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Nature’s performance fabric — cashmere, that is — might be the archetypal antidote to working from home.

Cashmere, the cozy wool fiber obtained from goats, is soft to the touch and very fine, yet resiliently warm. Its uncommon set of characteristics make it a standout in the fiber universe, particularly due to its performance abilities: Cashmere blends well with other materials and is breathable, renewable, biodegradable, temperature-controlled and odor-resistant, in addition to feeling light and luxurious.

Companies such as Frances Austen, a San Francisco-based brand that touts “livable luxury,” creates modern heirloom cashmere sweaters and garments made from 100 percent Italian cashmere and silk. Focused on versatile staples, the brand approaches sustainability from a fresh angle, making clothing “with forever in mind.”

“Cashmere is such a special fabric — really it is nature’s performance fabric,” Margaret Coblentz, founder of Frances Austen, told WWD. “It keeps you warm but is breathable and can be worn close to the skin because it rarely causes irritation unlike some other woolens. On top of all of that, a well-made, well-cared-for sweater could last upwards of 30 years.”

Here, Cablentz talks to WWD about the magic of cashmere, and its place in the ever-evolving sustainability market.

WWD: How did your career in fast fashion impact the founding of Frances Austen? What’s behind the name?

Margaret Cablentz: I worked in fast fashion for Charlotte Russe (RIP), where I held a series of buying roles, including the director of e-commerce apparel. I left in 2016 after becoming totally burnt out and I was unsure of what I would do next, but knew I would never go back to work in fast fashion, or for a big corporate retailer. I began to consider the possibility of starting my own business. In the meantime, I sought out roles at companies I admired and that aligned with my personal values with the hope that I could gain more start-up experience before launching my own.

What I quickly learned, though, is that senior roles at fashion or product start-ups are hard to come by. Generally, it was the founders themselves who were directing product strategy and doing exactly what I wanted to do. From there, my husband pushed me to consider skipping an apprenticeship and simply diving in to focus on my own idea, which was to create something unique that spoke to my personal values and passion.

This passion began back when my grandmother gave me her collection of vintage cashmere sweaters. They were incredible — I wore them religiously and loved them, I but struggled to find any other pieces of the same high quality in stores today that didn’t come with a price tag upward of $1,000. I’ve always loved to mix a carefully considered investment piece with other affordable closet favorites and vintage pieces. Other women do as well, and I knew there was room in the world for a brand with thoughtful sourcing and luxury designer quality offering beautiful, wearable pieces.

Frances Austen is named after my great-aunt Frankie and great-grandmother Fran, as well as my own favorite author, Jane Austen.

WWD: Would you provide a bit more detail on your direct-to-consumer model and partnership with Cariaggi? What inspired you to work with them in a “new way,” and why cashmere?

M.C.: Frances Austen makes the same heirloom-quality luxury cashmere that your grandmother owned, but without the astronomical price point. We work with Cariaggi in Italy and Scotland-based Johnstons of Elgin, sweater manufacturers to big European fashion houses, in a direct-to-consumer capacity, so we pass on that value to our customers. We only release two collections per year and use zero-waste manufacturing, biodegradable materials, as well as packaging that is 100 percent biodegradable. We design with what the modern woman wants to wear today in mind, but also consider what will stay in her wardrobe for years to come.

Cariaggi holds ISO 14001 certifications for wool sustainability and is also a founding member of the CCMI, which stands for accountability and sustainability in the production of cashmere products. Cariaggi has long-standing relationships with Mongolian herders and is constantly checking on the health and well-being of the herds and herders alike. Their yarn is manufactured in a 100 percent renewable energy-powered plant that has 100 percent traceability of all chemicals and raw materials.

Frances Austen_Margaret Coblentz

Margaret Coblentz, founder of Frances Austen. Photo courtesy of Frances Austen. 

It’s both complex in terms of the steps they have taken over the years to institute these high standards, but also simple in that they are devoted to continued innovation and investment to make the product and process as low-impact as possible. The factory has had a strong belief that ethical and environmental manufacturing initiatives were vital in this space, long before it was “sexy” to do so. It is ingrained in their DNA to treat people well, respect the local environment and innovate.

Cashmere is such a special fabric — really it is nature’s performance fabric. It keeps you warm but is breathable and can be worn close to the skin because it rarely causes irritation unlike some other woolens. On top of all of that, a well made, well-cared-for sweater could last upward of 30 years.    

WWD: What does quality mean to you? How would you describe it?

M.C.: Within the larger context of retail, there is a small segment of consumers who are choosing quality over quantity. However, these shoppers are on the leading edge and this segment is growing each day. When you produce a truly high-quality product and there is a clear reason to charge a certain price for the item, the consumer understands.

The reaction we have received — whether the individual purchases or not — is that they definitely understand the reasoning behind our price point. We have all been fed a lot of products throughout our lives that we know we are paying far beyond the true cost for, but this isn’t the case with our clothing. This is a product that does not take any shortcuts in terms of the environment or labor, and consumers respect that.

Frances Austen

Frances Austen’s Lantern Sleeve Cashmere Sweater in Charcoal. Photo courtesy of Frances Austen. 

WWD: How has the sustainability market evolved during your career? Have you noted any major changes in consumers’ wants, needs or desires?

M.C.: I have always believed that change in the fashion industry will come from consumers and we’re starting to see that. My hope is that people will look at Frances Austen and recognize that you can make incredibly beautiful products, not a lot of them, make them well and run a meaningful business. The reality is that this may come with limitations on how large you can grow a business, but it also means you can run one that will stand the test of time. Convincing people to be thoughtful and find meaning in their purchases will be our biggest accomplishment.

The changes in consumer taste happening right now are so inspiring. When I started Frances Austen, I wasn’t sure how strongly our message would resonate, but hearing from women who are frustrated with quality standards and companies without values shows me we are moving into a new paradigm, and I am so excited to see what the future brings.

The COVID-19 crisis may accelerate the shift toward sustainability and transparency. In the same way that after 9/11 people rejected flashy designer garb and gravitated to minimalism, I believe people will realize they don’t need as much and instead choose beautiful, seasonless items that they can wear and re-wear. We started a series a few years ago, “1 Sweater Five Ways,” highlighting women with inspiring style who showed all the unique ways they wear the same sweater to create different outfits. In the last six weeks, we’ve seen other versions of this idea popping up all over Instagram which I take as a great sign that the idea of re-wearing is taking hold as a value.

WWD: What are your tips for preserving cashmere and protecting it from the elements?

M.C.: To preserve your precious cashmere sweaters, you should wash them instead of dry-cleaning — cashmere is a natural fiber sort of like your hair and it performs best when cared for similarly. A cold water hand wash in a cashmere shampoo like The Laundress, squeeze out any excess water in a clean towel and then lay flat to dry away from any heat or light sources. You should wash your sweaters every two to three wears, as clean cashmere is less attractive to moths. At the end of the season, store your sweaters in plastic totes with cedar chip sachets to keep them sealed from moths. All cashmere sweaters will pill, but buying a high-quality sweater with long staple hairs in the yarn will reduce the pilling, and you can use a sweater comb to remove pills — caring for your sweaters with proper washing helps as well.

For more Business news from WWD, see:

Outdoor Brands Talk Coronavirus Impacts

Brick-and-Mortar, Digital Retailers Adjust Strategies in Wake of Coronavirus

Field Notes: How Fabric Is Helping Save the Planet

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