Christina Oxenberg knows how to hold an audience. The 41-year-old designer regales her listeners with colorful tales of growing up as the daughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia (now Serbia) and 1940s-era fashion mogul Howard Oxenberg. She speaks of her numerous step- and half-siblings—some of whose names she cannot recall—and how strangely tourists behave when they ride in New York City cabs. On the latter subject she even penned a book titled Taxi.
Now, since following her father into the fashion industry, Oxenberg is spinning a different kind of yarn with her collection of scarves, knitwear, and topcoats made from such rare fibers as suri alpaca and guanaco. But the most unusual material that Oxenberg uses is qiviuk (pronounced key-vee-ook), the inner down of the Canadian musk ox. Having shielded the Arctic goat species from temperatures as cold as minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit for the last million or so years, the fiber possesses an intriguing provenance. Even more interesting is that the fleece is not sheared, but naturally shed, littering the tundra each summer as temperatures rise. “Because of their shaggy coats, musk oxen appear to be massive animals, when, in fact, they rarely grow more than chest high,” says Oxenberg, whose new his-and-her qiviuk coats ($5,000 each) will be available at Lawrence Covell in Denver this winter.
The cast-off fiber of the once fiercely hunted musk ox—which is now government-monitored and protected—produces knitwear and outerwear that is surprisingly soft and extraordinarily lightweight. Oxenberg, who refers to the fiber as the “caviar of cashmeres,” says it is eight times warmer than ordinary cashmere, citing fiber studies conducted by the University of Leeds in England. And because the fiber is shed naturally from protected animals, she adds, “No one is going to spray paint you when you’re wearing it.”
Even Peter J. Ewins, director of the Arctic program for the World Wildlife Fund, offers his support, saying that Oxenberg’s knits are “a fine example of what can be done to benefit communities and conservation when species are managed sustainably.”
Oxenberg realized the business potential of trading in fine yarns after she set aside her writing career in 2000 and took a short-term job working for Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Waterkeeper Alliance. Through the group’s environmental work, she met Fernando Alvarez, a partner at Jacques Cartier Clothiers, which operates a suri alpaca farm and factory near Arequipa, Peru, and owns several fine knit shops in western Canada. When Oxenberg expressed an interest in designing knitwear using rare animal fibers, Alvarez gave her a history lesson in qiviuk and even offered to produce her designs if she ever decided to pursue the venture.
Oxenberg ultimately accepted the offer, though she maintains that her interest in these rare fibers derives less from her pro-environment beliefs than from a love of luxury she inherited growing up as a child of royal lineage. “These are goods worthy of kings and queens,” she says, noting that she recently made a qiviuk cardigan for the queen of England.
As one might expect, these superfine yarns require exceptional skill and time to weave, which Oxenberg points out as she shows off pieces from her couture collection called Mucho Tiempo, so named because it can take as many as eight weavers an entire week to produce a single qiviuk scarf. Any garment that demands such intensive labor is certainly worth talking about.