Of the endless shenanigans that Curious George has gotten himself into in the popular children's books and current film adaptation, surely none is this zany: Banana in hand, the whimsical simian now flashes his cheeky smile from the back of a Raw 7 cashmere sweater--price tag $385.
Cashmere is flooding retailers from posh boutiques to Costco: Depending on your point of view (that is, your age and income), cashmere is becoming either fun and accessible or hopelessly vulgar. Inexpensive Chinese imports are unraveling its aura of exclusivity, while tattoo-inspired graphics are either the epitome of cool or rapidly making this once-noble fabric the apparel equivalent of flavored vodka.
After decades of stuffy associations, cashmere has gone from Squaresville to Hipster City--with a pleasant stopover in Looneyland. Los Angeles-based fashion brand Raw 7, which makes hip, street-inspired cashmere pullovers emblazoned with Curious George or Tweety Bird characters, was founded three years ago by Ofer Ashkenazy. First-year sales were $900,000; for 2005, $22 million. Success, says Ashkenazy, has come from offering a novel product: "This contemporary cashmere has never been in the marketplace."
Raw 7 uses variegated discolorations, frayed silk trim, stitch treatments, discharge prints, beading and embroidery to create sweaters that appear to be one of a kind (though production runs number about 400). "The cashmere sweater was always considered very refined," says Ashkenazy. "It was very basic, a luxury item maybe you got as a gift, and it was considered very special and elite and stodgy." In contrast, "Ours give you the attitude of having a tattoo, but at the end of the day you just take off your sweater."
Cashmere's princely status derives from its butter-soft hand. The yarn is culled from the beard and undercoat of a goat found primarily in China, Mongolia, Tibet and Iran. While Kashmir, India, is not a significant supplier, it is the place from which the goat takes its name. It takes about four goats to produce enough yarn for one sweater, and they can be dehaired only once per year. The longer the hair, the softer the yarn and the more resistant to pilling. It is a surprisingly hardy fabric despite its delicate touch.
But if cashmere-as-surrogate-tattoo is difficult to comprehend, consider its humble origins in the mass marketplace. Introduced in 1871, Pringle of Scotland's cashmere underwear predates the invention of both deodorant and bathroom tissue. Prized for providing insulation with minimal bulk, cashmere was an unseen second skin beneath the veneer of Victorian prudery, unless you were royalty, who wore finer versions as outer garments. That changed during the Roaring '20s, when the Duke of Windsor threw on a Fair Isle sweater vest while golfing, thus giving birth to cashmere as mass fashion.
Chanel, Patou and Schiaparelli soon were making chic knitwear for the post-19th Amendment woman, and in 1937 Lana Turner launched the "sweater girl" trend in the film "They Won't Forget." Then, as if to ward off the chill of the Cold War, cashmere's image became staid and conservative, something Doris Day accessorized with pearls and virginity.
Today, innovative printing techniques and foreign imports are helping change all that. In 2004, cashmere imports jumped from 10 million to 14 million items, according to the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute. During the last decade, China has aggressively entered production of cashmere apparel, says institute spokesman Jim Coleman, where previously it was confined to supply. With cheaper labor costs and the recent dropping of trade quotas, says Coleman, "China is really driving the whole trend."
So are young designers. Indeed, cashmere soon may replace denim as the preferred fabric of fashion start-up lines. Twenty-six-year-old Daniel Dahan founded L.A.-based Troy Kingdom in 2004 with $340 hoodies decorated with images of flowers and birds.
"It's very hard to print on cashmere," Dahan explains. "Not a lot of people want to touch it because it's very risky: One out of three pieces will get damaged." The color is removed from the cashmere where the print is to go, then the graphic is embedded into it, leaving a smooth surface. Dahan uses a small mill in China, and has developed a proprietary chemical treatment process that he says makes cashmere even softer. "I also give a little bit of a destroyed look to it."
Perhaps no one better exemplifies cashmere's reinvention than the brand that did so much to popularize it in the 20th century--and help cement its image as a fabric for golf fogeys and doe-eyed debutantes. Pringle of Scotland is one of the many storied European brands to relaunch as a global luxury fashion house. Though it now offers a full range of clothing and accessories, cashmere sweaters, classic and trendy, remain the cynosure of the collection.
"It's such a noble fiber that's always been considered the height of luxury," says Clare Waight Keller, recently named Pringle's creative director after design stints at Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. "It did have a time when it was associated with glamour, but it wasn't something that young people wore. Rather than being old and staid, we're trying to be much younger and carefree about it."
Cashmere's radical re-visioning coincides with an overall rise in the luxury accessories market, where Louis Vuitton handbags, Manolo Blahnik shoes and assorted bling serve as status symbols to compensate for the fact that everyone is in jeans.
The shadow trailing in the footsteps of this conspicuous consumption is the notion of "luxury for the masses." Costco's website reads: "Enjoy luxury in the form of beautiful, warm, 100% cashmere ... worn with pearls, a blazer ... classic ... with a continuous cable pattern, small enough to flatter all types."
The democratization of dress has brought us to the point where blue jeans--originally a 19th century workers' garment--now can easily fetch $800, while cashmere--once considered exclusively upper crust--is available to the masses at Target for $27.99 for a sweater. Although some may argue that the smiling face of Tweety Bird on a $350 sweater perfectly illustrates the difference between those with money and those with taste, cashmere is not likely to be disposed of prematurely.
"Cashmere has a wonderful heirloom quality about it," says Pringle's Keller. "You feel that when you're buying into a cashmere garment, you're not just buying something that's a trend, but something with longevity. I don't think a person imagines throwing away a piece of cashmere--ever."