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Through engagement and education, the International Woolmark Prize seeks to reshape the fashion landscape with Australian-grown Merino wool at its heart.

Dating back to 1950, and with a venerable alumni that includes fashion icons such as Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani and Valentino Garavani, the International Woolmark Prize is the world’s most established and recognised emerging fashion talent initiative. And yet more than just a trophy or financial injection – though incredibly valuable to new businesses – the prize works to fulfil the mission of The Woolmark Company, an Australian-owned not-for-profit organisation, which is to help connect the supply chain and to educate consumers and the industry on the benefits of Australian-grown Merino wool. And they’re certainly plentiful.

Natural, renewable and biodegradable, and inherently comprising drape, elasticity, breathability and odour resistance, Merino wool is nature’s miracle fibre. Yet despite making up only 1.2% of the global apparel market by volume, its value is a markedly higher 8%, demonstrative of the demand for the fibre versus its natural supply. By investing in the talents of tomorrow, The Woolmark Company has an opportunity to reshape the fashion and textiles landscape with a fibre boasting eco-credentials that are far less impactful to the planet than its synthetic competitors, and since its relaunch in 2012, more than 400 young designers from 65 countries have benefited from the International Woolmark Prize’s mentorship, education and supply chain connections running from raw fibre right through to end-product.

Recently, 2018/19 semi-finalists and finalists alike were invited to join a tour and workshop at some of Britain and Italy’s leading wool mills, discovering the process of converting the fibre from greasy wool to finished yarn, and the elements that can be customised or experimented with as per a designer’s unique vision. Steven Tai, Victoria / Tomas, CMMN SWDN, ESP and Xiao Li travelled north from London, while Daniel w. Fletcher, Alex Mullins, Maison the Faux, Marta Jakubowski, Richard Malone, Liam Hodges and COMEFORBREAKFAST journeyed to the heart of wool milling in northern Italy, Biella, where they visited Vitale Barberis Canonico and ZBLB.

According to Fletcher, a finalist in the menswear category of this year’s International Woolmark Prize, the mill visit was “extremely insightful. The trip helped me to see the huge variety and possibilities of wool and gain a greater understanding of the craftsmanship involved in producing it.” As a result of the tour, Fletcher has begun working with one of the mills, integrating wool into his recent fall/winter 2019 collection in a significant way, with a strong focus on wool tailoring and knitwear, both of which were highly acclaimed in a review by Women’s Wear Daily.

The designers behind French label Victoria / Tomas, Victoria Feldman and Tomas Berzins, note that as independent designers, being armed with this sort of background education and insights adds value to their label, as it offers a unique selling point to their consumers. “Seeing the real behind-the-scenes process and discovering how passionate the producers of these yarns and fabrics are is so important because we can communicate it to our clients,” they explain, noting that wool forms a large part of both their pre-fall and winter collections, with Merino wool used in blazers, trousers, coats and knitwear.

Earlier in the year, 2017/18 womenswear winner Ruchika Sachdeva visited Australia to launch her winning collection at stores including David Jones and Parlour X. While in Australia, Sachdeva also visited a wool-growing property to discover the source of Merino wool, conduct a retail training session with Parlour X, attend the David Jones spring/summer runway show (which featured Bodice Studio and marked the first time the International Woolmark Prize has been included in this show) and participate in a Q&A panel with fashion students studying at the Whitehouse School of Design.

“It was a wonderful experience and I think one of the best experiences I have had throughout working on the Woolmark Prize collection,” Sachdeva said of her visit to the farm, where she interacted with sheep that annually produce the super fibre. “Just the serenity and where it comes from is really humbling – and the amount of work and time that it takes, it’s really special. I feel really emotional being here,” said the designer during her visit.

The menswear winner, British designer Matthew Miller, meanwhile, journeyed east to Tokyo, where he unveiled his awarded collection at renowned department store Takashimaya. He then travelled to Bishu near Kyoto, a region known for its long heritage and continuing innovation in Japanese textile manufacturing. Matthew visited two mills, Nakaden and Kuzuri, to learn first-hand how some of the best textiles in the world are made, as well as Kaleidoscope Lab, a company that’s highly specialised in digital ink-jet printing on wool textiles.

Blair Archibald, a finalist of the 2017/18 prize representing Australia for menswear, says that it’s critical for designers to understand how textiles are sourced and produced. “For me, I can incorporate this into my design ethos and continue the conversation of educating clients on the origins of the garments they purchase so that they can make more informed buying choices,” he explains. Visiting Anlaby, a historic wool-growing property in South Australia, alongside 2018/19 womenswear finalist Albus Lumen, Archibald explained: “The complexities and environmental variables in raising sheep and ensuring as much consistency in the quality as possible was very illuminating to see. I understood the dynamics of the wool fibre but didn't fully grasp the specifics of growing wool on a farm of that scale.”

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