The Vicuñas and the $9,000 sweater

Volunteers and workers are driven to higher elevations where they’ll begin herding the animals. Photographer: Angela Ponce for Bloomberg Businessweek

Bloomberg | 13 March 2024

The Vicuñas and the $9,000 sweater

By Marcelo Rochabrun

Once a year, Andrea Barrientos, a 75-year-old subsistence farmer in the Peruvian Andes, works free of charge for the world’s richest person.

She does that by joining dozens of people from her village in herding wild vicuñas for miles on a remote plain 13,000 feet above sea level and shearing them for their soft, golden-brown wool. Vicuñas, big-eyed camelids that roam the southern Andes, produce the finest and most expensive wool there is. In New York, Milan or London, the fashion house Loro Piana sells a vicuña sweater for about $9,000. Barrientos’ Indigenous community of Lucanas, whose only customer is Loro Piana, receives about $280 for an equivalent amount of fiber. That doesn’t leave enough to pay Barrientos, whose village expects her to work as a volunteer.

Loro Piana, meanwhile, is owned by the luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE and controlled by Bernard Arnault, who’s worth $202 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Based in Italy, where it was founded in 1924, Loro Piana has become a touchstone brand in the so-called quiet luxury trend, made visible in shows about the wealthy. A Loro Piana cashmere baseball cap, famously worn in Succession by the character Kendall Roy, retailed in the real world for about $600.

Vicuñas were hunted almost to extinction in the 20th century by poachers who shot and skinned them instead of shearing them. Trade in the wool was outlawed in 1969. An international treaty later helped reinstate a legal market while dictating that income derived from vicuñas benefit Indigenous Andean peoples, a historically impoverished population. Lucanas was the first community to shear vicuñas under this regime, in 1994, and Loro Piana has been its buyer ever since. The trade has done little for the 2,700 people of the village. Most houses are made of mud, as is Barrientos’, and don’t have plumbing. Older residents remain subsistence farmers while the younger people either move to cities or work in the unregulated and often dangerous gold mines that dot the region.

There are now about 200,000 vicuñas in Peru, close to half of the world’s population. The increased supply seems to have increased demand, and Loro Piana’s prices keep rising. The rate paid to the people of Lucanas for raw fiber, however, has fallen 36% in the past decade. In 2018 a government-commissioned study found that 80% of those living in the town said they hadn’t benefited from the community’s participation in the trade. “The vicuña has not helped any community escape poverty,” says Omar Siguas, the researcher at Peru’s National University of Huancavelica who led the study.

Loro Piana disputes that conclusion. “Since it arrived in Peru in the ’80s, Loro Piana has been committed to upholding the highest standards of ethical and responsible business practices,” the company said in a statement. “Loro Piana represents a key economic support locally, protecting and fortifying the demand and the value of the vicuña fiber, regardless of market dynamics.”

Peru’s wildlife and forestry agency, known as Serfor, said in written answers to questions that the vicuña trade “does not improve the quality of life of peasant community members.” Some communities, the agency added, derive more income from tourist activities surrounding vicuña shearing than from the sale of the most expensive natural fiber on Earth. Serfor officials have in the past said it’s a priority to find ways for Andean communities to sell value-added vicuña products, but no policies to do so have been put in place. Barrientos, for example, has never had an opportunity to make a vicuña garment. She’s never even seen one.

The vicuña is one of four South American camelids. A domesticated vicuña is known as an alpaca, a separate, fluffier species that can grow seemingly unlimited amounts of fiber and can even die, smothered by the weight of its coat, if not sheared regularly. Alpaca fiber is fine but not as fine as that of its wild counterpart. The guanaco is a more muscular, wild species, with coarse hair. A domesticated guanaco is a llama; its fiber is also used, but it’s rough, making it relatively undesirable and cheap.

Loro Piana calls vicuña “the fiber of the gods.” But vicuña’s fame is more closely associated with royalty. Philip II, a 16th century king of Spain, reportedly had linens made out of vicuña, as did the Inca, as the head of the Inca Empire was known. “Vicuña wool, because it was so esteemed for its fineness, was all for the Inca, who then ordered it delivered to his royal-blooded relatives,” the historian Inca Garcilaso de la Vega wrote in 1609. “Others could not wear that wool under penalty of death.”

What remains in place in Lucanas today is a stark sense of who can wear vicuña and who cannot. “I’ve never had a vicuña garment,” Barrientos says, “because they are banned.” Papias Sosaya, a Lucanas resident who specializes in holding vicuñas during shearing, says that “as a Lucanino, as a Peruvian, I would love to wear a garment made of vicuña wool. But it is totally banned.”

It isn’t in fact banned, but the perception persists, perhaps because Lucanas’ role in the trade is so strictly limited. The community’s leaders say they lack the resources to buy the machinery necessary to weave vicuña, a notoriously tricky fiber to spin into yarn because of its short length and small diameter. (Vicuña has a diameter of less than 13 microns, versus 15 microns for fine cashmere.) Without that specialized technology, communities such as Lucanas are unable to move up the supply chain.

When vicuñas were placed under protection in 1969, a majority of the Peruvians who shared territory with the animals were illiterate Quechua speakers. The poverty rate in the mountains exceeded 80%; most people were subsistence farmers. While Peru has made significant economic strides since, the Andean regions remain the poorest in the country. In 2018, when Peru last calculated detailed poverty rates, 41% of the population of the village of Lucanas and the surrounding district was poor, meaning an individual lived on less than $91 a month.

Peru’s vicuña population, having fallen to about 10,000, recovered in the 1980s, at a time when the country’s Southern Andes were terrorized by a bloody war between government forces and Maoist insurgents known as the Shining Path. Around 70,000 people died in the conflict, the vast majority of them Indigenous citizens. The head of the Shining Path was captured in 1992, which ended the fighting and helped enable Peru’s government, then led by President Alberto Fujimori, to allow vicuña fiber sales to restart.

The government put out feelers for international interest, the prize being a monopoly on the vicuña market for the next decade. Loro Piana won as the main investor in a three-part conglomerate. In 1994 the first legal shearing of vicuñas in decades was done in Lucanas, with Fujimori in attendance. The next year, Peru granted Indigenous communities the exclusive right to shear and sell vicuña fiber, as long as the animals were found within their territories. Loro Piana and others would have to enter into commercial agreements with communities to access the vicuña. For a while.

On Sept. 24, 2000, as his government collapsed from graft allegations, Fujimori issued a decree giving companies the same rights as peasant communities to shear vicuñas found on their property. Now, companies could buy land in the Andes and shear the animals there. Records show that Alfonso Martinez, head of the government office created to regulate the new vicuña market, pushed for the change behind the scenes, writing in one memo that it was “indispensable.” Soon after Fujimori’s decree, Martinez left the government and set up a company that worked as an intermediary between Indigenous communities and corporate buyers. In 2007, Loro Piana hired him as chief executive officer of its Peruvian operation.

Martinez, who died in 2019, got to work turning Fujimori’s decree into practice. Property records show that Loro Piana bought 4,942 acres (2,000 hectares) of barren land near Lucanas for $160,000. The company’s application for a vicuña shearing permit gives a sense of its goals. Loro Piana proposed creating a 12.5-kilometer (7.8-mile) fence around its property, which would ensure that the vicuñas wouldn’t leave and get sheared by somebody else. The fence would also ensure that the animals reproduced at a maximum rate, enabling the population to grow by as much as 50% a year. The company’s application listed some disadvantages, including the loss of genetic diversity and lower life expectancy.

The fence, which formally places vicuñas in “semicaptivity,” is controversial; wildlife experts say it goes against the principle that vicuñas are wild animals, even if their cage is ample. Loro Piana’s application to shear the vicuñas on its land was approved in 2010. The area had few of the animals, but the government agreed to supply some, making Loro Piana the first company to be able to shear vicuñas without paying Indigenous communities for the fiber.

Capturing vicuñas for shearing is a laborious process steeped in history. The most recent roundup in Lucanas was in June, on a clear day under a blazing sun. Barrientos, Sosaya and other residents walked for miles on the high plain to gather vicuñas and drive them toward a central corral. Peruvian peasant communities have an elected president who can decide how to use and redistribute community resources; in Lucanas, the rule is that community members must work for free in the roundup, while outsiders can be paid, usually about $20 a day.

Barrientos says she resents the lack of payment, but she also greatly enjoys experiencing how fast and agile the vicuñas are, how different from her usual herd of sheep. “When I see a vicuña? I feel happy, happy. It moves swiftly. It runs fast and far. You can’t catch up to it,” she says. “They say that when I was born, my parents rubbed my little feet and hands against a vicuña, so that I could run like one.”

As the vicuña population at Loro Piana’s property grew, fiber prices in Lucanas fell, from $420 per kilo in 2012 to $330 in 2022, according to official figures from Serfor. Roberto Carlos Sarmiento, the Lucanas community president, says the contract for 2023 established a price of $280.

Loro Piana has consistently bought all the fiber Lucanas can produce, but production has fallen along with the price, for reasons that are unclear. In 2012, the village sold 1,877 kilos. Ten years later, the figure was 460 kilos. The village’s vicuña revenue fell in that period by about 80%—from a high of $788,526 to $151,974. In the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, there was no vicuña roundup and no money.

In the early 2000s, Pier Luigi Loro Piana, one of the two brothers then leading the company, had appeared committed to paying a higher price. “If one year I say, ‘I have too much wool and I don’t buy from you this year,’ everything would fall apart for them, so we support them by buying constantly at around $400 per kilo,” he told the Telegraph. “If you never try to cheat them, you get a lot of advantages and privileges.” The brothers sold their company to LVMH in 2013, becoming billionaires in the process.

To capture vicuñas, Peruvians partake in a ritual called the chaccu, a Quechua word that’s been used by Spanish chroniclers since the 16th century to describe how Incas would catch, shear and release the animals. The basics of the chaccu have barely changed since.

“They encircle a huge area of countryside, until they come together from all sides,” wrote José de Acosta in a book published in 1590. “They tend to shear these animals, and from their wool they make covers or blankets that are very regarded.” Garcilaso de la Vega noted that the shearing was done “every four years, leaving three years in between, because the Indians say in this amount of time the vicuña wool grows all it can grow.”

Nowadays, vicuñas are captured once a year and sheared every two. A consequence of the faster turnaround is that the average weight of wool sheared per animal has fallen over time; it’s now at about 150 grams per animal, down from 250 grams in 1994. Vicuñas have golden and white fur, but only the golden fibers are usually sheared. Vicuña garments are often sold in this original color, without being dyed.

At the 2023 chaccu, a set of fit, young people started running to push the vicuñas in one direction. Another group of people that included Barrientos held a rope tied with plastic flags. Steadily, the two groups converged. For the first 3 miles there were virtually no vicuñas to be seen, but as they were pressed into a smaller and smaller space, the animals had no choice but to gather. Eventually, hundreds of them walked into an enclosure. Those whose wool was too short to be shorn were released. The shearers needed two days to get through the rest of them, meaning some of the vicuñas remained caged overnight without food or water.

Adult vicuñas weigh up to 110 pounds (50 kilograms), and holding them is a two-person job. People like Sosaya walked into the cage and grabbed vicuñas, laying them on their sides and restricting their legs. Other people held the animals’ necks. Vicuñas are afraid of humans and will often kick and bite. Sosaya and his group took shots of a local liquor called cañazo before going in. Grabbing vicuñas is a task not often done sober.

“These animals are really very savage. They don’t trust anything,” Sosaya said. “To grab the vicuñas, the first person goes toward the head and grabs it, and I go toward the tail, and I go under it and hold the tail and the legs. Why? So that it’s not kicking around or hitting another vicuña, or maybe one of us.”

After shearing, the buzzed vicuñas were simply flipped so they could land on their feet. They looked around, flinched at the nearby humans and ran off. In a year they’ll be captured again. —With Angelina Rascouet
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