A fabric that’s extra light, versatile, strong yet utterly luxurious: it sounds like a menswear designer’s fantasy. But alpaca has, of course, been around for ages – it’s just that its superlative qualities have not been fully appreciated until this season.
The springy, ultra-soft fibres from the underbellies and necks of a species of camelid living in the Andes make for some very special fabrics. When woven, alpaca takes on various textures, from soft and voluminous to coarse and cropped. And as lightweight fabrications and distinctive textures become defining characteristics of contemporary men’s style, it’s not surprising that alpaca is now being shepherded into a lead role.
Brunello Cucinelli, who built his empire on cashmere, has also put alpaca to work beautifully in his signature unstructured tailored outerwear, such as a glen-check short coat (£3,760) and roomy one-and-a-half breasted camel-colour coat (£3,890). Likewise at Canali, where deconstructed drapey overcoats (£1,390) and bomber jackets (£1,060) in wool/alpaca/mohair/silk bouclé take inspiration from 1960s silhouettes, as does a single-breasted overcoat (£1,470) in a wool/alpaca blend. They pass muster at smart occasions, yet their subtle texture and soft construction mean they also work as weekend throw-ons. The highlight at Chester Barrie is a Change coat (£2,950), its navy cashmere contrasting with a lush black alpaca lapel (made by Cerruti’s mill) – a statement piece that works with jeans and boots as deftly as it does with cashmere knits.
A champion of all-British fabric production, E Tautz owner and creative director Patrick Grant was so convinced by the merits of alpaca that he decided to break with tradition and use it for a smashing voluminous houndstooth overcoat (£1,190), as well as for a grey/ochre fine-check alpaca/wool suit with double-breasted jacket (£795) and pleated high-waist trousers (£395) in a boxy, vintage-feel cut. A vintage accent also characterises an unpadded suit (£1,150) by The Gigi called Degas, in an alpaca/wool flannel mélange in tones of green and brown, while Canali uses a similar autumn-hued bouclé alpaca mix for a simple, casual zip jacket (£3,370). Alpaca is ideal for upgrading casualwear; prime examples are again found at Cucinelli, in a hooded parka (£3,580) in camel baby alpaca and a colour-block baby alpaca/wool/cashmere/silk cardigan (£1,380, main picture) with a cool 1950s collegiate feel.
Alpaca’s durability and excellent drape also make it eminently suitable for the signature knitted jackets (€475) at Inis Meáin, with their button fronts and turn-down collars. This season’s update (€540) has a Nehru collar and a distinctive ribbed effect. I also like the retro appearance of its patterned and cabled Aran crewneck (€335) in baby alpaca and silk. There’s a similar feeling at Gieves & Hawkes, where a chocolate wool/alpaca cable-knit V-neck (£295) and an ecru alpaca cable-knit turtleneck (£395) have a 1940s quality about them. Norse Projects goes instead in a folky direction, with a substantial jumper (£180) with ribbed collar and cuffs, in a wool/alpaca mix with a hint of elastane to keep its chunky shape.
Alpaca comes in two types: the dense, almost crimped Huacaya and the more lustrous and straight Suri. Massimo Alba opts for baby Suri in its voluminous knits. I love the soft, washed Alba aesthetic; while undeniably luxurious, the pieces have an almost hippy element to them. A turtleneck jumper in a mouline plain stitch (£281) has an attractive, hazy appearance, while the J Claude (£270) is a traditional Shetland jumper given a 1960s twist, and the Reinold shawl-collar jacket (£371) looks exceptionally cool.
Missoni has produced amazing funnel-neck sweaters (£1,700) hand-knitted in a wool/mohair/alpaca blend with a dégradé stripe; one comes in bands of petrol blue, military green and plum, another in a brilliant mix of nori green, jade and chrysanthemum yellow. A coat (£3,895) in a wool/yak/alpaca houndstooth loom weave is a stunning showpiece. Matching hats (£365) are a collaboration with Paris-based milliner Larose. Alpaca is deployed for some interesting jackets too: a bomber (£2,380) in a geometrically patterned rust-coloured jacquard by Ermenegildo Zegna has contrasting-pattern sleeves with an unusually lustrous Casentino finish, a technique achieved by brushing the fabric to raise the top layer of fibres, then rubbing to soften the effect. It’s also seen in Zegna’s Casentino suit (£3,360) in beige alpaca and silk, while a coat (£4,350) in oxblood alpaca with quilted calfskin sleeves is a real showstopper.
The longer, double-faced alpaca top coats (£695) at Joseph have a more unshorn finish that verges on shaggy and drapes beautifully, while Grenfell’s shaggy alpaca duffel (£1,395) – a glossy knit with an almost animal-pelt feel – is eminently strokeable, and its Newfoundland duffel (£995) has a remarkable dégradé-fade mix of multihued mohair and alpaca. For refined elegance, there’s also a loden-green belted coat (£995) in alpaca and wool with double-breasted lapels.
Light, hardwearing, wonderfully textured and luxurious in feel – is it any wonder that alpaca is ahead of the herd this season?