World Tibet Network News
Friday, December 24, 1999
5. Vicuna, the politically correct cashmere
By Jennifer Clark
to Home Page
MILAN, Dec 24 (Reuters) - Fur? No way. Shatoosh? Banned. Pashmina?
The fashion-conscious and the well-to-do face a new dilemma this winter
about how to keep warm in a politically correct climate.
With the U.S. economic boom roaring ahead with no end in sight and the
stock market at record highs, companies like Gucci , Hermes and Cartier
can't seem to keep up with the demand for luxury goods.
But at the same time, the conspicuous consumption that characterised the
1980s is not an option for the millennium.
Wearing fur or a $2,000 shatoosh, declared illegal by the U.S.
authorities earlier this year following revelations that Tibetan
antelope, or chiru, was threatened with extinction to meet demand for
the wool from which the shawls are made, is
unthinkable in the "caring" 1990s.
And pashmina shawls, at $400 a pop, were cruelly declared "over" by
British Vogue in August.
Fortunately there's vicuna -- a rare wool made from a Peruvian relation
of the alpaca that is both the world's most expensive cloth and a model
of ecological friendliness.
"Vicuna is the most beautiful, legal, and moral 'fur' a woman can
Sergio Loro Piana, chairman and CEO of the Italian cashmere company and
vicuna exporter Loro Piana, told Reuters.
"Ever since I was a child I heard my father talk about vicuna -- he
produced it way back when it was still legal," he said, referring to a
time before it was banned because the animal faced extinction. "It was a
"FIBRE OF THE GODS" ALMOST BECAME EXTINCT
Like its Tibetan counterpart, the chiru of shatoosh fame, the vicuna of
Peru was hunted to the brink of extinction because of the status value
of the superior wool made from its soft, silky coat.
But while the chiru is still being slaughtered, the vicuna provides an
encouraging example of how business interests, government and wildlife
protection agencies can work together for the benefit of everyone.
Its wool has been prized since the time of the Incas as "the fibre of
the gods" and was reserved for members of the royal family.
The Spanish conquistadores led by Francisco Pizarro who took over the
Inca territory named the fibre "the Silk of the New World," and the
vicuna's march to near extinction began.
In the following centuries the Spanish colonists reduced the vicuna from
more than a million to just a few thousand. The first move to protect
the animal dates from 1777. After Peru's war of independence, Simon
Bolivar in 1825 issued several decrees to safeguard the vicuna. ONLY
Poaching became worse, however, with the spread of firearms in the
1920s. In 1966 the Peruvian government stepped in to forbid all trade in
vicuna wool, setting aside an area of 12,000 acres (4,856 hectares) for
a restocking programme. At that point there were only an estimated 5,000
In 1976, CITES, the United Nations agency which monitors trade of
endangered animals and plants, categorised the vicuna as among the
species in which any kind of trade was forbidden.
The Peruvian government's restocking was a success, but poaching posed a
continual threat. To discourage it, the authorities offered economic
incentives to involve the local population in the breeding and
safeguarding of the animals.
In 1987, the Peruvian government asked CITES for permission to trade in
vicuna fabric sheared with new methods from living animals. Previously,
they were slaughtered for their wool.
Once permission was granted, the Peruvian government held an
international contest in 1994 to find a partner to handle commercial
aspects of the trade. Loro Piana and another Italian firm, Lanerie
Loro Piana has been involved in the vicuna story for 20 years, Sergio
Loro Piana said.
"We helped prove to the CITES committee that Peru was in a position to
check and control the trade, and we were assigned permission to
distribute legally-farmed vicuna," he said.
"The possibility of linking our name and providing the raw material from
the vicuna for the next generation was too great to resist."
CAN THE CHIRU BE SAVED TOO?
The vicuna produces the finest fibre capable of being spun -- measuring
just 12 microns in diameter as opposed to the 15 microns of cashmere.
Merino wool, by comparison, is 16-18 microns in diameter.
Like shatoosh scarves, vicuna is both super-light and very warm. And
The wool is harvested by Peruvian peasants who drive the wild animals
into paddocks where they are sheared and released.
Illegal hunting still exists, said Loro Piana. But the government
incentive scheme for farmers makes poaching less attractive.
A vicuna scarf sells for about $1,500 and a man's overcoat can go for up
to $20,000, said Loro Piana, who opened a New York store at the end of
There are now about 160,000 vicuna living in Peru, indicating that it is
possible to save the chiru of Tibet from what conservationists say is
Some 20,000 chiru living on China's Tibetan plateau are killed every
year, the World Wide Fund for Nature said in October. Only an estimated
75,000 remain in the wild.