BURRILLVILLE – In a 1991 episode of the comedy hit series Seinfeld, George Costanza gives a woman a surprise gift: a white cashmere sweater.
The recipient gushes in gratitude, telling the story of how she’s long coveted such an item.
“When I was a little girl in Panama, a rich American came to our town and he was wearing the softest, most beautiful fabric,” she says.
Long thought of as a symbol of luxury and sophistication, cashmere, historically, has clothed the noble and elite, an exclusive opulence indicating wealth and status. Made from the soft undercoat of cashmere goats, it takes three to four of the animals to make just one coat from the long-lasting fabric, and as a finite resource, products are typically priced accordingly. Sweaters and scarfs are most commonly found in hues of white, grey and beige, with the fabric’s high cost leading to few risks among clothing producers in terms of color palette.
But one luxury clothing producer in Burrillville is thriving, selling vibrant garments that, at least once a year, become more accessible to the masses – and draw in crowds of shoppers to the small town.
Started in the basement of a home on Camp Dixie Road in 2004, Alashan Cashmere has grown into a local leader in the industry, employing a full time staff of 17 people, along with interns and freelancers at a 14,000-square-foot building on Broncos Highway. The company sells products to stores throughout the United States, taking part in fashion shows in New York, and buying materials from China and beyond.
Owner Donald Fox began his career in the business in 1993 when he landed a job as assistant manager at Woonsocket-based Forte Cashmere. A Cranston native with a MBA focusing on Soviet and Eastern European studies who also received education at Leningrad State University, Fox would travel to places across the Middle East to purchase materials, and ultimately helped the company set up a processing plant in Mongolia.
It was when Forte closed that Fox decided to go it alone in the specialty industry.
“It is extremely, extremely competitive,” he told NRI NOW. “I don’t think there’s anyone who does anything like this in Rhode Island.”
Alashan eventually moved from Fox’s basement into a space above Norfolk Power Equipment, and later, to a building on Chapel Street. In 2014, the business owner was offered an opportunity to construct a building to spec in a vacant space right beside Alashan’s former home at Norfolk Power, and the cashmere producer has made its home there since.
Products are sold locally at upscale boutiques such as Monelle in Newport, Wendy Brown in Providence and Feminine Fancies in Barrington, as well as nationally and internationally. In 2019, the business established an e-commerce platform, and now, 10-15 percent of Alashan’s sales are direct to consumer.
“We’re still primarily a wholesaler,” Fox said.
The company president noted that Alashan is known for its wide palette, with 56-63 colors offered across the entire collection each season.
“It’s not just grays, and taupes, and tans,” Fox said. “That’s very, very unique for our competitive industry.”
The problem for many cashmere producers, he said, is that a wide color array requires an enormous upfront investment. Alashan purchases hundreds of kilos of yarn on a regular basis – at a cost of $130 per kilo.
“We’re continually investing in yarn,” Fox said. “Once you dye it and spin it, you’re adding costs.”
Fox said the business typically has between 4,000 to 5,000 kilos on the floor ready to be spun at any given time.
“We’re constantly issuing knitting orders and we need to have the yarn on hand,” he said.
The access to materials allows the business to quickly fill orders with both small and large production.
“We pride ourselves in being very nimble,” Fox said.
It also allows for unique clothing lines created in colors such as hot fuchsia or screaming neon green.
“We are known across the U.S. and other markets for that color card,” Fox said. “We’re not afraid of color, and people come to us for that.”
Fox said Alashan is also known for its customer service, with retailers not generally accustomed to the small-town touch often telling him it’s the best in the industry.
“We just have really good, hardworking people on our team,” Fox said, noting that all of his employees are local, and many live right in Burrillville.
Fashion, he notes, changes quickly, so those advantages – and cost controls that translate into customer savings – are needed to stay competitive.
“We typically come out on the better end when people are doing comparative shopping,” Fox said.
And those prices see a steep drop once a year at an event that eliminates excess product and brings deals to local shoppers, all while helping to finance the company’s next collection: the sample sale. The event makes use of discontinued clothing sitting in the inventory warehouse, sample collections unworn, but used for show by his sales reps, and even prototypes that didn’t make it into production and may be one of a kind.
Items are sold at a fraction of the usual cashmere price, with sweaters that would retail for $230 sold for $50-$60.
“It’s very, very, good bargains,” Fox said, adding that the sale creates a fun environment locally, with many visitors from out-of-town returning each year. “They end up spending money in town.”
The sale takes place next weekend on Friday, Nov. 18 from 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 19 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the business at 866 Broncos Highway. Fox noted he also collects food at the event, encouraging shoppers to bring in donations to be delivered to local food pantries.
“We’re trying to use the popularity of the sale to collect some items for people who are most in need of those goods around the holidays,” he said.
Thousands of items are typically sold at discount – most with the tags still on.
“It’s not just women’s sweaters,” Fox said. “It’s hats and gloves and scarves and throws for the home. It’s like treasure hunting when you get there.”