Do you know where your sweater came from?

Just under a decade ago, I wrote a column about an extraordinary new initiative, courtesy of Fendi, called Pesce d’Aprile, in which a customer could travel to a crocodile farm in Singapore, select the reptile from which their handbag would be made and then follow its progress via an app. Billed as the fashion equivalent of “know your food,” it was the first of its kind.

It was also entirely made up (by me): an April Fools’ joke invented to highlight the lengths to which fashion brands would go to distinguish themselves — and the fact that, increasingly, customers were interested in the origin of their products.

Except now, finally, the joke’s on me.

Loro Piana, the luxury brand known for its plush, understated knits that look as if they have been woven from liquidized bank notes, has embarked on a program that will allow customers to trace every step of production of one of its baby cashmere sweaters from goat to store.

It may seem like a simple thing: How can a brand not know exactly where and how its products are made? Yet the fashion supply chain is so complicated, its many moving parts spread out over so many countries and processes, that for most of us the origin stories of our clothes are almost entirely opaque.

“We have a belief that companies know where things are coming from, and in actual fact many companies lost that ability quite a long time ago,” said Maxine Bédat, the founder of the New Standard Institute, a nonprofit founded to define and create a framework for fashion’s sustainability claims. “The more products you add to your offering, the more diffuse and complicated the manufacturing becomes, and as a result it is very rare today for fashion companies to both be able to trace their full supply chains and be willing to disclose them.”

sweater Cashmere wool is inspected at Alashan Zuo Qi Dia Li Cashmere in Alashan, in the Inner Mongolia region of China. (Source: New York Times)

Consider the fact that the average merino wool sweater will travel 18,000 miles over the course of its production before it reaches a store shelf, according to Bamford, the British farm-to-table luxury brand.

Tracing that journey is easier, of course, if a brand is small enough to do everything itself or if a new brand is built with transparency in mind. But few founders were thinking that way even a decade ago, and almost no brand owns every step of the process of creation, from farm to finished product.

For the consumer in search of a holiday present, that means it is extremely difficult to know, as you browse the shelves looking for the perfect chunky knit or comfortable wrap, whether what you are seeing has been made responsibly, with environmental and social factors in mind.

That’s why, two years ago, Loro Piana, which was bought by LVMH for $2.6 billion in 2013, decided to pin down its processes so that it can now include a garment tag telling potential buyers that “this knitwear has been coming from a bail that was taken in that specific region in that year or that month of that year,” said Fabio d’Angelantonio, the former Loro Piana CEO (he was replaced in late October by Damien Bertrand). And that bail originated on the backs of that herd.

The project was introduced earlier this year with Loro Piana’s vicuña products and has now been extended to include cashmere and baby cashmere, the company’s biggest sellers. Given that the average Loro Piana cashmere sweater will be touched by approximately 100 hands in at least three countries as it makes its way from Mongolia to Italy to its final store, and will involve more than 13 processes over 18 months to two years, that was no small undertaking.

Arguably such traceability was possible only because the luxury brand has the … well, luxury, of knowing its herders — it has been sourcing, spinning, weaving and finishing cashmere since 1924 — and because its extremely well-heeled customers are willing to pay for the information. And Loro Piana is gambling that increasingly it will be part of the fashion value proposition. That each physical gift should also bring with it the gift of knowledge.

In place of trickle-down economics, think of it as trickle-down transparency.

(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)

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