Fernando Alvarez’s quest to find the world’s softest fibre began before he was even born. Today that quest has been realized through his unique brand Qiviuk.
“My relationship with fibres would be decades, if not generations, old,” the Peruvian entrepreneur says. His grandparents owned many acres of land and raised fibre-producing animals in the highlands of Peru. “It’s always been in my family. It’s a tradition.”
His mother was an avid knitter. He used to design garments with her, exploring how certain materials would look and feel compared to others. Fascinated by textiles, he learned about their history in Peru, Europe, and Asia.
“All of these influences were the roots of the motivation to search for the finest fibre,” he says.
Twenty-two years ago, while still a young man, he found it. “Qiviuk blew my mind; it was a Eureka moment. The feeling was incredible. It was like handling a cloud,” Alvarez says.
Qiviuk (or qiviut) is the soft undercoat of the muskox. Softer than cashmere, this silky underwool has kept these prehistoric mammals warm for 600,000 years. Muskoxen now live exclusively in Alaska, Greenland, and the Canadian Arctic, where Alvarez sources his fibre.
“The Canadian Arctic is this incredible place that nobody knows about, which has kept this treasure hidden for millennia,” he says.
To cultivate and produce this rare fibre, Alvarez founded the brand Qiviuk in 1999. Vertically integrated, it’s the only company in the world that can take qiviuk all the way from raw fibre to luxury garment. It sells sweaters, shawls, vests, and accessories made of qiviuk, among other products, direct-to-customer online. The brand also sells the sought-after fabric to European fashion houses.
In the past two decades, Qiviuk has caught the attention of the global luxury market. The brand has set up boutiques inside the Jacques Cartier Clothier in Banff and The Fairmont’s luxury hotels, such as Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise. Celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker have also started to don Qiviuk’s garments, both in real life and onscreen. Despite the recession in 2009, Qiviuk partnered with luxury designer Alexander Amosu. They sold a qiviuk-blend suit for over $100,000, setting the Guinness world record at the time for most expensive suit.
From expert to pioneer
Over two decades ago, in his first brush with qiviuk, a group of professors contacted Alvarez. They were from the University of Saskatchewan, a leading school in animal studies. They knew Alvarez was an expert in fibres and textiles, and they asked him about the muskox, which they had been studying.
With his upbringing and heritage, he says, “I have a special predisposition or sensitivity to very fine, unique fibres.” When he first experienced the muskox underbelly fur, “its softness and warmth, it was an incredible, breathtaking moment.”
Later, Alvarez would confirm under a microscope what he felt with his fingers. Other types of wool, even cashmere, have scales coating the fibre. “Some have more, some have less.” He says that “with qiviuk, the scales are almost nonexistent. It’s a smooth hair. It gives you a [silky] tactile sensation on your body unlike any other fibre. It also helps insulate you.”
But without rough scales to grab on to each other, spinning and knitting qiviuk become a huge challenge. These problems, along with many others, posed significant obstacles and risks for Alvarez. “You have to actually walk through all the processes to see if that potential can actually become what you’ve envisioned it to become. It was a lot harder than I or anybody would have anticipated.”
Qiviuk’s main manufacturing plant is in Peru, where artisans refine the raw material into a luxury fibre. That’s “the biggest challenge,” Alvarez says. It took him ten years of trial and error to formulate effective methodologies. “The textile industry exists, but it’s geared towards production of things like wool or cashmere, which have been made for hundreds of years. All of a sudden, those machines used for deseeding don’t work.”
Craftsmanship gives Qiviuk life
Qiviuk has been updating and modifying these processes to meet the needs of the muskox fibre. Alvarez emphasizes that many of the critical steps in turning fibre to yarn can only be done in-house. Once the fibre is collected, it goes through dehairing, the separation of fine and coarse fibres.
Cashmere, for example, can be of very high or poor quality, depending on the company’s manufacturing methods. Alvarez says, “In terms of qiviuk, that standard was created by us.”
The next step is spinning the fibre, done either in Peru or in mills in Italy. There are many methods of spinning yarn and dyeing depending on the desired textile or garment. After that, the yarn is woven; Qiviuk uses centuries-old mills in Italy. For knitwear, the brand mainly uses needles and hand-knitting techniques.
“Handweaving is almost extinct,” Alvarez says. Almost all other brands use machines for knitwear, “but we discovered that the interaction between the craftsperson and the fibre enhanced the quality, so we kept that.” The artisans use techniques from 17th and 18th-century Europe, as well as other cultures. This bond between the craftspersons and the fibre gives each product meaning and purpose, and brings life to Qiviuk.
Most of Qiviuk’s in-house artisans have been with the company for over 20 years. It takes three to five years for them to cultivate the required skills. “We are constantly training the younger generations,” Alvarez says. “We start with simpler tasks, but their skills are beyond just training. It’s generational. It’s genetic actually, at the core.”
A counterintuitive approach
The brand’s philosophy is as important to its success as its cloud-like muskox fibre.
While other brands work towards growing as large as possible, Alvarez sees the pitfalls of becoming too industrialized. He believes the best quality can only be maintained at lower quantities. Being small and respecting traditional methods of production is part of being truly sustainable, he says. While some of the company’s manufacturing steps use cutting-edge technology, Qiviuk relies on traditional handmade craftsmanship to maximize quality.
One would think the higher standards of craftsmanship and quality would be religiously adhered to by top fashion houses. Surprisingly, Alvarez has found the opposite. He’s seen brands cutting corners, filling jackets with the muskox fibre’s substandard components.
“These other companies have beautiful designs and styles, but they don’t actually care about what’s in the product, neither the material itself nor where it comes from,” he says. Although some brands have huge campaigns about sustainability, Alvarez believes it’s a different matter when you talk to customers face to face.
What customers focus on is almost always the price and durability of luxury natural fibres. “That’s fine, but with certain materials, you have limits,” Alvarez says. “That’s why designer brands and, in fact, the entire industry, always end up using synthetics, replacing natural fibres with manmade materials. It’s a complete error in the conception of luxury.”
Yet Alvarez is not discouraged. In fact, his passion for luxurious natural fibre has led him to simultaneously join an artisanal renaissance. “Behind every sweater, every pair of pants or shoes, there are people behind it. They need to make money, survive, and thrive,” he says. “Since Qiviuk has so many repeat customers, it indicates that there is a section of society who are sensitive to these issues.”
The path Alvarez has taken may seem counterintuitive, but he’s certainly not alone on his quest for the world’s most luxurious fibre.