Clothing trends come and go with the seasons, but in the ever-changing world of fashion, cashmere endures.
Sweaters made of this soft and expensive fiber, gleaned from the undercoat of a Kashmir goat, have always kept their allure.
Even in Orange County, where a warm climate does not require a closet full of sweaters, there are shops devoted entirely to cashmere, including Cashmeres of Scotland in South Coast Plaza and The Cashmere People in Fashion Island. TSE Cashmere, a boutique that carries cashmere knitwear for men, women and children, opens this month in South Coast Plaza.
"Cashmere is always in demand," says Michael Wu, manager of The Cashmere People. "Every year the price goes up. It's a better value than the U.S. dollar."
He may be right. One customer told Wu she'd been wearing her cashmere sweater for 40 years.
"It's not high fashion--it's high class," he says.
Classy cashmere does not come cheap. Prices have escalated in recent years due to scarcity of the wool.
Kashmir goats, which supply the fiber, live in the Himalayas. Ranchers have been mostly unsuccessful at raising the goats in captivity because the animals favor extremely high altitudes, so while demand for cashmere continues to increase, the goats' population has not.
"If I could raise the goats myself, I would," Wu says.
Once a year, the goats are rounded up and their downy underbellies combed for the soft, light fiber.
One goat yields about 3 ounces of cashmere a year. It takes two to six goats to make a single sweater, Wu says. Small wonder that raw cashmere costs about 10 times as much as regular wool.
Scarcity has only added to cashmere's lasting appeal.
"The baby boomers have all grown up. They have good jobs, good lives and they want to enjoy good sweaters. They learned from their parents about cashmere. The name is always there," he says.
Many are just discovering cashmere's benefits, particularly its incomparable soft texture and comfortable feel compared to heavier sweaters.
People who are allergic to wool often find they can wear cashmere without itching.
Others want cashmere sweaters as a status symbol they can wear on their backs.
"Cashmere has a lot of snob appeal because of the price," says Mary Sjoberg, manager of Cashmeres of Scotland. A pure cashmere sweater sells for about $250 to $1,200.
Most cashmere sweaters come in traditional styles--a crew or V-neck in a cardigan or pullover. At Cashmeres of Scotland, there's an elegant crew neck cardigan by Ballantyne in black cashmere with gold buttons for $450, or a cable knit cardigan in dusty pink by Vivex with gold buttons, also for $450. Both styles could last a lifetime.
Still, to attract younger, more fashion-conscious customers, cashmere sweater designers have come up with styles that are downright trendy.
One atypical cashmere sweater is an oversized cardigan with a hood that comes in bright orange, available at Cashmeres of Scotland for $1,150.
"It's an astonishing color for cashmere," says Lisa Aastrup, sales clerk.
Most cashmere sweaters come in traditional colors such as burgundy, navy, gray, ivory and black, but some manufacturers have added more contemporary hues, such as purple, olive and turquoise. Cashmeres of Scotland carries a pale apricot sweater by Shirin that comes in a wrap style and ties at the side for $575.
Patterns on sweaters have become bolder as well. In addition to the traditional argyles, one can find sweaters with fun "Picasso" prints and stained-glass patterns as well as embroidery and sequins, Wu says.
His shop has a crew-neck cardigan in black with big turquoise polka dots for $460 and an equally exotic over-sized tunic in a black-and-ivory "pinto" pattern for $590. The sweater pairs well with cashmere ivory leggings for $325.
In addition to sweaters, one can find cashmere stirrup pants and leggings, capes, "jogging suits," dresses and even robes.
Unless money is no object, Wu suggests choosing a classic sweater, one that won't be out of style by next season.
In Southern California, many select the lighter one- or two-ply cashmeres instead of the heavier eight-ply sweaters. Cashmere sweaters aren't like paper towels. One can't judge their quality by the number of plies. The ply concerns only the weight of the yarn.
"A one-ply sweater can be very expensive too," Wu says.
Consider the quality of the cashmere with care. Some manufacturers weave other, less desirable parts of the goats' coat into the sweaters, Sjoberg says.
For the highest quality cashmere, she recommends buying sweaters with the gold seal from the Scottish Cashmere Assn. Ltd., verifying that the sweater is 100% cashmere.
If treated properly, one can wear a cashmere sweater for years.
Sjoberg suggests putting the sweater in a cotton sack (a pillowcase will do), and adding cedar chips to ward off moths.
If you find a hole in the sweater, take it to a weaver. Often the hole can be repaired.
"I've heard of people throwing away cashmere sweaters that get holes in them," Sjoberg says, shaking her head.
Wash the sweater by hand using a mild soap, rinse completely and let it dry flat, away from sunlight, which can discolor the garment. The shape of the garment should come right back.
"It's such a resilient fabric," Sjoberg says. "If you take care of it, it will last 20 years."