One of the best-kept local fashion secrets is hiding out on Auckland’s iconic Queen Street. Ever heard of Johnstons of Elgin?
Google to find fashion edits galore from Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar on the centuries-old producer of the highest quality cashmere in the world. Every season Hermès, Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Chanel line up to place orders at the Scottish mill after HRH Queen Elizabeth and more recently Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, who’s been known to swaddle her children in Johnstons for paparazzi photo calls.
Did you know that you can buy the brand in central Auckland only a few doors down from the luxe line-up of Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton? Look out for The Cashmere Company, a duck egg blue-and-gold gateway to Johnstons’ goodies.
The store stocks a mecca of cashmere, premium wool blend garments and luxury textiles in the finest linen, silk and tweeds for the interior. How it came into being is quite the story. Owner, Esme Pfaff immigrated to New Zealand 11 years ago from the United Kingdom with her husband. Previously they’d owned 14 jeans stores on the M4 corridor.
Then on a visit to New Zealand, a former business colleague, the sales director of Johnstons proposed a collaboration that was too good to turn down. At the time Esme was living on a Coromandel lifestyle block raising her six children.
It was a pivotal moment going from one duality to another. Bye-bye sheep and gumboots, hello sumptuous stoles, soft-spun cashmere and sensuous woven tartans.
In the beginning, Esme’s sales missions were by campervan around New Zealand and Australia. It was a life of real contrast swinging from rural informality to fashionista formality. “I used to literally change out of my farming overalls to don my suit and high heels then totter into all these glamorous boutiques,” says Esme.
After doing “massive business” in Sydney and Melbourne, her home territory in New Zealand proved to be a much harder nut to crack. Esme’s two oldest children finally convinced their mum to take the plunge: “They said you know enough about retail—if you think there’s a market, do it yourself!” So she did.
When sales started in 2011, revenue was £25,000. Sales are now over £1.5 million in Johnstons products alone. This is no ‘Nana twin set and pearls operation’ either. Nowadays The Cashmere Company deals with international brands like Oroton and domestic clients and collaborators from Snowy Peak to even the Textile and Design Laboratory at the Auckland University of Technology.
There’s a co-share label with Mcdonalds Textiles, Untouched World and Merino Mink recently worn by Barack Obama. Plus funky chunky limited edition pieces by Instagram stars like Plumb & Co and The Knitter aka Nicole Leybourne.
When the store first opened, Esme expected to sell long-lasting good quality basics to Kiwis only. Her first customer from Japan provided a very sharp learning curve. “He checked the labels, the bag, the box, then finally made his decision—his interpreter said, ‘Yes he’ll take 24 of those please.’” Esme remembers phoning Johnstons immediately “to send more wow pieces to be boxed and bagged beautifully”.
Famous French designer, Givenchy once said: “All a woman needs to be chic is a raincoat, two suits, a pair of trousers and cashmere.” Esme agrees “I have always said to my girls you can wear a cashmere jumper, the tattiest pair of jeans, filthy boots and still feel amazing. Don’t forget, cashmere lasts for years—it’s like a fine bottle of wine, with age it does get better.”
She recalls a sales meeting in Clevedon, her first visit to a polo field where the owner came in from mucking out the horses looking fabulous wearing a Johnstons’ jumper she’d bought in Scotland 20 years before. “I couldn’t believe the coincidence and the fact that it still looked great,” she says. Then again Esme does admit to having 10- and 20-year-old jumpers that her kids fight over.
Her clients typically snap up cashmere sweaters starting from $399 to show stopping pieces for over $1,000. You could shop elsewhere and buy an acrylic version for $250 “but that won’t last, wear, or feel the same, plus it’s made out of unsustainable petroleum based fibres”.
Even with the price point, forget about a hands-off approach to trying on in store. “Actually it’s a very robust fibre so the more you handle it, the better it feels and the softer it gets,” Esme says. Her daughter, Alannah who handles the marketing and day-to-day running of the business leaving her mum to design, agrees. “Our cashmere is combed off the goat to get a tapered edge on both sides so it feels smooth when spun. The other way is to shear it off as a shorter fibre that leaves a blunt side that will never spin properly,” she says.
A tell-tale sign of low quality cashmere is fabric “with fuzz on the top, which will always pill” she warns. By comparison, lower priced cashmere can be of dubious quality with shorter fibres.
It seems that there is a distinct pecking order in the textile industry—it’s mirrored in The Cashmere Company’s merchandising too. Lambswool and merino blend is on a bottom shelf, 100% cashmere positioned at the top. In a display case opposite is the ultimate in ultra-luxe — a vicuña stole made from the hair of a miniature cinnamon-hued, doe-eyed cousin of the llama.
“It’s the rarest fibre in the world – worth ten times more than cashmere. That piece sells for $6,650,” says Alannah.
The provenance of vicuña from Johnstons goes right back to the Great Exhibition of 1851 when the company received a medal for its shawls at Queen Victoria’s Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. “Pure vicuña doesn’t feel like you are wearing anything at all,” says Esme.
Her preference is a vicuña cashmere combination: “It is possibly the most beautiful piece of textile art that Johnstons has ever created.”
One loyal client has been ritualistically buying pieces for various relatives. “We have a tradition in our family when our children get to seven they get their first pen knife and at 13 their ears pierced. At no point do you get a vicuña scarf,” she laughs.
Humour aside, one serious fact Esme appreciates after working a decade with Johnstons of Elgin is that her clients want the best, appreciate the best and receive the best at The Cashmere Company.
Words: Sarah Sparks