Everywhere, Cashmere

This Season, A Fashion Favorite Turns Up In Unexpected Places

October 23, 2005|By TANIKA WHITE | TANIKA WHITE,SUN REPORTER

Soft, plush and oh-so-warm, cashmere has long been a classic choice for fashion designers and fashion lovers alike.

This season, however, calling cashmere a mere favorite is a serious understatement.

On the runways and in stores, cashmere has worked its way into almost every designer's fall collection. From high end to low end, cashmere is everywhere -- and no longer just in the traditional gray twin set or camel pullover sweater form.

Modern-day designers have taken cashmere and made it more versatile and more wearable than ever. Bright-colored coats, super sexy blouses, even trendy ballerina shoes are being done up in what some call the finest of luxury fabrics.

"Cashmere is not just a fiber; it's a dream you can touch," says luxury designer Rebecca Moses, who collaborated with Saks Fifth Avenue this season to produce an entire line of cashmere clothes, accessories and home goods for the department store's first "Wild About Cashmere" promotional event.

"It's that iconic item in your wardrobe. You can wear cashmere with linen, cashmere with silk satin, cashmere with velvet, cashmere with jeans," Moses said. "It just has an incredible ability to float through your wardrobe."

The name cashmere comes from the Asian region of Kashmir, an area India and Pakistan have squabbled over for many years. The region's wool products first attracted Europeans' attention in the early 1800s.

Most of the raw material that goes into quality cashmere -- generally the underbelly hair of white mountain goats -- comes from Mongolia, says Moses, who moved to "cashmere country" (Italy) to be with her husband, a cashmere spinner, and to hone her cashmere craft.

The wool is then spun into yarn, and either knit or woven into what we know as cashmere. Many weavers and spinners belong to families that have been working with cashmere for generations, Moses says.

"It takes time. It takes education. It takes a lot of skill," she says.

That's one reason cashmere can be relatively expensive. Not everyone can make it well, though many still try.

"There's been a lot of poor quality cashmeres being put out there," Moses says. "It kind of flooded the market and did a little bit of damage to cashmere."

These days, however, even bargain basement manufacturers are doing a better job of creating fine cashmere looks.

"We're going through a cycle of accessible luxury," says Melissa Payner, CEO of bluefly.com, an online boutique of discounted designer men's and women's apparel. "It's not just about sweaters anymore. Cashmere is everywhere! It's a throw, it's slippers, a robe, pants, a hat, a coat, a dress, a glove. Even a couch!"

And you don't have to be on first-name basis with a Mongolian goat farmer to afford cashmere.

Discount shops such as Marshalls and T.J. Maxx and online stores such as SmartBargains.com, to name a few, are offering a variety of contemporary cashmere looks for prices as low as $39.99.

"People love cashmere because it's well made; it's a great quality fabric," says Jenn Goonan, style expert for Marshalls. "But it tends to be a little bit more expensive. So if you can't afford to buy yourself or a loved one a sweater, for example, you can splurge on gloves or a luxurious scarf, which will feel so nice and toasty around your neck when it gets cold out."

Very few fabrics fit in as well as cashmere with the grown-up direction fashion has taken the past few seasons, experts say. Even the plushest of velvets can't compare.

"I think we're moving into a phase of fashion that is about being glamorous and stylish without having to be too tricky. It's back to chic," Moses says. "When you wear well-made clothes, chic-cut clothing, you look better."

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tanika.white@baltsun.com

THINGS TO REMEMBER :

Cashmere can be worn all year round. It is cool in the warmer months, and holds heat for warmth in the colder months.

It takes a goat three to four years to produce enough fine hair for just one cashmere sweater.

Cashmere comes naturally in white, gray and brown, but the wool is easily dyed, which makes it possible to create this season's vibrant colors.

Woven garments made of cashmere must be dry cleaned, but knitted articles may be hand washed.

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