Passions rapt in pashmina

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 July, 1999, 12:00am

Juliana Wong and Nora Leung are sitting in a room at the Furama Hotel. It is 10.30 on a Friday morning and the doorbell has hardly stopped ringing. 'Yesterday was crazy,' says Ms Leung. 'I mean, scary. There were 40 ladies in this room at one time all wanting to buy.' The telephone rings. It is a supplier from India, taking more embroidery orders and arranging a meeting later in the summer.

Readers of this newspaper cannot fail to have noticed the arrival of the must-have fashion object of the late 1990s. Long gone are the days when a shawl used to be what your grandmother and Miss Marple wore to ease the chill of their twilight years. Now, everyone you know wears shawls, as long as they are made of pashmina.

Sales of these desirable objects, often in the Furama Hotel, are now advertised here practically every week. The laws of supply and demand suggest that there must be a market for all these shawls, but how long before saturation point is reached? 'There are six million people in Hong Kong,' says Ms Wong. 'There's enough to go round. Some women come in here and buy a dozen.' She makes an important retail point: it is a fact, verifiable by anyone who has ever bought a pashmina, that one, strangely, is never enough. And the Hong Kong summer, where temperatures are alternately sweltering and arctic, is peculiarly suited to the cult of the pashmina.

Soft, colourful, easy to carry and favoured by every film star and supermodel under the sun, the hair of Capra Hircus, a Himalayan goat, is now big business.

It is also, of course, legal, unlike what Ms Wong refers to as 'the absolutely disgusting' shatoosh. She and Ms Leung set up their pashmina company, Pretty & Pink, when it became obvious at the end of last year that all their friends wanted one (or three). Although they sell some Mongolian shawls, at $980, they prefer the quality of Nepalese pashminas which are usually blended with silk and cost $2,050: the silk adds a pleasing sheen, and improves the absorbency of the dye and therefore the vibrancy of colour.

Now that acquiring pashmina shawls has become so commonplace, a hierarchy of aesthetics - and cost - has sprung up, rather in the way that plimsolls evolved into trainers. First-time purchasers, apparently, tend to go for simple, solid colours with a fringe. The more sophisticated buyers opt for embroidery, which Pretty & Pink have done in India. The true cognoscenti will buy heavily embroidered Kashmiri shawls which can cost anything from $3,800 up to $20,000.

'We've seen them for $40,000,' says Ms Wong. 'They're for people who really appreciate workmanship. It can take five years to make just one. They last for 120 years and they pass from mother to daughter.' As it happens, a mother-and-daughter team opened a shop selling a variety of pashmina garments in Prince's Building last week. Bhagwanti and Tania Mohan launched Tabla to highlight the beauty of Indian accessories, including jewellery and slippers, but the main focus of the business will be on the potential of pashmina to be incorporated into a woman's wardrobe.

Thus, it is now possible to order a pashmina dressing-gown for $6,700. 'It can be with or without embroidery, if you have a fetish for daisies you can order one with daisies - anything you like to make it really special,' says Tania Mohan. She also plans to introduce drawstring trousers, made from pashmina, by the end of the summer.

Pashmina is not a naturally stretchy fabric, which means there is a limit to its tailoring applications, but Ms Mohan is working with suppliers in India on the possibility of a small, casually cosy clothes collection.

In the meantime, she has sets of sleeveless Chinese-style cheongsam tops with matching pashmina shawls - a sort of East meets Further East combination - for $4,500. The pattern on the silk tops is woven into a border on the pashmina in colours which include fuchsia, black and burgundy. Waistcoats and Western-style tops are also available. As she observes: 'People like to be told what goes together, especially in Asia.' And, of course, she offers a multitude of beaded and embroidered pashmina shawls with handbags to match. She has shawls specially edged in rhinestone (apparently the Hong Kong market has a greater penchant for glitter than the Indian domestic market) priced at $2,800, and the accompanying one-off handbags are $1,800. The exquisite pink shawl, with its hand-stitched Moghul design, as worn by Bhagwanti Mohan in the photograph, is $5,800.

Do the Mohans worry about overkill? 'If you wear a black dress and throw on a pashmina, it's not something that's part of an exotic phase,' says Ms Mohan. 'It's a classic look that can be very sexy. And having different pashminas allows you to play with those different looks. It's something that's here for keeps.' As if to prove the point, it seems that pashmina itself is subject to the vagaries of fashion. Now the commercial advantage for the myriad sellers in Hong Kong will lie in anticipating general trends in the rest of the industry. Like skirts and trousers, even pashmina shawls will have to be cut in a certain way. 'I think this winter, pashmina will be part of that whole, hippy look,' says Tania Mohan. 'We're going to start selling pashmina stoles - not the usual wide shawls but pashminas which are longer and narrower because that's what's going to be in style.' Pretty & Pink can be contacted on 2577 1919. Other pashmina suppliers include Anne Loseff (2849 4588), Angelina Sadhwani at Colour Wraps (2521 2443 or 9499 0191) and Fine 'n Rhine (2721 8166)