“I am like the conductor of an orchestra of infinite possibilities,” Loro Piana’s chief executive Damien Bertrand explains.
In only his third interview since taking the reins almost two years ago, he is outlining his enviable position, leading one of Italy’s most venerable and respected luxury houses.
Bertrand is no stranger to the industry, having previously been the managing director of Dior’s haute couture division, he has been tasked with spearheading a subtle revamp that he dubs the “new Loro Piana”.
Bertrand’s approach is not the slash-and-burn mentality seen at other houses, but rather a discreet and polished evolution, much like the core values of the brand itself, which creates clothes and accessories using some of the most extraordinary materials sourced around the world.
This small but poignant shift is best seen at the brand’s newly reopened store at Dubai Mall, the first that has been redesigned with Bertrand’s vision.
“When you go the store, it’s not a radical change; it’s an elevation. You still feel it’s Loro Piana,” he says.
Careful attention has gone into balancing textures and materials, such as wall coverings and furnishings, all made in-house while keeping the signature warm wood. Although now much larger, it is welcoming and intimate, in keeping with the mindset of family member, and former chief executive Sergio Loro Piana, who in the 1970s envisioned a homely interior for clients to linger and relax in, something that the brand has stayed true to ever since.
“I kept this principal. We doubled the space and spent a lot of time on the flow, and because time is a luxury, people should want to spend more time in the store,” Bertrand says.
The facade has been covered in hundreds of handmade tiles that flow across the front of the store “like a drape of cashmere”. While at first glance ceramics have little to do with the company, aside from a shade of terracotta it calls kummel, Bertrand was drawn to the level of craftsmanship of a “very traditional company in Tuscany” that echoes the values of Loro Piana.
Inside, Bertrand has installed a new VIP salon, as a “very elevated environment,” he explains. “Middle Eastern clients are very important for Loro Piana, and have been for a long time. They love refinement and sophistication, and understand the philosophy that we are not a brand about logos, but about quality.”
The quality that Loro Piana is so famous for begins not in the headquarters of Milan, but far away on the windswept steppes of Mongolia, the mountains of Peru and the rolling fields of Australia and New Zealand. Here, select farmers have spent years – sometimes generations – carefully breeding flocks to create the lightest, softest and most remarkable merino wool and cashmere in the world. Case in point, Loro Piana’s Gift of Kings, a merino wool so ethereal, six fibres can fit inside one human hair.
Achieving such excellence takes time, Bertrand explains. “We have the best fibres in the world, and this is the work of the Loro Piana family for six generations. These are fibres, and people tend to forget, that come from animals; like humans, if they are eating well, being treated well and sleeping well, the quality of the fibres is better. If you are looking at what we have done at Loro Piana, there is no one else that does it.”
This dedication to the animals and the people who look after them is more than just lip service. Thirty years ago, it realised the Peruvian vicuna was being hunted to extinction. A llama-like animal that lives high in the Andes, the demand for its light, soft fleece – once the sole preserve of Inca rulers – meant it was being driven to oblivion.
Loro Piana stepped in, working with the Peruvian government to establish protections and today, the animal is thriving. Loro Piana may have saved the vicuna from extinction and be the only company in the world allowed to use its fleece, but it has to be patient. Adult vicunas are brought down from the mountains and shaved only once every two years, and one coat requires the fleece of 25 to 30 animals.
Yet despite its rarity, every vicuna harvest is tested by the brand’s laboratory to ensure it is of the highest quality before it leaves Peru. In fact, to uphold its infallible standard, every single bale – be it baby cashmere, linen, vicuna or Lotus flower silk – is tested across 450 parameters to ensure it reaches Loro Piana’s exacting standards. Little wonder then, that aside from its own products, it produces wool, scarves and blankets for many of the other luxury houses.
To begin the process of being transformed into refined clothes, every bale of material arrives at the company’s factories in Quarona – where the brand began in 1924 – and Roccapietra, to be sorted, carded, spun, woven and dyed into lengths of fabric in a process more like alchemy than manufacturing. An extraordinary array of Willy Wonka-style machinery, state-of-the-art technology and the ever-present human touch transforms handfuls of wispy fluff into the finest materials money can buy.
“I always say to people: ‘Come and visit the factory, and then you will understand,’” Bertrand explains. “Going to the factory for the first time, I knew there was special magic in Loro Piana.” Much of this magic is down to humans. Every single centimetre of the five million metres, or so, of cloth produced each year is checked by eye and every blemish, no matter how small, is repaired by hand.
While deeply revered for its astonishing know-how with merino wool, cashmere and vicuna, the company Bertrand inherited was regarded as being old-fashioned. “My vision when I arrived was how to redefine the Loro Piana silhouette so that when you see a man in the street, you say he must be wearing Loro Piana.
“We are building a new silhouette that’s fresher, more modern, and a little more stylish. The team spends so much time on the cut, the fit, the details, and we have a clear vision of what we want to deliver – very classic and timeless, but with a twist.”
This includes innovating new materials, such as Storm System, a cashmere backed with a layer of film that makes it rain and windproof, or AirCash, a cashmere light enough for Milan’s muggy climate.
“The factory sent me samples and when I put my hand on it, I knew we had it on the first try.” Last year, the company also launched CashDenim, on top of its existing denim line. “We use only Japanese denim as it is the best, but it is a bit rigid, so I said, ‘What if we weave together our cashmere and your denim?’”
Despite being told it was impossible, he pushed his team and the result is a totally new type of denim, with an integrated cashmere lining. “The cashmere is woven on the weft, so when you wear it, it feels amazing – and Loro Piana is about the sensorial experience – we launched last year and everything disappeared in three weeks.”
This ability to think outside the box goes to the very heart of Loro Piana, Bertrand explains. “I love [to ask] ‘what if’. And Loro Piana is a ‘what if’ company with crazy ideas like Gift of Kings, the most refined wool in the world. People say ‘yes, but it will break in the machine’. You will never innovate if you stop at ‘yes, but...’.”
His desire to reshape the company began on his first day, he says. “When I first arrived, my first question was, ‘What are the icons of Loro Piana?’” Once identified, he set his teams out to discreetly update the Roadster jacket, with its large, patch pockets on each hip, and the distinctive Traveller jacket with its funnel neck and double pockets, both long-standing pillars that clients return to again and again.
Bertrand wears the new Storm System Traveller jacket himself. “I tested it at a regatta in Capri. We were expecting to have a dolce vita day, and had terrible weather,” he laughs. Typically, for Loro Piana, luxury is never far from functionality, and the jacket has a cashmere lining. “The expensive thing that usually people put outside, we put inside. This is luxury,” Bertrand explains.
He has also introduced a new harmony across men’s and women’s wear, with the teams working “on the same palette, and in the same direction. When you go into store, now there is a very strong consistency. Menswear has been refreshed, while womenswear is looser and more modern. This was the idea of Sergio Loro Piana in his time, so we are going back to that, to the roots.”
Part of Bertrand’s new silhouette are accessories such as the Bale bag, inspired by a bale of wool. Soft- sided, with barely any branding, it is far removed from the standard, logo-heavy “it-bags”. “Bags usually come with strong identification, with strong codes,” he explains. “We did the opposite. It’s all about touch, so it is very soft, very close to the body. It is not something you wear for status but for yourself, which is very Loro Piana.”
Circling back to the musical analogy, Bertrand likens his team to virtuosos. “Magic happens when people understand the vision, and they play with the best instrument,” he says. “I always carry a piece of Gift of Kings to remind myself that everything starts from here, and that if you have no compromise on quality, you are transforming gold. Like a Stradivarius.”