Who’s Here: Christopher Fischer, Fashion Legend

Christopher Fischer, an Englishman, is one of a select group of world experts about fine cashmere. His experience extends from having his own factories in Hawick, Scotland—which is the traditional home of the Scottish cashmere industry—to working with cashmere factories and spinners in Italy, to opening vertical spinning and knitting cashmere factories in the 1990s amongst the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in China, which is the location that produces the world’s finest qualities of cashmere fiber.

His cashmere collections of sweaters and accessories extend to men, women and baby, as well as a collection of cashmere blankets, throws and cushions for the home, all of which are carried in more than 350 stores around the globe, as well as five Christopher Fischer stores, two of these being in the Hamptons, in East Hampton and Southampton. In the literature about his cashmere, which is almost impossibly soft, the look of his award-winning collection mentions the Hamptons.

“Christopher infuses his stores and products with a modern European design sensibility and an extremely personal touch, taking inspiration from a Hamptons lifestyle and quirky British design.”

Fischer, at 60, is startling in appearance. He has long hair and horn-rimmed glasses, a jolly demeanor and a puckish way of telling his story. He wears jeans, a sport jacket always with a Hermès pocket square and, of course, a cashmere scarf when it’s cold. And he was a genial host when I met him at his worldwide headquarters and showroom, all glass and spot-lit, on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, where we sat and talked over coffee, served to us on a silver tray.

Fischer, born and raised in England, did not start out with just a few shillings in his pocket. From his earliest memories as a little boy until he graduated from Business School, the place he called home was a hundred acre estate on the brow of St. Ann’s Hill in Surrey owned by his parents. The grounds date back to a hunting lodge used by Henry VIII, and the estate was the residence of Charles James Fox, Britain’s first Foreign Secretary in 1782. The formal grounds included 35 acres of manicured lawns, rose gardens and orchards that were originally laid out by the foremost 18th century English landscape architect “Capability” Brown, all of which adjoin 65 acres of meadows and woodlands.

The manor house over the last 600 years has been built and rebuilt several times, the current house being built in 1936 and designed by architect Raymond McGrath in 1930’s “modernist” style for stockbroker A.L. Schlesinger, with the grounds being redesigned by fellow modernist and landscape designer Christopher Tunnard. The house is now a landmarked building, being acknowledged as one of the largest, finest and most ambitious “Deco” modernist houses in England, and has been featured on the cover of numerous architectural magazines and books.

Christopher’s father, Frank Ignacy Fischer, was a wealthy businessman whose various holdings included many things, none of which involved cashmere. They did include textiles, electronics, property, factories and hotels.

Christopher, during his young years, showed no interest in cashmere either, other than that he was prone to wearing black cashmere turtleneck sweaters in his teens, which was totally part of the “swinging” fashion statement of London in the 1970s.

As a child, Christopher attended boarding school in Hampshire, then university in Warwickshire, and finally Business School in Surrey, where he got degrees in law and business studies. In summers he often traveled with his parents to places like the South of France, Venice, San Marino, Capri, and Majorca, and in winter to St. Moritz, Gstaad and Cervinia.

He has a memory, a delightful one, of Liberace, the great and very flamboyant Las Vegas pianist, coming to their house in St. Ann’s Hill on his occasional forays to England for his concerts.

“My father had a company that made fine shirts for some of the made-to-measure Jermyn Street shirt-makers in London, and he always made up some special styles and colors for Liberace.”

And then the day came when Christopher graduated college and was out on his own.

“But I was certainly not interested in becoming a barrister or solicitor,” Christopher told me. “I gravitated toward fine arts, but also was greatly influenced by the fashion photography of David Bailey, Snowden, Norman Parkinson, Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton.

“Besides, being greatly influenced by my father’s entrepreneurial spirit, I was more of the inclination to creating business ideas, rather than solving other people’s business and legal dilemmas.”

And then his father introduced him to one of his London business associates, a man who was the Managing Director of a cashmere factory in Lanark in Scotland.

“At that time, cashmere knitwear was something that was totally classic in style. Cashmere was deemed to be a luxury product and something that was not as commonly available as it is now. The finest sweaters were made in Scotland, and the traditional processes of spinning the yarn, knitting a sweater and the styles and designs had not changed much in decades.

“I went up to Lanark and spent a month and more in the factory and also visited the Todd & Duncan spinning mill in Kinross. And that’s where I discovered cashmere. I was fascinated by it, about where it came from, how it was washed, how it was processed, and how it was spun. Although I did not realize it at the time, it was a pivotal moment in my life that set me on a lifelong course of working with cashmere. I was 22.”

But Christopher’s vision was to modernize and change these traditional and classic sweaters to have a modern and wearable look in line with the new British fashion direction of the late 1970s.

At his father’s urgings, Christopher talked to the Managing Director and the owners about the company making new styles and further expanding its sales reach into mainland Europe, and the idea came about of setting up a sales showroom in Europe to coordinate this, which would cover sales in Belgium, Holland, Germany and France, and which his father would back to set up. Soon a designed collection of hand-loomed cashmere sweaters from another factory was added, and then a collection of hand-framed Fair Isle sweaters, which became a global trend in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Brussels at that time was alive and booming with the establishment of both the European Economic Community headquarters there, and the European Parliament, which was administratively based in Brussels as well. I’d read the city had the highest ratio of girls to guys at about two to one, as the demand for multilingual secretaries and administration staff had girls coming from all over Europe to work in Brussels.” His eyes sparkled mischievously as he said this.

“Salaries were high and there was a great party atmosphere to the city in the bars, restaurants and clubs. This was definitely the place for a 22-year-old guy to be.

“And so, I persuaded my father this was the best centralized place to set up a new showroom and show these new collections, with easy access to reach out throughout Belgium as well as to Dusseldorf, Cologne and Munich in Germany, and Paris in France. And soon we had all the best stores buying our cashmere and Fair Isle sweaters.”

At this point in our interview, Christopher explained some of the secrets and history of making extremely fine cashmere.
“Here are few of the principal things about cashmere. First of all, there is Inner Mongolia, which is a province in the north of China. The longest, finest and whitest raw cashmere fiber comes from there. From a quality standpoint, there is nothing like it, with the very finest qualities coming from the grasslands of Alashan. For me, you have to buy it from this part of China. Otherwise, quite simply you are not using the best.

“Next is Joseph Dawson. A hundred and twenty-five years ago, Dawson invented the first mechanized process for the dehairing of cashmere fiber, which is the process of separating the softest and finest cashmere fibers from the courser outer guard hairs which cannot be used for spinning, and creating clothing from this beautiful fabric. This revolutionized the cashmere industry. In the early days, yarns were traditionally spun with courser and tighter twists, producing a knitted sweater that generally was heavier and more dense than is normal today. They pilled less, wore better and could last a lifetime. People handed down their cashmere sweaters to their children, as traditional English style and luxury dressing never went out of fashion, and cashmere was far less scratchy than the other alternatives of Lambswool or Shetland wool.

“Many people are under the misconception that cashmere originates from Scotland, or even Italy. This is totally incorrect. It is only spun or knit in these places. There are no cashmere-producing goats in the Highlands of Scotland or the hills of Tuscany! Generally today, all the dehairing and processing of the raw fiber is now done in China, and only processed cashmere tops sent to Scotland or Italy for spinning.

“Today, fashion is all about lightness of the fabric and a beautifully soft handle. Thus yarns are now spun much finer and looser, and sweaters are
generally knitted to a looser tension giving a softer more luxurious hand feel. The sweaters feel great, with a softer and more subtle fabric, but the down side is that they will pill more.”

After Christopher’s successful sales adventures on the continent, he decided it was the right time to set up his own Scottish factory to set a new direction of modern and contemporary “Made in Scotland” cashmere sweaters. He chose property in Hawick in the Borders region of Scotland.

“This was in 1980. Hawick is a valley town on the River Teviot, surrounded by downs and rolling hills. When I set up in Hawick, it was Ground Zero for Scottish cashmere, with Pringle, Barrie and Lyle & Scott all being based there. But it was also all about the water. The water that flows off the surrounding hills into the Teviot is so soft, which is one of the main reasons why this town became the Scottish capital for cashmere.”

Christopher explained further. “We only use Grade A cashmere fiber, which is generally about 35–38mm (about 1 ½”) in length.

But before you can do anything, you first grade the raw fiber by color and length, then wash the raw fiber before you can process and dehair it. There are several stages of washing in the whole spinning and knitting processes. But it is the final washing of the completed sweater that it one of the most important to giving a finished cashmere sweater it’s soft and luxurious hand feel and touch. And that’s why the soft water in Hawick is so important. And why Scotch whiskey is so smooth.”

Recalling his visits to Hawick, Christopher did an imaginary washing of his hands where we sat. He got his hands “wet” with water, then put on a little soap.

“All you needed to do was literally just touch the soap,” he said. “And suddenly, quite suddenly, you have lather all over. The only other place I know with such soft water is Ireland.”

Christopher set up new headquarters, with a showroom and a London based factory in an old Victorian grain warehouse in Spitalfields. He was 27 years old. And so, with this extraordinary product he was now producing in his own factories, he began to travel once again all over Europe, Japan and to the United States to find fine stores in which to sell his label “Christopher Fischer” cashmere. Among the stores in America he found were Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Paul Stuart and long-gone Bonwit Teller and Marshall Fields.

It was during one of these trips to the United States that Christopher met the woman who was to be his future wife.

“I was at the Designers’ Collective trade show in New York, and was invited to a pre-dinner party in Tribeca. I met Joni in the elevator, leaving the party with her date. I had been talking to her best friend Carol Brown for most of the evening without realizing it, and when I introduced myself she exclaimed that ‘Oh, so you’re 3 Ply,’ as this was a nickname I had acquired from my Saks Men’s DMM and VP, as we were making sweaters in a three-color, three-ply cashmere yarn for them.

“A whole crowd, including Joni and her date, were leaving the party to go to dinner to celebrate her birthday. So Joni invited me to join them, but as I already had other dinner arrangements, I said I would join her for desert and drinks later. I arrived late to a crowded table of about 30–40 people, and miraculously as I entered there was an empty chair next to Joni. Joni saw, me enter and shouted, “3 Ply, come and sit down right next to me…” And that was it. I am not sure when her date left, but from the moment I sat down we did not stop talking.

“I have to tell you, for the next few years we had a multi-year and very expensive and transatlantic courtship. She was in the fashion business, in sales and merchandising, and was based in New York. She grew up in Michigan.

“We were married in London in 1988 at Brompton Oratory in Knightsbridge on December 30, which would have been my father’s birthday. We set up housekeeping in London.”

In the mid-1980s, in the very early days after China was opened to the west, Christopher was invited by a Japanese cashmere spinning company looking to set up a joint venture, to travel with them to Inner Mongolia as a consultant.

“This was my first trip to China,” he said. “The internal flight from Beijing up to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia was on 20-plus-year-old turbo prop planes, and then it took another six to ten hours on bumpy, unlit, narrow old roads, the time depending on the amount of Blue coal trucks using the road and how many were broken down, before finally getting to the first factories set up in Inner Mongolia. Seeing the scale of these factories, the machinery and the amount of workers for that first time, I was totally astounded. This was way greater than anything in Scotland or Italy or anywhere. This, I thought, is definitely the future for cashmere. And this is where the fiber comes from.”

The future was clear, and Christopher opened a partnership joint-venture vertical factory in Inner Mongolia, processing fiber, spinning yarn and knitting sweaters. He modeled it on the principles of quality that he had learnt in Hawick, but combined this with a new approach to the knitwear and styling, combined with the value that could be achieved in China.

At this point, in the early 1990s, it became apparent to Christopher that the best place for selling his fabulous cashmere products was not London, but New York City. He opened a showroom first, then moved headquarters from London in 1992. Joni came back to New York, and they took an apartment in midtown. They now live way downtown.

“I really like it downtown. It’s quiet at night, and from our apartment we can see the East River, the harbor and the Hudson, and all the irregular and narrow streets remind me of London. Not to mention the old pubs.”

Christopher first visited the Hamptons with Joni before they were married.

“It was about 1985 and I was on a trip to New York, and Joni and I rented a car and came out to a cottage at the Village Latch in Southampton. I vividly remember seeing the ocean and the dunes for the first time. The sky was clear and blue, and the light sharp and crisp. It blew me away.

“After we moved to New York from London, Joni and I would come out for spring and summer weekend trips, staying on Shelter Island and doing daytrips in my Alfa Romeo Spider to all the villages on the North and South Forks.”

Christopher gleefully told me about how he opened his first store in the Hamptons. “We were staying at Sunset Beach and decided to go to Southampton for lunch at the old Driver’s Seat on Jobs Lane. Just as we were parking the car and reversing into a space, looking over my shoulder I see a hand dropping a FOR RENT sign on the inside windowsill of the store were we parked. ‘What about we have a store here?’ I asked Joni. She said, “Well, why not?”
They opened in Southampton in 1999, and then a second store in East Hampton in 2000.

“I think of cashmere as part of a luxury lifestyle. It is easy, modern and wearable, all things synonymous with the Hamptons. The two stores are open year round. We like to support the local community by having only local staff. Both stores have a very loyal but different customer base. And there is something to be said, lots, in fact, about having face-to-face encounters with our customers. In the stores we get real feedback and insight about what we are doing right, as well as what we are doing wrong. Our brand is all about quality, and thankfully this is something our customers recognize and respond to. I have been working on this now for over 30 years, and it is something we shall never compromise on. Our customers look for style, quality and value, and one of my main roles is to ensure we always maintain our quality and increase the value of the products we make. Only then can the brand be so highly thought of. And having these one on one encounters allows us to hear if we are doing a good job.

“Joni and I view East Hampton as our home. There is something about just being here, and unless we are traveling or unable due to business, we’re here all year. What do we like to do? Well, of course there are always restaurants, parties and social events, all too many, in fact, especially in summer. But after escaping from New York for the weekend, what we really like to do best is be with friends and family. I cook. We entertain with great food and great wine, and with after dinner talk and conversation around the table way into the night.

“What could be better. I think everyone enjoys many of the same things…the beaches, the ocean, and just being in the Hamptons for the weekend, a week or even the whole summer, if you are lucky. And then there is Halsey Farm…. Did I tell you about the corn and the lettuce at the Halsey Farm…?”

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