Kit and Ace sells clothes made of “technical cashmere.” Uh, what’s “technical cashmere”?

“Technical Cashmere” Is a Hot Fashion Item. It’s Not the Fancy Material You Think.

“Technical Cashmere” Is a Hot Fashion Item. It’s Not the Fancy Material You Think.

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
Dec. 17 2015 10:02 AM

What the Heck Is “Technical Cashmere”?

Kit and Ace has grown rapidly thanks to this signature fabric. But it’s not the fancy material you think it is.

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Photo courtesy of Kit and Ace

No fabric connotes luxury quite so immediately and universally as cashmere. To name it is to feel its soft fibers against your skin, their warmth as soothing as the fabric is smooth. And yet not all cashmere is created equal: A thin $50 V-neck from Uniqlo is almost entirely different from one of those weightier cardigans you might come across in your grandmother’s closet, even if both are 100 percent cashmere. Nevertheless, the former benefits from its nominal connection to the latter, the linkage suggesting both quality and class.

Surely it’s these associations that inspired Canadian clothing retailer Kit and Ace to claim that it constructs much of its apparel from a fabric it describes as “technical cashmere.” Founded in 2014, Kit and Ace quickly captured the fickle attention of the commercial fashion world. Since then, it has expanded with astonishing speed, opening numerous locations across the United States and Canada, all while drawing praise for its supposed “cashmere revolution.” But what, you might reasonably ask, is technical cashmere? The answer to that question is complicated, getting to the heart of both the anxieties and the desires that we express through our clothes.

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For starters, though, there’s one thing we can definitely say about technical cashmere: It’s not cashmere. Not technically.

Visit one of Kit and Ace’s retail locations or peruse its offerings on the Web and you’ll find that most contain only the merest traces of that treasured fiber. The company’s “social brushed long sleeve” men’s shirt ($128), for example, is only 6 percent cashmere, the balance made up of modal, viscose, and elastane. The “Emory brushed dress” ($188), similarly, is almost entirely viscose, a fabric produced through the chemical treatment of assorted plant pulps. A few others articles do a little better: The “blanket wrap” ($368), apparently the next best thing to “spooning yourself,” is two-thirds wool and fully 29 percent cashmere, while the men’s “Hawthorne long sleeve” (a steal at $118) is one-tenth cashmere, filling out the remainder of its weave with cotton and the barest touch of spandex.

To its credit, Kit and Ace does little to hide its reliance on alternate synthetic and organic materials, but neither does it actively advertise that fact. It acknowledges its use of “technical fibers” on its public About Us page, but it focuses mostly on the generally scant portion of cashmere in its clothes, cashmere that is “sourced from happy goats living in both Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, China.” By focusing on a fractional component of its products, it de-emphasizes the rest, not unlike a company that claims its goods are “Made in the USA” when its components are actually sourced abroad.

On that same About Us page, Kit and Ace implicitly links its fabrics to its interest in improving “what was already thought to be perfect.” But how has it done so? Ask Kit and Ace representatives what differentiates the company’s fabrics from true cashmeres and they’ll almost inevitably stress that they’re machine washable and dryable. Indeed, when I inquired about what makes the company’s clothing “technical,” they pointed to this feature, presumably because it helps the clothes adapt to their owners’ lifestyles.

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Some have embraced this idea enthusiastically, though it’s not completely radical. Check the care instructions on a 100 percent cashmere sweater and you’ll probably find that they allow for hand washing. Kit and Ace’s ostensible innovation of machine washability is thus minor at best—and as far as clothing features go, not especially interesting. If Kit and Ace had found a way to make 100 percent cashmere garments dryer-safe, that might have been worthy of note, but its few single-fiber products (the $348 Fenley crew, for example, which actually is all cashmere) call for much lower-tech cleaning strategies.

As it happens, tech is really what’s at issue here, partly because technical is just as strange a term in this context as cashmere. An increasingly common concept in the apparel industry, technical nevertheless lacks a clear and consistent purchase. Abe Burmeister, founder of the small New York–based menswear brand Outlier, told me, “It’s not a very meaningful term.” Still, Outlier itself speaks to the way the word typically gets used today. For years, the company has been doing what Kit and Ace claims to be up to, remarrying fashion to functionality, making clothes that look good while holding up to strenuous activity. Jeremy Moon, founder of merino-based clothing company Icebreaker, says that he has something along these lines in mind when he uses the term technical. “A technical garment is made for a performance scenario,” Moon told me, adding, that it should meld the needs of the body to the demands of its environment. Other companies employ the term similarly, using it to describe clothes that perform well in a variety of contexts and climates.

While technical may not be the clearest term, then, it least operates in a general horizon of meaning. So why does Kit and Ace mostly use it in reference to the machine-washable quality of its clothes? Probably because those clothes aren’t especially functional, and because they’re not meant to be. That starts with cashmere itself, a fabric whose extravagant associations originate partly in its fundamental impracticability. Burmeister told me that “from a fabric-development standpoint” he respects what Kit and Ace has done, but that he doesn’t “think of cashmere as a technical fiber. It doesn’t compare to other wools in its temperature range. All it can do is get you hot.”

Even if cashmere does have technical potential—say, for moisture wicking—it’s not clear that Kit and Ace’s impressive custom fabrics are drawing it out. Moon, whose company works primarily with merino wool to great and sometimes surprising effect, takes a nuanced view along these lines. “The problem,” he says of cashmere, “because it’s too brittle, is that you can’t fabricate it in a way to unlock its performance benefits. The fiber doesn’t have the tensile strength.” In other words, if you’re really trying to make performance attire there’s little reason to employ cashmere.

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Kit and Ace itself acknowledges as much, and it doesn’t seem interested in proposing that its trademarked fabrics—or its on-trend designs, for that matter—improve things. Online, the company claims that its founders—mother-son team Shannon and JJ Wilson, the former previously of Lululemon—wanted to make “clothing that offered the same functionality” as “stretchy performance wear… but that met their desire for sophistication, style, and luxury.” When I tried a few of their products on in the company’s D.C. store, I appreciated the way they looked and felt on me, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than lounging around in them. I mentioned this to a clerk who agreed that nothing I had tried on was really made for sweating in, but told me they were meant to look as if they might be.

The company’s designers drive this point home, affirming that their primary concerns are aesthetic, even if they have some practical intentions. “Although our clothes do help you move throughout your busy day,” the textile design team told me, “they are not made for sweating. We are not for yoga.” From a fabric development perspective, those designers suggested it was more important to “maintain the soft hand feel of cashmere” than to extract any performance properties goat hair might conceal. But with most of their fabrics, they’re not so much maintaining that hand feel as they are re-creating it whole cloth. This is all to say that Kit and Ace is more interested in conveying the idea of cashmere than the fact of it. If the clothes are meant to look like they could have technical applications, they’re also meant to feel as if they might be made of cashmere.

But why stress the cashmere in the first place? And why incorporate it at all if the company is going to use so little, especially when softness and stretchiness is the real goal?  One reason may be that inorganic fibers—as well as fibers like Tencel that sound inorganic—are unfairly maligned. Burmeister hypothesized that this is a product of our prior associations. “When people think of nylon they tend to think of a windbreaker … you think of it as this hot, sweaty thing, but if you weave it differently, you’re going to have a totally different experience.” Much the same is true for polyesters and the like, where different fabrications and finishing techniques can make for surprisingly pleasant—and sometimes surprisingly expensive—fabrics. The trick is getting people to accept that possibility outside of a more casual workout-ready context like the one Kit and Ace’s sister company Lululemon mostly services.

Bringing cashmere into the equation may be a way of getting consumers to make that mental shift, encouraging them feel at home in fabrics they might otherwise dismiss without further thought. In his book Mythologies, the French semiotician Roland Barthes argues that you end up with a myth when you take an ordinary meaningful object and hollow it out so that it can take on new significations. Today, E=MC2, for example, no longer serves as a practical equation, instead suggesting the very fact of advanced science—a myth of inaccessible knowledge, one that reaffirms itself by discouraging us from looking closer at its original context. In a similar sense, cashmere has taken on mythic qualities of its own thanks to its connections with the high life. By contrast, we weave narratives of poverty and discontent into many of our less organic fabrics. It’s this myth that Kit and Ace opposes when it incorporates miniscule amounts of goat hair into its clothes, grasping instead for everything cashmere carries with it, and nothing that cashmere actually does.