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Qiviut & Co – the birth of a new luxury category

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you have been in the fashion industry for a little while and done your homework of studying fashion history and kept abreast new-ness – you have, by and large, seen it all ….a few times over.

Qiviut musk ox

So, hearing about a new brand or product, yet to be discovered, over-exposed and over-commercialised, feels strange and special, both at the same time.

I am introduced to Bob Gould, the founder of QIVIUT & CO (website) via an industry friend. We meet at an Italian cafe over quick lunch and a coffee. I am struck by what an engaging conversationalist he is. His youthful entrepreneurial spirit is infectious and admirable, even though on occasion I can’t help but wonder if he knows what he is getting into. After all, many a fortune have been lost down the proverbial fashion black-hole.

Perhaps, the many years notched up running businesses already, will give him an edge and ensure the success of his current venture. After all, you can’t blame him for seizing an opportunity.

A Harvard graduate, not too enamoured by his occupation, Bob jumped at the chance to start a new life and venture in Alaska. In the 1970s this sleepy and underdeveloped 49th state of the USA was not a place businessmen and entrepreneurs even gave a second thought to. Naturally, the opportunities to be had were many and the success of his first business led to a string of other business opportunities. Living in Alaska led him to learn about the Musk Ox and the possibilities, the hide of the animal, usually discarded, offered.

The Backstory

To most people (myself included), the Musk Ox is an animal largely unknown. A bovine mammal, despite its name, the Musk Ox belongs to the goat family, despite it being a bit bigger in size (it is roughly 2/3rds the size of a cow). While it is not an extinct species, there are only three places around the world that these animals are indigenous to and can be found in any meaningful number – Alaska, Greenland and northern Canada. Over the past centuries, the Musk Ox has adapted and learned to survive in the punishingly inhospitable environment of the extreme Arctic, where temperatures can often dip to minus 60 degrees Celsius. The hunting of these animals is very tightly regulated and determined annually. It is limited and strictly governmentally controlled by the respective countries. The reason for its hunting is primarily for providing a winter food supply and subsistence to natives living in the remote regions of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, where the animals are found in abundance.

qiviut yarn fibre musk ox

The Process

Once the meat is processed, the rough animal hides are usually sold to local “mom and pop” processors who comb out by hand the prized natural fibre they contain. Like cashmere goats, Musk Ox have two distinctly different types of hair: the longer and thicker outer guard hair that is their main protection against the elements and the high value, super fine underhair known as qiviut (pronounced “KIV-ee-ute”). Until QIVIUT & CO, the coarse outer hair was sheared and discarded as waste while the qiviut was spun into yarn almost entirely for sale to hobbyists who knitted at home by hand.

While those in the know might think, “what is the big deal here? This is no different from how vicuña, alpaca, cashmere or very fine merino wool is processed.” True, except for the fact that until now the mechanisation of processing qiviut fibre has never been done on a commercial scale before.

Like cashmere goats, Musk Ox have two distinctly different types of hair: the longer and thicker outer guard hair that is their main protection against the elements and the prized, super fine underwool known as qiviut (pronounced “KIV-ee-ute”)

In the initial phase, the fibre is washed to remove natural and acquired impurities like body oil, dirt, etc. In this phase, some of the more brittle guard and intermediate hair is also removed. However, further unwanted hair removal occurs in the dehairing phase designed to ensure maximum quality for qiviut’s natural super-soft hand feel. The guard and intermediate hair collected in the shearing and dehairing phases is no longer discarded but used by QIVIUT & CO for outerwear wadding insulation because of its superior thermal performance and where hand feel is not required.

The birth of The Qiviut jacket

Ever the entrepreneur and never able to sit still and be idle, Bob spotted an opportunity in both the internal Alaska market and internationally. After facing for years, the disappointed faces of tourists who wrongly assumed that given the severely cold climate, Alaska will have an amazing range of warm coats and jackets – he decided to address the issue, as well as utilise this underused little known natural fibre.

The idea of The Qiviut Jacket was thus born.

The choice of product is not random either. Given the scarcity of the fibre, anything that would be used would not be cheap. So, it had to be a substantial product that could carry the premium price and be functional, yet benefit from the fibre properties and be easily marketable.

As mentioned before, the rough guard hair, famed for its insulation properties (yet usually discarded) is used as padding internally. The finer fibre is spun into yarn and combined with elastane for a snug, windproof knitted trim to the jacket.

After teaming up with the man instrumental in the success and growth of the Puffa Jacket brand back in the 1980s and 90s – Victor Rosenberg, The Qiviut Jacket idea took shape and became a real product. But the end result was not just any old premium product. It is a flagship product and the opening of a whole new apparel category.

Characteristics of The Qiviut jacket

Exquisitely light, downy and warm, the qiviut fibre is finer, and therefore, softer than cashmere and eight times warmer than wool. It provides an unmatched combination of superior thermal performance and unparalleled hand-feel. Unlike wool, qiviut is odourless when wet (despite its name suggesting it may smell musky), will not shrink in water of any temperature and is still able to retain warmth when soaked.  Naturally hypoallergenic, qiviut feels exceptionally plush and luxurious against the skin.

Musk Ox Qiviut alaska

The brand evolves

The Qiviut Jacket is so far, the first and the only product to incorporate this extraordinary natural fibre in a manufactured garment.

The jacket – designed and produced today, is currently available in a very limited quantity and every jacket is registered and numbered, adding an extra layer of exclusivity. Unlike some limited and well documented coveted luxury products (limited in supply by choice, not means), the Qiviut jacket is truly limited due to the scarce supply of the raw material.

The limited supply also dictates the business strategy, the brand under Bob’s leadership is taking. Only available in a direct to consumer sales channels at present, every sale is an experience and has the true old-fashioned luxury element of personal touch and attention.

For those unable to afford the premium jacket just yet, fear not. There is an alternative route to buying into the brand and experiencing the Qiviut magic. The recently launched knitted accessories are only the start of a wider product offer that will keep you warm in winter. But a word of warning – wearing Qiviut can be addictive and going back to cashmere won’t be easy.

Is growth possible?

So, if like me you wonder how is the brand going to grow with this limited supply of fibre – well as you might have guessed Bob has a plan. Inspired by the way Loro Piana revolutionised the vicuna fibre market and revived an almost extinct animal while creating a thriving business, he has similar plans for the Musk Ox. Finding the right partners, who share his passion for the product and business philosophy is a crucial piece of his plan. With a proven demand for the product and business opportunities on the table – surely the search won’t take long.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us, we have the rare privilege to be able to buy into and be part of a brand at the start of its journey, as opposed to wearing mass produced and “fake scarce” designer labels.

Read how Deborah Todd from ZaaZee sportswear, built her fashion brand from scratch. She gives interesting tips and tells what success means to her. Read here.

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