From across the room, a pashmina shawl looks like fine wool. If you brush up against it, you might mistake it for cashmere. But if you drape it across your shoulders, you realize that pashmina has a texture so fine it is the fiber equivalent of meringue. Designer Gabriele Sanders, who works exclusively with the fabric, says "pashmina makes regular cashmere feel like cardboard." She exaggerates, but not much.
Like a nightclub with an unpublished phone number or a restaurant with no sign, pashmina is exclusive, yet understated--symbolizing a subtle kind of snobbery that sums up luxury in the late '90s. It may look like mere cashmere to the uninitiated, but moving up the fashion food chain costs plenty: a whisper-light kimono sells for $1,200; a simple shawl costs $400. "It's a very humble-looking, luxurious-feeling fabric," says Judith Collinson, senior VP for women's ready-to-wear and accessories at Barneys New York. "People are always drawn to the chic secret."
This chic secret is quickly getting out among America's most seriously dressed women. Alexandra Von Furstenberg, the designer, and her sister Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece are rarely photographed without their coveted pashmina shawls. This summer, it's a buttery soft pashmina cardigan that fashion mavens will be reaching for in those heavily air-conditioned art galleries and a pashmina shawl they'll drape over their shoulders for an evening walk on the beach.
Pashmina wool is culled from the neck and belly of a Himalayan mountain goat, which lives at altitudes of 12,000 to 14,000 feet. The fashion world has discovered the exceptionally fine-fibered stuff only in the last six months, but pashmina has long been a status symbol in the East. For hundreds of years, in India and Nepal, a pashmina blanket was an essential component of a wealthy woman's dowry. Like other things rarefied and Eastern lately, it's been translated eagerly into Western decadence. An $800 Sanders summer dress is now one of the best-selling items at Language, a New York City boutique. This fall Barneys New
York, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman will carry Sanders's apparel and home line. Sanders was one of the first to fall for the fabric, but now other designers are showing a passion for pashmina. Donatella Versace and Carolina Herrera both featured the posh fabric in their fall '98 collections.
Pashmina sales are fed by customers thrilled to discover a new status symbol. But Margaret Russell, the design editor at Elle Decor, says the pashmina also reflects a lust for quality. "People buy pashmina the way they used to buy silk or fine china," says Russell. "They know they're paying for a really fine fabric, and if they take care of it they can have it all of their lives."
Actually, there is something more luxurious than pashmina--but it's illegal. It's called shahtoosh, and it comes from the chiru, an endangered wild Tibetan antelope. To clip its hair, hunters there kill the animal. Its wool is said to be even softer than pashmina--a pure shahtoosh wrap is sometimes called a ring scarf because it is so delicate that a whole shawl can be easily slipped through a gold wedding ring. Pashmina, in comparison, is so fine that a folded shawl can rest in the palm of one's hand. It's illegal to buy or sell shahtoosh under the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but there's a black market; a shahtoosh shawl starts at about $8,000. Which makes pashmina seem downright reasonable, even ecofriendly, by comparison. Call it responsible decadence-a premillennial fashion statement if we've ever seen one.
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