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Wardrobe: Rare Hair

William Kissel

When the Canadian Arctic begins to thaw in the spring, dozens of Inuvialuit, one of the region’s indigenous peoples, scour the tundra for the downy underwool known as qiviuk (pronounced kiv-ee-uck) that is shed by the native musk ox. More closely related to the goat than to the ox, this brawny bovid has survived in one of the planet’s most extreme climates for more than 600,000 years thanks in part to its undercoat—a remarkably lightweight and breathable cashmerelike fleece composed of hollow fibers that trap body heat. These fibers—used for centuries by the Inuvialuit to create small handcrafted items—are shed rather than sheared; and unfortunately for textile producer Fernando Alvarez, who is responsible for introducing this rare hair to the fashion market, a musk ox sheds less than eight pounds of qiviuk per year. Yet patience, in this case, has had its rewards. For nearly a decade, the Peruvian-born, Canadian-based manufacturer of textiles and clothing has woven this scant supply of fleece into stylish cloths.

"Over the years we’ve developed a beautiful collection of fabrics that are sold through fashion houses worldwide," says Alvarez, who has supplied his trademarked Qiviuk to Hermès and currently supplies it to brands including Valentino and Dormeuil. Over the past eight years, he has also established four Canadian Qiviuk shops, which sell sportswear and knitwear; his American Qiviuk boutique, which opened in New York’s Plaza Hotel last October, is the first to unveil a collection of bespoke men’s suits made from the versatile fiber.

Alvarez’s expanding enterprise began in 1997, when a professor at the University of Saskatchewan studying the biology and breeding habits of the musk ox introduced him to qiviuk. "The musk oxen in the study were shedding," Alvarez recalls, "and [the researchers] didn’t know what to do with [the wool], so they asked if I could look at it and see what the potential might be."

He discovered that the fiber had a structure similar to that of cashmere. After securing from the tribe and the Canadian government the exclusive right to buy qiviuk from the Inuvialuit, he began to send the raw fleece to his family-owned plant in Arequipa, Peru, which manufactures products out of alpaca, vicuña, and guanaco. There the qiviuk is spun into yarn and thread that, eventually, both Alvarez and third-party designers use to produce woven cloth and fine knitwear.

Although Alvarez’s own Canadian shops sell ready-made qiviuk sportswear, sweaters, and yarns and fibers (for hand-knitters and spinners), his new Manhattan store offers clients their first opportunity to choose, from a varied stock, the desired weight, pattern, and color of qiviuk cloth for their bespoke suits. The suits are handmade by the New York tailor Rocco Ciccarelli, with fabrics from Carlo Piacenza (an Italian textile maker), a handful of fine Japanese cloth makers, and Dormeuil, which produces Qiviuk’s Royal Collection. The prices of the suits vary but can run as high as $25,000, while sport coats made of qiviuk and cashmere or qiviuk and merino wool start around $2,500.

Despite the musk ox wool’s lightweight and superb insulation, its benefits do not all accrue to just the wearer, according to Alvarez. On the Canadian islands of Victoria, Banks, and Ellesmere, where most of the qiviuk fiber is collected, resources are scarce. "It’s cold, remote, and, when it’s winter, dark all day," he says. The qiviuk project, he believes, has given the local Inuvialuit a sense of pride and a livelihood; and in this way, he says, the "feel-good factor" of qiviuk extends well beyond the qualities of the fabric itself.

Qiviuk Boutique New York, 212.826.3388, www.qiviuk.com

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