U.S. HAS SHEEPISH TAKE ON ESCORIAL

Byline: James Fallon

LONDON — Escorial is keen to crack the American designer market.
The luxury fiber, made from the hair of a special breed of New Zealand sheep, has been successful in penetrating the women’s wear market for fall via deals with Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel. It also is being used in men’s wear and home furnishings by such companies as Brioni of Italy, Comme des Garcons of Japan, Connolly of the U.K., Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.
But the road has been harder among the U.S. designers.
“We just can’t seem to generate any interest among the American designers,” said Ben Frankel, the company’s London-based creative director and joint-venture partner with New Zealand sheep farmer Peter Radford. “We showed it to Saint Laurent himself, and he loved it. But we can’t even get in to see Donna Karan or any of the other American designers.”
Frankel admits he’s biased, but he firmly believes Escorial is the next step beyond cashmere. Now that cashmere products, mostly blends, can be bought everywhere from the Gap to Lands’ End and its quality is variable, it is no longer a luxury fiber, he claimed.
But even Frankel admits Escorial will never take away cashmere. Its annual production, at about 120 to 150 metric tons this year, is only about 1 percent of the world’s total cashmere output. Industry observers said its price also always will limit its appeal, with shawls in Escorial retailing for $500 to $950 in the U.S.
El Escorial is the name of a 16th-century Spanish monastery where sheep used to graze. The sheep had been brought over from the Mahgreb in Morocco by Moorish invaders in the 11th century. The Spanish kings gave the fibers from the flock as special gifts and occasionally gave the sheep themselves.
One such gift in the 18th century, to the elector of Saxony, ensured that the special Mahgreb strain lived on even after those at the monastery were destroyed during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1829, trader Eliza Furlonge traveled to Saxony, selected 100 of the herd and loaded them onto ships bound for Australia. The remainder of the European herd eventually was used as food in Germany in the 1920s.
Radford first saw the sheep about 35 years ago and became intrigued by their potential, even though they’re about half the size of normal ones and thus, to most herders, uninteresting. He imported some of the genes to New Zealand from Australia in 1980, since the Australians wouldn’t let him take any of the actual sheep, and began cultivating his own herd. It now numbers about 50,000 animals.
About three years ago, the New Zealand sheep farmer began working with Scottish mills such as Reid & Taylor, Alex Begg & Co., Hunters of Brora and Linton Tweeds to weave the fiber from the sheep into cloth. These companies now form the quality-control guild that produces all Escorial fabrics.
Frankel, a creative consultant who came on board two years ago because of his designer contacts, said Italian mills are eager to become involved, but he’s wary for fear they might copy the process and eventually flood the market with Escorial.
“This is a luxury fiber, and it has to be controlled,” he said. “From a scientific point of view, it’s a completely new yarn. It has a completely different DNA to cashmere or pure wool. It’s taken the Scottish mills two years to get to grips with it, and we always want to be sure of the quality.”
The plus and minus of Escorial are in its crinkliness. This gives the fiber a natural stretch that makes it immensely wrinkle-resistant and easily dyeable. It also means that it needs a lot of pressing and steaming during the production process to control the crinkling.
The mills now produce two qualities of Escorial, the general variety and a finer, more expensive version called Cloak of Stars. They also are broadening the range of weaves available with the introduction of jacquards, laces and flannels, such as the ones Chanel used in its fall ready-to-wear collection.
But most of the fiber goes into accessories and home furnishings at this stage, such as the shawls and blankets from Connolly, Whistles and Harvey Nichols in London and Berdgorf Goodman, Neiman’s and Saks, which also has the U.S. exclusive for the next year on Escorial home furnishings.
A Cloak of Stars shawl retails at Bergdorf’s for $950, while Brioni uses it in its men’s travel suit that retails for $3,500.

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