High in the Andes mountains of southern Peru, a skittish herd of deerlike vicuñas madly dashes from left to right in formation, desperately seeking a break in the circle that is slowly closing in around them. The human chain of more than 400 participants clasping hands shifts clumsily while trying to block the doe-eyed animals’ escape. Hours later, when the herd is finally corralled in a temporary netted pen, the natives perform an ancient ritual before hastily shearing the frightened animals one at a time and releasing them back into the wild.
Last November, a group of Peruvian textile workers, peasant farmers, and even a few apprehensive American visitors braved the bitter weather of the Andes’ 14,000-foot-high Toccra valley to take part in this annual roundup. Known as a chacu, the tradition dates to the Inca empire, when 30,000 tribesmen would herd the swift-moving vicuñas into ditches to extract the fibers from their winter coats to weave feather-soft cloth for the tribe’s nobility.
Apart from the significantly smaller number of participants, the modern-day chacu is not unlike those performed nearly 500 years ago. Following the roundup, a handful of Inca descendants cloaked in colorful ancestral costumes gathers on a rock in the center of the corralled animals and performs a ceremony called Tinkachu to offer thanks to the gods and to ask permission to take from nature. Afterward, they snip the ear of a male and female vicuña—the smallest and most graceful of the Camelidae family that includes guanacos, alpacas, and llamas—and blend the blood in a symbolic gesture of marriage that will ensure a prolific upcoming reproductive season.
“These hunts were an enlightened form of conservation [during the Inca era],” explains Michael Safley, a noted alpaca breeder and past president of the U.S.-led Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA), who has written extensively about Camelidae. “The females and the best male specimens were shorn and released. Thus, the vicuña prospered as the harvest of priceless fiber found its way to the Incan royal warehouses.” Over the years, the animals achieved mythical status. “In ancient times, fat from vicuñas was rubbed on expectant mothers’ bellies to bless their unborn children,” Safley says. Today, the vicuña is Peru’s national symbol, shown prominently on the country’s currency.
Such an honor seems fitting, considering that despite all the advanced technology being employed to genetically enhance the quality of animal wools and furs, vicuña remains the world’s finest legal fiber—more precious than guanaco, wool, and even cashmere. Only the highly endangered and fiercely hunted Tibetan antelope known as shatoosh has a finer coat, but it is illegal to trade throughout the world. The vicuña fiber itself is neither hair nor wool, but a downy-soft covering taken from the back and neck of the animal—not the underbelly, as in the case of fine wools from sheep and cashmere from goats. Vicuña fiber measures an average of 12 microns in diameter, about eight times finer than human hair. The finest cashmere, by comparison, is about 14 or 15 microns, and it is mechanically stretched to make it even thinner for weaving it into Super 180 or Super 200 cloth.
“We’re splitting microns at this point,” explains Enrico DiGiovanni, director of sales at Brioni, which has an exclusive arrangement with textile maker Loro Piana to produce vicuña clothing from its fabric. “But because of vicuña’s natural fineness, it has superior insulating properties without adding excess weight. Besides feeling finer than cashmere and wearing like a cloud, it conforms to the body’s natural shape and reacts to the body’s movements. It’s also extremely resilient due to the extreme conditions in which the animals live.”
What makes this fiber even more precious is that, unlike sheep, goats, and even alpacas, vicuñas cannot survive in captivity. When penned and force-fed a controlled diet—the way sheep are bred to produce superfine wools—vicuñas invariably starve themselves to death. Therefore, they are contained in gigantic wilderness preserves that allow them freedom to roam. Nor do they willingly surrender to shearing, making use of their great speed to avoid capture; they can outrun a human only minutes after they are born.
The Incas admired these qualities almost as much as the animals’ fiber, which explains why they invented the chacu as a humane way to corral and clip them before returning them to the wild. During the Inca reign, more than 2 million vicuñas roamed the Peruvian Andes. Subsequent cultures, beginning with the Spanish colonialists who conquered Peru in 1533, exhibited far less patience and foresight, preferring instead to slaughter the animals to collect their valuable hides. The practice continued for hundreds of years, with disastrous results.
By 1966, the herd numbered fewer than 5,000, and the Peruvian government placed the remaining animals on a 12,000-acre reservation. Still, poachers continued to hunt them for black market investors. The situation became so dire that in 1970, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service placed the vicuña on the endangered species list and banned all vicuña trade in the United States. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the international governing body for the protection of endangered species that is administered by the United Nations, did the same worldwide in 1975.
These safeguards produced relatively quick success. Although poaching continued, by 1994 the Peruvian government was able to document 69,000 vicuñas, a figure sufficient enough to permit live shearing of the protected, but no longer threatened, species. The news was even better last year, when census takers estimated the vicuña population at 140,000 in Peru and as large as 180,000 in an expanded region that includes Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. Nevertheless, the fiber’s relative scarcity and extraordinary expense—translating to $2,150 for a scarf and as much as $25,000 for a topcoat—continue to keep it extremely limited. It is no wonder that Peruvians, one of the poorest populations in the world, have referred to vicuña since Inca times as the gold of the Andes.
For all their wisdom, however, not even the Incas could have guessed how that gold would come to be controlled. Beginning in 1994, when CITES released vicuña from its endangered species list, Peruvian and Italian clothing makers began jockeying to fill a three-decade void. Incalpaca TPX, one of the largest textile suppliers in Peru, working in conjunction with Italian mills Loro Piana and Agnona, gained the upper hand when it formed a partnership, the International Vicuña Consortium, and outbid all others to acquire exclusive worldwide rights to all vicuña production for three years from the National Vicuña Society (NVS), a government-monitored private entity. The consortium signed subsequent three-year agreements in 1997 and 2000. The effort and investment that went into securing these rights is remarkable considering the limited scope of the market: A single adult vicuña nets about 250 grams of fiber, enough for a small scarf, only every two years. Furthermore, of the indeterminate number of animals that are caught and sheared each year, the total yield of raw material is enough to produce fewer than 2,000 topcoats.
What the consortium did not realize in 1994, when it signed the original agreement, was that despite the CITES proclamation, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, a much stricter regulatory body, would not remove vicuña from its endangered species list for nearly another decade, in July 2002. That surprised consortium members, who had collectively spent more than $5 million by the mid-1990s to promote vicuña in the United States. Loro Piana alone reportedly spent an estimated $750,000 to $1 million advertising vicuña to elite American customers through such outlets as The New York Times before discovering that customs would not allow the products to cross U.S. borders. Another Italian clothing maker even sewed cashmere labels into its vicuña coats to circumvent American law and later mailed the vicuña label to its customers.
“The U.S. governing bodies are more conservative in some cases than other governments,” says Peter Whalen, president of Andean, a Massachusetts company that began producing $375 vicuña-lined peccary gloves in Peru three years ago, but could not import them into the United States until last year. “Once an environmental law is on the books, it’s very hard to get it off, even with pressure from the international community.” Nevertheless, he says, for the protection of the animals, “you do need certain safeguards, and the government has gone to great lengths to make sure the vicuña sold in the U.S. is legitimate.”
By the time vicuña was finally legalized in the United States (which accounts for an estimated 50 percent of the world market), the consortium of three companies with worldwide rights to the fiber had spent five years haggling over the wholesale price of the raw fiber with the Peruvian government. “In the beginning, there was no basis for the price, so we decided that before the market regulates it, we would find a place to start,” explains German Freyre, general manager of Incalpaca TPX. At the time, cashmere, which averages 17 microns in diameter, was the finest fiber in the commercial market, selling for around $90 a kilo, he explains. “So we agreed that for each micron less than cashmere, we would pay double the price, or roughly $450 a kilo.”
In retrospect, says Andean’s Whalen, “When they chose to price it at five times the cost of cashmere, [the consortium] might have misjudged the demand. It’s unique, but it suffers from being out of the marketplace for so many years.”
Mike Cohen, president of Oxxford Clothes, which produces vicuña blazers and topcoats, acknowledges that the void of information and market presence is an obstacle. “Today’s generation still thinks cashmere is the best, and they don’t recognize anything else,” he explains. “Younger clients don’t know the mystique behind [vicuña]—that it’s really the finest fiber produced by any animal, and if a guy wants pure luxury, the best he can find is vicuña. It’s a real education process, but I don’t think the industry thought it would be.”
DiGiovanni of Brioni, which recently delivered a $29,000 vicuña/silk suit for a Neiman Marcus customer, agrees that consumer education is crucial. “There are some who have heard of it but don’t know why it is so expensive, and others who have never heard of it who think the price is completely outrageous,” he says.
ustifying that expense based on the fiber’s scarcity and superior performance may become an even greater challenge now that the exclusive purchasing rights held by Incalpaca, Loro Piana, and Agnona have expired. In the past, the consortium bought directly through the National Vicuña Society (NVS), which, for a fee, acted as an intermediary between the farmers and the mills. When four of the largest Peruvian farm communities, which control nearly 50 percent of the vicuña fiber, felt they were not receiving their fair share, they severed ties with the NVS. “So basically the NVS is no longer in a position to guarantee the exclusivity to anybody,” explains Adolfo Bottari, a Loro Piana board member and the company’s Peruvian liaison. “Since the communities decided to enter into direct agreements with the main users, it was no longer advantageous for us to buy through the NVS.”
Such a move, however, also opens the floodgates to outsiders such as Johnston of Elgin, Scabal, and Taylor & Lodge—important English and Scottish textile mills that have expressed interest in developing vicuña cloth this year. But the development also allows cash-rich, mass-market fabric makers in China, Taiwan, and India access to the fiber, which worries those who wish to maintain its luxurious cachet and retain control over how it is handled. In an effort to protect their initial investment, prevent exploitation and abuse, and preserve the livelihood of the native culture, the three original consortium members have been pushing the Peruvian government for some controls.
“We are asking the government that it should be sold only to [high-end] industrial mills in order to control where the fiber goes and how it is used,” says Incalpaca’s Freyre, noting that an open market encourages the dishonest marketing of inferior fabric blends—such as wool and vicuña—as pure vicuña, and may even fuel poaching. “What’s to prevent someone from buying 50 kilos of fiber legally and then securing another 50 kilos of illegal vicuña and blending it? Who’s to say it isn’t all legal?”
Given the consortium’s investment of time and money to develop the vicuña market, its concerns are understandable. Maintaining the distribution of the fiber and subsequent superior quality of finished vicuña garments, however, also benefits the local indigenous culture. If undisclosed blending with cheaper fibers and discounting gains prominence, the prestige and quality of the material will suffer, and prices will fall. Such circumstances would be devastating for the vicuña farmers, who brave the bitter cold of the Andes year after year to roundup and legally collect fiber from an animal they spent nearly 40 years trying to preserve. Without the chacu, “people will simply kill the animals because there is no other way to shear them alive,” says Freyre, adding that vicuña is the only source of income for many of the 300 Peruvian communities where the animals live. Therefore, the people’s survival is predicated on the survival of the species. “As soon as the animal is sheared, it is saved,” he adds, “because once it’s sheared it holds no value to poachers.”
Agnona, 310.770.5166, www.agnona.com
Brioni, 888.778.8775, www.brioni.it
Incalpaca, +51.54.251025, www.incalpaca.com
Loro Piana, 212.980.7961 or 714.432.1301
Oxxford Clothes, 212.593.0204, www.oxxfordclothes.com