and buy the community’s entire output for the foreseeable future.

After all, super-exclusive fabrics are its metier. This is the same global company - formed in Valsesia in 1924 by Pietro Loro Piana, taken over by his nephew in 1941 and now based in Milan and run by his sons Pier Luigi and Sergio - that a few years ago acquired 2,000 hectares in Peru to convert into a private reservation for vicuna, the once endangered lama-like creature whose coat provides the so-called ‘fibre of the gods’.

Or the company that, as the world’s biggest cashmere producer, convinced Chinese and Mongolian breeders to set aside small quantities of ‘baby cashmere’, the super-soft under-fleece taken from a kid’s coat on its first (and only on its first) combing, 19 kids’ worth being required to make a single sweater.

Unsurprisingly, such a sweater does not come cheap. “But there is now a consumer with experience in wealth - and I don’t mean ‘old money’ - who is looking for something more, who finds pleasure less in showing off as in the quality of what they buy,” argues Sergio Loro Piana, whose name, since it now adorns some 19 stores across Italy alone, has become something of a national byword for serious luxury.

“The fact is that we’ve never put a logo on anything and that hasn’t prevented the company from growing. For those who are in the club, the product alone is recognisable enough, even if it’s invisible to others.

“And that is not an easy position to duplicate - if you’ve sold to a segment of the market on the back of branding, it’s very hard to leave that behind to sell to the very top end of the luxury market...”

Loro Piana’s position - and its verticallyintegrated operation, unusual in the fashion industry - has certainly paid off.

Sergio Loro Piana attributes this in part to being a family company - this allows projects to be progressed at their own pace, rather than in a rush to meet shareholder expectations.

Its baby cashmere operation has been years in development, the kind of plan that guardians of the bottom line might condemn as extravagant.

Sergio, three years Pier Luigi’s senior, jokes how his brother (with whom, unusually, he swaps seats to lead the company every three years) only started using email a few years ago - and then only when he realised that decisions were being made without his involvement because he never checked his in-box. But this bubble-like existence certainly works.

The E500m company has seen its revenues grow to ten times what it was just a decade ago.

And it has slowly extended its remit beyond clothing made from top textiles to bags, shoes, specialist outerwear (developing techniques to allow natural fibres to be as protective as technical synthetics), and interior decoration fabrics.

Its latest product line, sunglasses, similarly strives to meet its ‘best of the best’ philosophy - they are made with the thinnest optical glass in the world, which also contain a secret combination of rare earth elements to provide extreme levels of contrast and clarity, with a celluloid frame polished over days by tumbling amid chips of beech and birch.

That perhaps explains their £600 ticket. Still, Sergio Lora Piana, a keen pilot, is very pleased with his.

“They are, of course, just a pair of sunglasses and the world doesn’t need another pair of sunglasses,” he says.

“But as vicuna is to knitwear, so these are to sunglasses...” Indeed, part of the appeal of Loro Piana is that it could put its name to almost anything, as other ‘luxury’ goods companies have, but chooses not to. Expansion, the company says, will come from more stores and emerging markets, “whereas give your name to a licensee and they want to sell as much of everything as possible,” he says, “which is good for making money - but only in the short-term. But we’re not really into ‘brand extension’,” Sergio Loro Piana adds.

“We did shoes, for example, only because I needed some to sail in and someone thought the ones we made were so good we should put them in production.

"And the sunglasses came about because we didn’t want to use somebody else’s in a fashion shoot we were doing. You do a fragrance and next thing you know you’re making toilet bowls. We just want to use the best raw materials to make things in Italy with a bit of good taste.”