BURRILLVILLE – In a 1991 episode of the hit comedy series SeinfeldGeorge Costanza offers a woman a surprise gift: a white cashmere sweater.
The recipient gushed with gratitude, recounting how she had long coveted such an item.
“When I was a little girl in Panama, a wealthy American came to our town and he wore the softest, most beautiful fabric,” she says.
Long considered a symbol of luxury and sophistication, cashmere has historically dressed the nobility and the 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 a single coat from the durable fabric, and as a limited resource, the products are usually priced accordingly. Sweaters and scarves are most commonly found in hues of white, gray and beige, with the high cost of the fabric posing little risk to garment manufacturers in terms of color palette.
But a luxury clothing producer in Burrillville is booming, selling vibrant clothes that, at least once a year, become more accessible to the masses — and draw throngs of shoppers to the small town.
Started in the basement of a house on Camp Dixie Road in 2004, Alashan Cashmere has grown into a local leader in the industry, employing a full-time staff of 17, as well as interns and freelancers in a building of 14,000 square feet on Broncos Freeway. The company sells products to stores across the United States, participates in fashion shows in New York, and sources materials from China and beyond.
Owner Donald Fox began his career with the company in 1993 when he landed an assistant manager position at Woonsocket-based Forte Cashmere. A native of Cranston with an MBA focused on Soviet and Eastern European studies who also received an education at Leningrad State University, Fox traveled to places in the Middle East to buy equipment and eventually 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’s extremely, extremely competitive,” he said. NOW. “I don’t think there’s anyone doing something like that in Rhode Island.”
Alashan eventually moved from Fox’s basement to a space above Norfolk Power Equipment, and later, to a building on Chapel Street. In 2014, the company owner was offered the opportunity to construct a bespoke building in vacant space right next to Alashan’s former home at Norfolk Power, and the cashmere producer elected there home 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 company implemented an e-commerce platform, and now 10-15% of Alashan’s sales are direct to consumers.
“We’re still primarily a wholesaler,” Fox said.
The company president noted that Alashan is known for its broad palette, with 56 to 63 colors offered across the entire collection each season.
“It’s not just grays and moles and tans,” Fox said. “It’s very, very unique for our competitive industry.”
The problem for many cashmere producers, he said, is that a wide range of colors requires a huge upfront investment. Alashan regularly purchases hundreds of kilos of yarn, priced at $130 per kilo.
“We continually invest in yarn,” Fox said. “Once you dye it and spin it, you add costs.”
Fox said the company usually has 4,000 to 5,000 pounds on the floor, ready to be spun at a moment’s notice.
“We are constantly placing knitting orders and need to have the yarn on hand,” he said.
Access to materials allows the company to quickly fill small and large production orders.
“We pride ourselves on being very nimble,” Fox said.
It also allows for unique clothing lines created in colors such as hot fuchsia or screaming neon green.
“We’re known in the United States and other markets for this color map,” 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 typically used to the small-town touch often telling it it’s the best in the business.
“We just have some really good, hard-working people on our team,” Fox said, noting that all of its employees are local and many live in Burrillville.
Fashion, he notes, changes quickly, so these benefits — and the cost controls that translate into savings for customers — are necessary to stay competitive.
“We usually come out on the right foot when people do comparison shopping,” Fox said.
And those prices drop once a year at an event that clears out excess products and offers deals to local shoppers, while helping fund the company’s next collection: the sample sale. The event uses discarded clothing sitting in the inventory warehouse, collections of samples not worn but used for the show by its sales representatives, and even prototypes that did not go into production and may be unique in their kind.
The items are being sold at a fraction of the usual cashmere price, with sweaters that would cost $230 selling for between $50 and $60.
“It’s a really, really good deal,” Fox said, adding that the sale creates a fun environment locally, with many out-of-town visitors returning year after year. “They end up spending money in town.”
The sale will take place next weekend on Friday, November 18 from 5-8 p.m. and Saturday, November 19 from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. at the 866 Broncos Highway business. Fox noted that it was also collecting food at the event, encouraging shoppers to bring donations to deliver to local food pantries.
“We’re trying to use the popularity of the sale to collect items for the people who need them the most over the holidays,” he said.
Thousands of items are usually sold at a discount – most with the tags still in place.
“It’s not just women’s sweaters,” Fox said. “These are hats, gloves, scarves and throws for the home. It’s like a treasure hunt when you get there.