HOW TO MAKE THE MOST CLOSEST TO PERFECT POLO SHIRT

Barcelona FC wears Thom Browne off the pitch. For Paris Saint-Germain, it’s Dior. Inter Milan, in the most Milano move ever, dresses in Moncler. When fashion houses do collaborations with football teams, the brand usually likes to make itself known. You can spot the triple stripe and shrunken fit of Thom Browne. Moncler’s keyhole crest is a multimillion-dollar IP. So when Juventus filed out one by one in perfectly fitted polos of deep, deep navy last October, menswear casuals were perplexed. They couldn’t quite make out a logo, nor did they realise that they were gazing upon what is, perhaps, the greatest polo shirt ever made.

Loro Piana has quietly constructed some of the finest clothes on the planet for almost 100 years, growing from a family business to a jewel in the crown of luxury conglomerate LVMH. So quiet is it that it existed long before the TikTok wave of “quiet luxury”. Quieter still is Loro Piana’s refusal to weigh in on the quasi-trend – believe it or not, old money tends to go for low-key, high-impact quality over a fully monogrammed tracksuit.

It’s a marker of pure, elite, insider menswear, a brand recognised only by those deep into this fashion thing. “It’s become the brand for aspirational dressers globally,” says Daniel Todd, buying director at luxury retailer Mr Porter. “We saw this increase in popularity, and sales dramatically grew throughout 2023.” And that induction into the super-haute IYKYK echelons comes at a cost: Loro Piana’s polo shirt is shaded in an array of neutrals, and it can be yours for a cool £1,485. It begs the question: just how advanced can a simple polo shirt get? Pretty advanced, it turns out.

How Loro Piana makes the most heavenly polo shirt

It’s worth beginning at Loro Piana’s tranquil home. The brand pieces together most of its wares in Roccapietra, an Italian town so northern it feels no longer Italian, but Swiss. As interest in Loro Piana has rocketed, so has the number of visitors making the twisting drive from Milan. Join these new converts on their pilgrimage to the holy land of cashmere and you pass family-run restaurants and crumbling lodges, and the parched riverbed where the mighty Sesia once slammed through. Although it’s mid-November when I visit, the river is now just a trickle over a large, empty mouth of tooth-shaped rocks. Still, it feels as close to untouched nature as one can realistically get in developed Europe. The Loro Piana complex, a building of textured concrete that looks like a retirement lair for Bond villains past, relaxes into the shins of the nearby mountain range.

A tour guide with impressive hair called Marina greets me in the reception, a peaceful shrine to greige. This colour palette even extends to the refreshments. We’re politely offered espresso in ecru cups, and canestrelli, which are sort of leather-coloured Italian chocolate biscuits. Loro Piana’s are presented in a wooden box, with the confectioner’s name, Jeantet, etched into the wafer. “They’re the most delicious thing you’ve ever had,” one of our company whispers encouragingly. “Also, they’re about €90 a pop.” (She’s right. They’re insane.)

Inside this unassuming sprawl of ’70s concrete are the inner sanctums of the Loro Piana production, the most sacred of which is a lab. It is here that the very fabric of the brand – its signature cloud-soft cashmere – is analysed, assessed and either accepted as luxe enough, or rejected. The criteria are tight: a single strand of discoloured hair means the fabric is dud.

There’s a sanctity to the process. This isn’t the first checkpoint, either. The raw wool is assessed by hardy Mongolian farmers at the source. Then, it’s analysed over the course of a full day at a Loro Piana factory in Beijing. But it’s only here in Roccapietra that final sign-off takes place. An unassuming employee in a branded lab coat inspects the cashmere’s fineness under a microscope; a strand of human hair looks like a trawlerman’s rope next to the sliver of precious wool. “This is good,” he says with a proud smile.

Elsewhere in the depths of the factory, where woollen flotsam tumbleweeds across the concrete floor, thick-armed men feed boulders of raw material into the machines that twist and weave it into cashmere. The wool is largely sourced from Inner Mongolia and New Zealand, and much of it is harvested from the once-endangered Andean vicuña, an animal that looks like the kindly bastard child of a llama and a gazelle. They’re sheared once every two years for the priciest wool on the planet. “Because the quantities are so small, the ‘dehairing’ is generally done by hand, which is costly. In addition, the animals aren’t really domesticated like alpacas and llamas, so they’re harder to catch when being shorn,” says Jo Dawson, CEO of international wool supplier H Dawson. “The value of the fibre is down to the very low number of animals, the low yield collected, the cost of collection and the relative demand due to its scarcity and softness. The price per kilogramme of vicuña is several times that of verified pure cashmere.”

On the factory floor, one woman’s job is to ensure all the spools spin in unison, replacing threads that come undone with the sort of dexterity that’d put Minority Report-era Tom Cruise to shame. Elsewhere, another worker with a neck tattoo and glittery mascara is surrounded by sacks of fabric, correcting every defect at the final stage by stitching a loose thread back into the smooth sea of cashmere. Time and again, it’s this sort of precision and preciousness that Marina points to. This, she says emphatically, is why their cashmere is superior. “The craftsmanship of these pieces is just out of this world,” says Elite actor Alex Pastrana, whose Instagram grid is peppered with shots of buttery suede jackets and, yes, that famous buttonless polo shirt. “I’ve been amazed by how many people love the pieces I wear. Suddenly they touch the clothes, stop the conversation and go, like, ‘Wow, wait, this is so soft.’”

People want that sort of A-grade product at the moment – and Loro Piana has found itself in the right place at the right time. Amid a global economic dive, a CNBC report last year found that luxury brands are buoyed by ongoing sales to the uber-wealthy, the core demographic of Loro Piana’s coalition. What’s more, fashion houses historically press pause on overt logomania as household finances come under strain. Even back during the 2008 crash, Time magazine noted how megabrands such as Balenciaga, Lanvin and Saint Laurent had all shifted to a muted colour palette. It was also a fortuitous time for the likes of former Chloé creative director Phoebe Philo, whose minimalist signature bewitched a market that was craving austere luxury. Those pieces are still considered grails.

How Loro Piana makes the most heavenly polo shirt

But Loro Piana hasn’t had to change it up; it has done this low-key luxury for almost a century, and it does it well. “For me, Loro Piana was first fabric company that I’d see on the inside of pieces from other labels,” says Josh Peskowitz, a brand development consultant and devout menswearhead. “A brand could buy their fabric from Loro Piana and all of a sudden, it became more valuable, more prestigious. To spend $1,000 on a bath towel skirt from Balenciaga is a stretch. But to buy a jacket from Loro Piana for $20,000, yeah, that’s also crazy, but the fabric is thinner than a human hair; they had to invent special machinery to make it. There’s a reason for it to be as expensive as it is. It’s rarefied.”

Loro Piana’s recent boom is in part thanks to pop culture: over the last few years, the brand has become the uniform of the morally hideous Roy family in Succession. On yachts and in Waystar boardrooms, Loro Piana was a go-to, alongside other long-standing silent markers of elevated wealth, such as Brunello Cucinelli and Canali. Data released by eBay found that North American sales of Loro Piana were up 70 per cent at the time of the show’s 2023 finale. Variety was directing readers to dupes of Kendall Roy’s Loro Piana baseball cap. TikTok was awash with thousands of “get ready with me” videos with facsimiles of the blue-chip boardroom suits. Turns out we didn’t want to eat the rich so much as we wanted to dress like them.

Again, this success isn’t causing Loro Piana to change tack. Alessandra Varianini, the brand’s product development and collection merch director, has worked at pretty much every major Italian fashion house. Her biggest challenge at Loro Piana, though? The long lead times. It’s a nice problem to have in an industry that’s increasingly reliant on product churn. “We begin working more than a year ahead because of the materials and fibres we use, and the workmanship involved. Sometimes, it’s more than two years if we want to really push something in the collection,” she says over Zoom. “Everything is made in Italy, and I think the product is much more qualitative at the end. We don’t have to follow the latest trend. We don’t have to do a show. But we do have to do quality. It’s a totally different perspective to most brands, and we’re fine just taking our time.”

You can see that in the polo shirt. It just feels like quality, time and money. And as the Juventus boys marched out in the most heavenly polo shirt on Earth, the Loro Piana hook-up made perfect sense for a team that prides itself on technical precision and methodical play. But if you didn’t know about the hours of painstaking fabric analysis, and the near-perfect cashmere, and the countless Succession fanboys, that’s kinda the point: Loro Piana’s soft power lies in its covert, self-assured signature. Never before has a polo shirt said so much by saying so little.