Wardrobe: Material Best
The only thing better than wearing a coat made from the finest material is wearing such a coat that has been custom-made for you. Ten years ago, I arrived in Paris during an unexpected cold snap, and so I went shopping for an overcoat. The expedition led me to Hugo Boss, where a salesman draped a honey-colored coat over my shoulders. As I stroked the plush material that was softer than any cashmere I had ever touched, he explained that the fabric was woven from the fibers of vicuñas, llamalike animals that live in the Peruvian Andes. Trading in vicuña fabric was illegal in the United States at the time, because the animals, which used to be slaughtered for their wool rather than sheared, were endangered. (Importing and exporting resumed in 2002 after the species rebounded.) The coat’s style and price, which was north of $14,000, did not suit me at the time, but I was smitten with the material and returned home determined to find my ideal vicuña overcoat.
In the years that followed, I purchased a number of vicuña coats from the 1950s and had each of them cleaned and repaired. I even had one restored in the same Oxxford Clothes factory in Chicago in which it had been made. Eventually, however, I resold each coat because it fell short of my expectations. The coats made for others simply did not suffice—they never fit nor felt quite right.
Then about a year ago, while scanning eBay, I came across 7 yards of vicuña material woven in 1949, the year I was born. The sellers, descendants of the owner of the mill in Stafford Springs, Conn., where it was woven, had no use for the fabric and clearly no appreciation for its worth: They offered it to me for $5,000, one-fifth of what it would cost to buy the same amount of new vicuña material. I hurriedly sent my deposit and urged them to consummate the deal as quickly as possible. Finally, after two months of delays, I raced to downtown Chicago from my home nearby, my pocket bulging with cash, for a midnight meeting in a Best Western hotel lobby. The young man who delivered the parcel unfurled the material, noting that the family believed it had remained sealed in its brown paper packaging and stored in the family attic since the day it left the mill.
The material’s beauty amazed Oxxford Clothes CEO Mike Cohen, whom, along with Neiman Marcus salesman Jody Graff, I enlisted to help transform the unsullied vintage cloth into a finished garment. Cohen said finding the vicuña was like discovering a Rembrandt at a garage sale.
After we agreed that the cloth should be made into a polo coat evocative of the era in which it was woven, Cohen searched Oxxford’s pattern archives and found a 1940s double-breasted model with a belted back. Then he, Graff, and I determined the details, including retro patch and flap pockets and notch lapels. For the lining, I selected a Bemberg in iridescent copper with blue undertones.
First, Oxxford’s craftsmen sponged the vicuña fabric to remove any moisture so it would hold its shape. Then Rocco Giovannangelo, the master tailor who fitted President George W. Bush for his 2001 inaugural ceremony suit, cut the fabric and sewed the coat by hand, a process that lasted two months.
My decade-long quest finally completed, I wore my perfect coat to a Neiman Marcus dinner, where a fashion industry executive inquired, half-jokingly, what I would take in trade for it. I thought for a moment before responding, half-seriously, “world peace.”