The story behind this year’s International Woolmark Prize trophy

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Just as wool contributes to conscious consumerism, this year's International Woolmark Prize trophy design makes a case for reducing our environmental impact.

Atop the deep blue of the north Pacific Ocean, somewhere off the coast of California, a 700,000sq kilometre gyre of marine debris particles sits ominously. Accumulated over the course of decades by the ocean's natural currents, the Great Pacific garbage patch, as the mass of microscopic plastic is colloquially known, poses a significant threat to the prosperity of marine and other life. Flocks of seabirds that travel through the area, for example, inadvertently ingest the small pieces of plastic. Due to the plastic's inability to biodegrade like organic debris, it is susceptible to photodegredation, a process which splits the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces – right down to the molecular level – where it enters the food chain.

The man-made trash vortex is an imposing presence. In the Craig Leeson-directed documentary Plastic Oceans, the extent, and tragic consequences, of the problem are laid bare. Teams of scientists and marine biologists are shown investigating the dire effects of the toxic pollutant – not only for the natural environment, but for human life, too. There is no singular solution to this growing issue. Worse still, most world governments have shown themselves to be reluctant to take decisive action – only a handful of countries and states around the world have banned plastic bags outright. As a result, the private sector and individual citizens have had to pick up the slack.

In the Netherlands, a not-for-profit foundation, The Ocean Cleanup, has developed a prototype for one of the most ambitious sea-cleaning projects in history: a floating barrier that skims plastic debris from the ocean. If its twelve-month trial succeeds, a 100km-long version will be deployed to the Pacific Ocean by 2020. Other projects focus more on grassroots initiative. Take3, for example, encourages people to collect three pieces of litter from the beach when they leave. For their own part, industrial designer Andrew Simpson, jeweller Emma Swann and creative director Paul Swann felt an obligation to respond to the amount of trash that washes ashore on the beaches of their hometown, Sydney, Australia, together establishing Ocean Collection as a creative and social project drawing on their respective skills.

Essentially a business creating jewellery and home objects, Ocean Collection products are crafted from Bakelite, a material which is produced by recycling and compounding plastic collected from the Australian shoreline, and which is characterised by a marbled quality. "We wanted to start by making very visible products with the material so that they would act as a talking point about the issue of marine debris," explains co-founder Paul Swann. "But beyond raising awareness, we recycle debris that would otherwise be burned or buried." Far beyond a commercial venture, Ocean Collection is an exploration into the relationship between materials, consumption and luxury, reusing, transforming and making desirable something previously considered disposable rubbish. Like the Plastic Oceans documentary, Ocean Collection's environmental efforts help to begin a conversation around the issue, and points to the inherent need for creativity in solving the problem of plastic debris more broadly.

Australian-born, Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist Jonathan Zawada is passionate about reducing and re-using, something that feeds into his practice as a sculptor, painter, graphic designer and creative director. In his commission to design the trophies for this year's International Woolmark Prize, he engaged Ocean Collection for the manufacturing of both the regional and international trophies, taking the world's trash and, in turn, turning it into pieces of treasure that will, when awarded to the winners, represent an important milestone in the trajectory of their fashion businesses. "Along with creating the trophy from recycled materials, I hope that the recipients of the awards will find the trophy sculptural and beautiful to enjoy as a meaningful and gratifying physical object," explained Zawada of the concept, which has been rendered in a stunning dusty pink colour palette and mounted with brass finishes.

Creating the 2017/18 International Woolmark Prize Trophy

Zawada began his career in web design, coding and graphic design, but his practice now comprises illustration, art direction, furniture design, sculpture, video, installation and painting. Both his commercial and creative practices – which often overlap – are distinguished by a tension or contrast between the analogue and the digital, or a morphing of the artificial and the natural. Zawada has worked collaboratively with brands, business and artists including Romance Was Born, It's Nice That, ASOS, The Presets and Flume, for which he won an Australian Recording Industry Award for album artwork, as well as showing his work in solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo, London, Sydney and Beijing.

Inspired by the iconic Woolmark logo, originally designed in 1964 by Francesco Saroglia from ‘woven' black bands, to represent a skein of wool, Zawada's global final trophies are made up of three individual parts that twist and link together to make up a singular solid form. The design of the regional winners' trophies is extricated from that of the finalist winners' trophies, taking one of the singular parts and treating it in isolation. "I have always admired the iconic Woolmark logo design and in my trophy design I wanted to create a modern homage to the classic Woolmark icon without being too literal or simply to reproduce the icon," he says. "I wanted to reference the overall form of the Woolmark as well as its sense of motion and the way it captures a sense of weaving without it being too overt."

More broadly, the trophies designed by Zawada and created by Ocean Collection point to a long-held and important commitment of The Woolmark Company of encouraging conscious consumerism and investing in products made from natural, biodegradable fibres. As synthetic fashion land fill continues to grow, due to the rise of fast fashion, and consumers' constant demand for newness, Merino wool presents an alternative. Merino biodegrades at the end of its useful life, releasing vital nutrients into the soil, and can withstand the test of time: due to their natural drape, breathability, and durability, Merino garments remain in wardrobes longer, and are handed down through generations or clothes recycling programs more readily, than their synthetic counterparts.

Jonathan Zawada

Through the International Woolmark Prize, the Australian wool-growing community not only encourages new generations of design talent to use the fibre in their collections – with trade development and manufacturing support offered as part of the program – but challenges them to innovate in the way it is presented, too, changing consumer perceptions of what a wool garment can be. That's evident, for example, in the way that 2017 winning menswear label Cottweiler created a sophisticated performance layering system with 18.5- and 19.5-micron wool base layers and quilted waterproof and windproof outer layers, using recycled wool scraps for insulation. Or in British womenswear finalist Faustine Steinmetz's Merino wool denim collection of hand-woven and hand-felted jeans, jackets and dresses that are soft on the skin.

This year, the International Woolmark Prize challenges its 65 global nominees to question the properties of Merino wool in their collections, restructuring the program by increasing its prize money and introducing an Innovation Award to shine a spotlight on the textile mills assisting in developing innovative fabric and yarn. The newly introduced Innovation Award has been created to celebrate outstanding creative and innovative fabric or yarn development in wool. The Innovation Award aims to inspire finalists to be more experimental and creative when developing fabric or yarn for final collections and can be awarded to any of the 12 global finalists. The winner of the Innovation Award will be granted AU$100,000 as well as being presented with commercial opportunities. The textile mill responsible for the exciting development will also be promoted via The Woolmark Company's global trade promotional program with benefits including global trade advertising, featuring in The Wool Lab and highlighted within The Woolmark Company's stand at global trade shows.

"Each year, I am truly amazed with what our finalists present to the judges," explains The Woolmark Company's Managing Director Stuart McCullough. "Just when you may think you've seen it all, along comes an exciting new fabric or innovative new yarn, and that's why we have established the Innovation Award. It not only keeps competition fierce but it also allows for our prestigious trade partners to get global recognition and ultimately increases the market share of wool. The Innovation Award also provides The Woolmark Company with another opportunity for us to engage and celebrate the work of our trade partners."

Today, the International Woolmark Prize has more than 180 alumni; after being introduced as the International Wool Secretariat award in the 1950s, it was relaunched in 2012. Throughout the decades, the Prize has managed to establish a relationship between emerging talent and nature's miracle fibre, reshaping the environmental footprint of fashion in the process. By employing natural fibres in their collections, the new guard of designers are producing positive effects for the planet. "Creativity and the fashion business will never end, but in using wool, designers can change the way the industry impacts our planet, and that presents an enormous opportunity to reduce fashion's landfill footprint," says McCullough.

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