Of Vicuña And Buttons

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THE COAT ROUTE: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat

Meg Lukens Noonan
First published July 2013

A few Christmases ago, my cousin-in-law regaled me, as she always does, about a book she’d recently read. What she described to me with such enthusiasm made me want to forgo the table piled high with desserts and head straight home for a bit of binge reading. Quite maturely I reigned in that urge and carried on socialising like a normal human being. That very night however, I summoned the e-book from the cloud and it wriggled its kilobytes into my e-reader. Not long after, I was compelled to purchase a solid copy as it was crystal clear that this one was a keeper.

For those of us who don’t often spend big on a single item of clothing, what could possibly go into the making of a coat to justify a $50,000 price tag? I’d balk at paying even half that for a car.
I clutched this sensible question tightly in my sweaty little palm as I ventured in, simultaneously intrigued and quietly tutting at the decadence.

So in I dove. To gather the wool for this pricey bit of kit I flew off to the plateaus of Peru to see the cutest back-from-the-brink-of-extinction animal you’ve never heard of. Traipsed the silky streets of Florence and Shanghai in quest for the lining then un petit voyage to Paris to meet the merchants. Across the Channel then to the United Kingdom for the weavers, for the buttons and for a fascinating history of fashion and Savile Row. I took a return flight home (then a domestic to Sydney) to meet gold engravers so serious about their craft they listen to their heartbeats with a stethoscope in order to keep a steady hand. Then down the road, on O’Connell Street, not far from The Rocks, the mastermind behind The Coat itself, the master tailor – John Cutler.

I travelled not only around the world but back in time as The Coat was disassembled and each individual part given its own biography. The more I learned about vicuña ranchers and buffalo-horn buttons the more attached I became to The Coat. The damn thing got to me. I wanted it. I wanted to touch it. I wanted to put it on and run away into the frozen tundra. The price tag was soon plenty justified as the history, the artistry and skill of these extraordinary human crafts stepped further into the spotlight. Hell, I seriously considered saving up and getting myself some tailored clothes.

Perhaps what surprised me the most was the sadness I felt at the loss and decline of these wonderful things. Unfortunately we live in a nation that consumes disposable clothing made in appalling conditions so that we, the comparatively rich, can fill our closets by hardly spending a thing. The world of handpicked vicuña wool, bespoke tailoring and buttons with selection criteria stricter than for the food you eat – the world of $50,000 coats – well, that world is for the mega wealthy. I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make. Let’s not get too political shall we. Oh, quick, look at that shiny thing over there… ahem, back to The Coat.

By the time it had taken shape, silk-lined, buttons on, I was twitching about in the departure lounge waiting for the final leg – the journey to Canada to meet the man for whom The Coat was made and, draped casually in plain sight as though it were a normal piece of clothing, The Coat itself.
My cousin-in-law had described it to me – the moment in a swanky apartment in Vancouver when the author was allowed to try it. I was waiting for it, interested but calm – it’s just a coat after all. But when this coat, whose journey to existence had been so lovingly researched, was wrapped around the authors body, I literally squealed (and that’s the old meaning of literally, as in not figuratively).That’s a little dramatic… ok a lot dramatic, but I really did squeal just a teensy bit. It really is just an expensive coat but if you’re not calling it The Coat in your mind by the end, then I won’t be entirely certain we’ve read the same book.

About Jamie Ashbird

Jamie Ashbird was born from an egg on a mountain top. At least that's what she keeps telling people. In fact she was born, quite boringly, from a uterus and was raised in Melbourne. It is here, in her native habitat, that she roams about watching the world go by and quietly judging people. She is also a writer... ahem, apologies, typo... she is almost a writer but wastes too much of her time watching other people play video games on YouTube.
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