PIER LUIGI LORO PIANA, of the eponymous Italian cashmere and luxury-goods company, last month followed his passion for sailing to Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands, to compete in the Loro PIana Superyacht Regatta. His chartered boat didn’t win the three-day event, but MyLittleBird caught up with the 63-year-old deputy chairman there and learned a lot about the Loro PIana company and the rare, ultra-luxury goods it sells, including baby cashmere sweaters for $1,700 and rare vicuña throws for $12,000.
MLB: You have opened a beautiful Loro Piana shop in Washington’s new City Center complex downtown, where the old Convention Center used to be. Why Washington? Why now?
Pier Luigi Loro Piana [with a delighted laugh]: It’s the most important town in the United States, with a wonderful mix of formal and casual, real American style. We think it will be a good fit for us.
MLB: I know Loro Piana started out as a 19th-century textile manufacturer and the company as we know it today dates back to 1924.
PLLP: Yes, we only started making luxury goods in the 1970s. We were not in retail until 1990. My father left us a company with 400 employees—that’s a medium-size company for Italy. Manufacturing [in Italy] was thought to be dead. We were never knitters, but gradually we were able to buy small knitting companies to make our products. We were able to help them consolidate a system for manufacturing by guaranteeing them work. After growing the company for 40 years today we have almost 2,800 employees.
MLB: What made you agree to sell 80 percent of the company [for $2.57 billion] to the French luxury firm LVMH (Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton) almost two years ago?
PLLP: We went looking for them; they didn’t come to us. My brother knew he had a health problem. [Sergio Loro Piana died in December 2013, six months after the sale.] He and my sister wanted to sell. Also, among us, there are eight children. Passing the company on would be very difficult. I learned one thing from “The Godfather”: You have to point to one person and say, You are the one.
MLB: Still, it seems sad.
PLLP: We did what we could do. We Italians are good at running family companies. Arnault (Bernard Arnault, who heads LVMH, with its 70 luxury brands] is a genius. He can run 10 companies. But LVMH is like a big family company. It has the rules of a big company but the philosophy of a family company—that was important for our employees and the farmers who sell us our raw materials. Big companies should help to keep artisans and craftsmen and farmers alive by creating a market for their products.
MLB: Yes, I’m told you have relationships with farmers all over the world.
PLLP: We visit herders in Mongolia who shear [the underfleece from] their Hircus goats once a year for us. Now we use baby cashmere, too, even more precious–the underfleece can be sheared only once in a goat’s lifetime. In the Andes in Peru we helped the government create a preserve for vicuñas, which were being poached. And now in Myanmar we are turning the ancient fiber of the lotus flower into a most precious fabric. It takes the fibers inside almost 26,000 lotus-flower stems, spun by hand in the traditional manner by Burmese women, to produce enough fabric for a blazer.
MLB: So what is the difference between your cashmere and the inexpensive sweaters we see that are promoted, especially around Christmas time, for a couple of hundred dollars?
PLLP: The levels of quality depend on several things: The origin of the cashmere, the micron difference (the size of the individual hairs), the technology we apply in finishing the fabric. And part of it is quantity: We make in small series—100 sweaters, not 1 million. Our sweater may weigh 300 grams, not 200 grams. And of course cashmere sweaters made in China have a lower labor cost. All of our things are made in Italy. At every stage of the operation, we are driven not by cost-saving but by quality. [A Loro Piana medium-weight baby-cashmere sweater may cost $1,675, a women’s knitted tunic in rare vicuña $7,850.]
MLB: But how can I tell in a store whether a cashmere sweater is good-enough quality?
PLLP: First, brand recognition. As a brand, we want to take full responsibility for the quality. Then, the retailer should be a guarantor of quality. And you should be able to rely on labels. I am pro-traceability, to know where everything came from and where it was made. There’s a master organization that monitors labels, choosing hundreds at random, to make sure they’re true.
MLB: But how many people can afford the ultra-luxury products you produce?
PLLP: To sell at such a high level of quality , we try to find customers all around the world. [Loro Piana already has 18 stores in mainland China and Japan.] My father always kept to high-quality fabrics, and after World War II it was very, very difficult; there were fewer buyers at that level. A good part of my job has been to make the company global, to find the customer.
We are not a fashion company. Fashion is too fast. I don’t want to buy something I can wear a few times. It’s a waste of time for everyone. We [Loro Piana] were not born like that. For us, the worst insult would be for you to throw out your coat. People come up to me and show me the label inside their coat and say, I’ve had it for 30 years. They expect me to be surprised, but I’m not. It’s supposed to last. The design is timeless, not fashion. Loro Piana is for those who like a more discreet way of living.
MLB: And as I have learned, sports performance plays a role in the fabrics and fibers you develop.
PLLP: Just this week, in the regatta, we were wearing jackets that are windproof and waterproof and stretchy—light and warm. And I thought we should try this fabric in our skiwear.
MLB: You make skiwear too!?
PLLP: Oh yes. Just a few styles. And we make these shoes for men, in suede. It’s a great shoe. My [own dress] shoes are custom made, and they’re an investment.
MLB: And your wife’s shoes?
PLLP [hesitates, then laughs]: Oh, I don’t want to make Mr. Della Valle unhappy [referring to Diego Della Valle, who heads up the Tod’s shoe company]. Women’s shoes are a waste of money.
MLB: Mr. Loro Piana, every woman in America just fell in love with you!