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A Passion for Pashminas

The luxury wraps have become a must-have item in the late '90s. But not all Pashminas are created equal, and shopper should do their homework before spending hundreds of dollars.

October 15, 1999|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

There's a gold rush on to buy and sell fashion's latest status symbol, a silky-soft shawl called a pashmina. But when the dust settles from the stampede, some consumers may find they've discovered fool's gold.

Pashmina, experts agree, is a kind of cashmere that takes its name from the Persian word for wool. But many of the shawls flooding store shelves, Web sites and being sold out of homes and hotel rooms may not be the rare, ultra-high quality item that the marketing hype promises. Worse, similar-looking shawls wrapping the shoulders of the country's wealthiest women may be derived from the coats of endangered antelope species.

Pashmina shawls, which can cost hundreds of dollars, have become the luxury wrap of the late '90s. Celebrities such as Nicole Kidman, Salma Hayek and Neve Campbell, along with socialites such as Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece and her sister Alexandra Von Furstenberg, have been wearing them for about two years. High-fashion designers such as Donna Karan, Carolina Herrera and Valentino have offered varieties of the luxe cashmere fabric in their collections as well.

Now the shawls are available in stores as diverse as Bloomingdale's and a Hare Krishna temple gift shop at prices ranging from $150 to $250.

Los Angeles artist Diana Roque Ellis bought her pashmina shawl from a friend selling them from her home. With the pale blue shawl warming her at a chilly outdoor party, Ellis explained that "all the clothes designed these days are sleeveless. If you have the slightest degree of self-consciousness about your arms, you want to cover up. And it's politically correct," she said, adding no animals have to be killed for pashmina.

"It's become sort of the rage," said Julie Albert, manager of the Savannah boutique in Santa Monica, which will carry a new line of pricey pashmina shawls and bags designed by actress Ali MacGraw. The gauzy pashmina shawls have even attracted a fair number of male fans, who fold them into mufflers.

The Word 'Pashmina' Has Two Meanings

As the shawls grow in popularity, so does confusion about what, exactly, pashmina is. The term "pashmina" has entered the vernacular and has come to mean both the downy undercoat of a goat and the lightweight shawl made from it. In 1999 fashion lingo, a standard pashmina is a lightweight, fringed cashmere-silk blend available in hundreds of colors. Adding to the confusion: Some aren't labeled in accordance with Federal Trade Commission rules that require disclosures about fiber content and country of origin.

Pashmina marketing often implies that the fiber is more extraordinary than cashmere. With record low prices, cashmere has trickled down to less prestigious stores such as Target and Banana Republic, tarnishing cashmere's once-exclusive reputation. Enter pashmina. Many pashmina sellers were all too willing to say the fiber is culled from the underbelly of a special goat living in the frosty altitudes above India, Pakistan and Nepal. But textile experts say that pashmina isn't necessarily rarer or softer than any other kind of cashmere.

In textile dictionaries, the term "cashmere shawl" and "pashmina" are synonymous. The shawl has been made since ancient times and the shawl is presumed to have originated in the Kashmir region of India, said Jelena Andjelkovic, a textile specialist at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise in Los Angeles.

All cashmere, not just from India, is combed from the coat of a domesticated capra hircus goat, which produces only about 4 ounces each season. And pashmina isn't necessarily rarer or softer than any other cashmere, according to Richard Forte, president of Dawson-Forte Cashmere Co. in Massachusetts, a large cashmere manufacturer. Many of the pashmina shawls are woven with silk to provide sheen and to reinforce what can be a weak yarn, Forte said.

"For many years, pashmina was the name for the cashmere fiber that was produced in India," said Karl Spilhaus, president of the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute, a trade association. "The way pashmina is being used now is misleading," he said. "Some people think it describes a blend of cashmere and silk. That's not correct. Other people think it is a substitute term for cashmere. Legally, it's not."

The FTC requires that all cashmere, no matter the country of origin, be labeled as cashmere. The word "pashmina" by itself does not satisfy the regulations, an FTC source said. Some shawls, however, are appearing in high-end stores with 100% pashmina or pashmina-and-silk labels and hangtags declaring the so-called special features of the fiber.

Socialites Subpoenaed Over Their Shawls

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