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Pier Luigi Loro Piana and brother Sergio (right) at the Roccapietra factory near Milan

238 – Prestige – MARCH 2011

eric vandeville / gamma

PIER LUIGI LORO PIANA, the head of Loro Piana, talks to andrea cheng about the next big thing in textiles in buddhism, the lotus flower is considered sacred, symbolising purity, enlightenment, self-regeneration and rebirth. But for Pier Luigi Loro Piana, it has a more earthly meaning – being the finest, most exclusive aquatic fibre to date. Along with older brother Sergio, 59-yearold Loro Piana is the CEO of luxury textile manufacturer Loro Piana, a family business that started as wool merchants in the 19th century, and was officially established in 1924. While the company prides itself on supplying the “finest cashmere and wool fabrics,” Loro Piana is more interested in talking about the latest discovery – a type of fabric he believes could help revolutionise the textile industry. Between May and December, along the banks of Burma’s Inle Lake, local women gather lotus flowers and manually extract strands of the fibre from their stems. The filaments from three to five stalks are then rubbed together against a hard surface to produce a raw yarn-like substance that’s woven through traditional looms. The offwhite fibre looks like a smoother version of raw silk or antique linen, and any irregularities it has “is accepted because that’s its beauty,” says Loro Piana. “One spinner can make 120 grams [of yarn] a day, which is really modest; the process is all manual,” he explains. Because of the limited quantity, it’s usually quickly sold to the company’s best customers. “This [cottage industry] was going to disappear. There was very little production left because cotton and linen are less expensive to produce.” In an effort to revive a process almost driven to extinction by mass-produced fabrics, Loro Piana has taken it upon himself to register the fabric under his business that’s halfway across the world in Quarona, Italy. “It’s a totally green process,” he says. “It’s a little bit expensive, but it’s a produce that doesn’t damage the environment.” And this fits Loro Piana’s business, ever since his father, who took the company’s reins in 1941,

banned man-made fibres (raw materials include baby cashmere and vicuna). “By World War II, everything was easy to sell in Italy because everyone needed everything; there was a big development. And a lot of companies chose mass production. I don’t know why, but my father took the right decision to go into better quality in those times and became famous. He gained a good reputation; all the fabrics we have are on top of the pyramid in terms of quality.” When Loro Piana was in his twenties, his father passed away, and he and his brother were thrown into the role of heading the sixgeneration-old business with only four or five years of experience under their belts. Loro Piana wasn’t initially sure he was going to continue the family’s legacy, but guesses it was “written in the stars. What I knew at the time was that I wanted to be an entrepreneur.” He readily admits that he and his brother are not designers, but what he does have is an eye for new ideas, new opportunities and new products. He gives me an example. In the late 1980s, the Italian equestrian team for the Barcelona Olympics asked the company to manufacture jackets, an item it had never produced before. “We made 20 jackets for [the Olympic team] with no cost in mind, and even though the jacket was twice as expensive than anything else in the market, people started asking us if they could buy it. Finally, I said, ‘Why don’t we sell them?’ The jacket, called the “Horsey,” went on to become one of the company’s top sellers. The company continued to grow, expanding into menswear, womenswear, childrenswear, home furnishings and a gift service. Its first store opened in 1999, and now it has another 136 around the world, with some 2,200 employees. “The real mission for us is to keep the life of the company for as long as possible – to do what’s right long-term for the company.” After all, the lotus does also signify progress.

MARCH 2011 – Prestige – 239

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Pier Luigi Loro Piana, the head of Loro Piana, talks to Andrea Cheng about the next big thing in textiles