Blame the polar vortex. Blame The Row. Blame Celine, too. Whatever way you want to frame it, knitwear is having a moment. Sure, sweaters are a requirement in many parts of the world for many months of the year. But the sheer number of options on the market right now, from Forever21’s $24.80 classic cable knit to Miu Miu’s $2,130 virgin wool runway look, is impossible to ignore. And the wool industry is benefiting from the demand. In New Zealand, which makes more wool than any country beside Australia, exports reached NZ$795 million in 2014 (about $591.5 million USD), up 5 percent from the year prior.
But it might be the brands with a knitwear heritage -- like Loro Piana, which LVMH bought an 80 percent stake in for $2.56 billion in 2013 -- that are benefiting the most.
Take Margaret O’Leary, the San Francisco-based label launched in 1990. While O’Leary, whose sweaters range from relatively fashion-y to more laidback, has been steadily building her business for the past 25 years, it's accelerated over the past few years. This year alone, she’s plan on opening three stores -- a second in New York, as well as her first in Boston and Chicago. “We’ve been going on a spree,” says O’Leary, whose growing retail network makes up 80 percent of the company’s sales, which are up 35 percent year-over-year. “When the recession hit there was a slowdown, but now business is booming.”
O’Leary credits the casual-ization of our wardrobes as one of the many reasons knitwear is currently the thing. “I think people are getting more relaxed in their lifestyles,” she says. “Even if my customer has a heavy-duty corporate job, she can still incorporate knitwear into her wardrobe.”
Another top seller for the Irish-born O’Leary is cashmere sweatpants. “There’s a big demand for them,” she says. “I live in Marin County, where people are living in their leggings, and there’s definitely transference from the athleisure trend.”
London-based designer Buffy Reid, whose two-year-old label &Daughter has become a hit with the fashion crowd, sees the rise of knitwear as an indication of our changing ideas about what equals cool, or is worthy of our paychecks. “It feels like there has been a real shift in the way we think about style,” she says. “It’s become less about trends or fast fashion and more about seeking out those perfect investment pieces that really work for the way we live. Knitwear is a key part of that. Like an amazing white shirt, it has become a foundation piece that holds an outfit together.”
Reid produces her rib stich cocoon-back crewnecks and pure lambs wool turtlenecks in Scotland and Ireland, where her father has been working in the knitwear industry for 50 years. Shoppers are responding to their unique partnership. Sales at &Daughter have doubled since 2013. “We have a really high percentage of repeat orders, customers who buy one of our cashmere knits, and then come back the following week and buy the same style in all the other colors. That's what is most exciting. It feels like a testament to the quality of our knitwear.”
While knitwear is a hot category across the board, it seems that the industry’s experts are getting a good percentage of the recognition. Designer Ryan Roche’s runner-up prize at the 2014 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund awards is a testament to that. So is the fact that specialty retailers like Club Monaco and J.Crew are carrying indie labels alongside their own sweaters. Club Monaco has tapped M.Patmos, while. J.Crew has picked up Demylee. The Korean-born, New York-based Demy Lee started in 2007 with 100 percent cashmere sweaters. “Working with big retailers like J.Crew has helped with brand recognition,” she says. Over the past couple of years, Lee has also worked to develop a business in Japan, with sales jumping 25-30 percent each year. “The business is a lot more stable now than it was in 2007,” Lee says. “We’re always look for interesting opportunities to evolve our business.”
These designers may be benefiting from the knitwear boom, but that doesn’t mean they plan on stopping there. Next up: conquering wovens. This past year, O’Leary launched 100 percent linen t-shirts, while Lee introduced shirts and dresses. “It was a great start for us,” Lee says. “J.Crew completely sold out of our shirts.” Not a bad strategy, we say. After all, winter is going to end sometime.