– Story by Lauren Kramer Photography by Lia Crowe
Stroke your hand over a cashmere sweater and its buttery, soft smoothness will leave you longing to feel the garment against your skin. Wear cashmere once and the difference between a cashmere garment and one made of another fibre is easy to discern. Cashmere is eight times warmer than any other material, and because it is natural and breathable, it keeps the body’s temperature regulated.
In Vancouver, there’s just one true cashmere destination, and that’s Black Goat Cashmere—a small business established 10 years ago by Luxembourg transplants Claudia and Robert Remy. The pair moved to Canada for a change of scenery in 1997, starting out in Quebec before discovering the beauty of British Columbia and laying down lifelong roots.
Robert had trained as a master optician, while Claudia’s specialty was interior design. In Canada, the Remys found new careers in cashmere apparel. They opened a store in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, selling cashmere designs by Claudia, but sold that company to open Black Goat Cashmere in Vancouver in 2011.
“There wasn’t a great cashmere store in Vancouver at that time,” says Claudia.
A graceful woman, who wears her cashmere designs daily, Claudia is in charge of design, liaising with the factory in Mongolia and handling production. Robert oversees all administration and the opening of new stores, while their son, Charles, is in charge of daily operations.
The cashmere garments are sold on Black Goat Cashmere’s website as well as from the company’s four brick-and-mortar boutiques. One is located on Toronto’s famous Bloor Street, another in Victoria and two in downtown Vancouver.
The cashmere comes from the undercoats of cashmere goats raised by nomadic herders, residing on the Mongolian steppe. The goats are combed once a year in the spring and the cashmere is then cleaned and sent to the manufacturer, where the cashmere garments are produced. The whole production chain is completely traceable, sustainable and causes no harm to the goats. But it’s also the reason cashmere comes with a hefty price tag.
“It takes the hair of three to four goats to make one sweater,” Robert explains. “Once the goats are combed in the spring, that is the entire harvest for the whole year.”
The Remys say they feel most at home at their cabin, a rustic retreat on a remote island near the Sunshine Coast. Here, in between tending her summer vegetable garden, Claudia finds the peace, inspiration and space she needs to create new garment designs to add to her collection, while Robert, Charles and Arthur, the couple’s second son, enjoy fishing for salmon, ling cod, crabs, mussels and oysters.
“I love isolating myself here and working on new designs, often in my pyjamas,” Claudia admits. “We’re not really city people, we’re country people. Canada’s natural environment is the reason we moved to this country, and it’s where we are most at home.”
Deeply proud of his wife’s work, Robert delivers all the credit for the business’ success to Claudia.
“She’s very talented and she’s often a year ahead of the fashion trends because she follows the European designs,” he says.
“I just follow the fashion,” Claudia responds. “I watch what other designers are producing and with my personal style and inspiration, create my designs.”
For example, she adds, “This year, it’s all about oversized apparel, so we’re not doing as many tailored garments.”
Black Goat Cashmere’s collection includes cashmere blankets, throws and apparel for men and women, including bathrobes, sweaters, coats, socks, scarves, leggings, hats and leg warmers. A collection made from cashmere and silk works best for the summer, and a new collection of merino and cashmere, with a sweater price point at around $300, delivers a more accessible product to the brand’s younger clientele. A pure cashmere sweater is priced at around $500, by comparison. The garments and accessories are popular among the Hollywood actors who arrive in Vancouver to shoot films, as well as among tourists visiting the city and looking for special, quality keepsakes to take home.
The COVID-19 pandemic had far-reaching effects on Black Goat Cashmere and the dearth of visitors caused a drop in sales. The pandemic put the Remys’ annual journey to Mongolia to meet manufacturers on hold, but their relationships with key personnel remained in place, and thanks to technology, ongoing communication and business relationships can continue.
“When we started out going to Mongolia, almost no one spoke English and everything was communicated by fax. These days, Mongolians go to America to learn English and when we arrive in the country, we get to discuss the next season’s garments and meet the new faces in the factory,” Claudia says.
The factory that manufactures Black Goat Cashmere’s apparel is run mostly by women, with men operating the spinning machines, washing the cashmere when it comes in from the herders, and ironing and packing the garments for shipping. A dedicated bus picks staff up close to their homes and a kindergarten at the factory ensures parents and their young children are kept close.
As he looks back over the past two years, Robert is hopeful for the future and already planning continued growth.
“Once we get our sales back on track, we’d like to open more stores, perhaps in ski resort towns like Banff and Whistler,” he says.
The global pandemic, while tough on business, has also had some silver linings.
“In terms of our business operations, the pandemic left us with our best staff—individuals who are truly like family to us and care about us and our stores as much as we care about them,” Robert says. “We’ve been in retail for 30 years and we’ve never had as good a team as we have now.”
Claudia nods in agreement. For her, the pandemic has meant more time than usual holed up at her favourite island hideaway with her family. Here she’s loved coming up with new designs as the wind whistles through the towering trees, the ocean waves foam and thunder on the beach and thoughts of silky smooth cashmere filter through her mind.