On Tuesday in New York City, five womenswear designers and five menswear designers will compete for the 2016 International Woolmark Prize USA Regional award, following a tradition set by one of the most famous moments in fashion history. In 1954, two unknowns named Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent (ages 21 and 18, respectively) both won accolades at the second ever International Wool Secretariat awards. And while The Woolmark Company — how the company renamed itself once it became recognized by its logo designed in 1964 — has evolved and changed ownership over the years, its goal has always remained to promote wool and its innovation in design and production. Now as a subsidiary of Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) since 2007, Woolmark represents more than 27,000 Australian wool growers and 74 millions sheep — about 75 percent of which are merino, the most luxurious of wools.
"I'm very proud to say I’m the ambassador for Australia’s sheep," says Michelle A. Lee, The Woolmark Company’s Head of America, who came to the company after seven years heading public affairs for the Australian Consulate. Lee cites only Cotton Incorporated as a comparable organization. "When [designers] meet us, they think we’re trying to sell them something," she says. "The only thing I’m trying to sell is a concept, and that's the beauty of Merino wool. But what I'm trying to do is help them sell their product, because the more product they sell, the better it is for our farmers." Lee says many Australian wool farmers can now earn more money using their land for meat, and AWI wants to make it profitable for them to keep growing wool.
Woolmark pushes the sale of wool textiles in many different ways, most publicly through the influential, annual prize which was reinstated in 2012 after a period of inactivity, and has now expanded to include both womenswear and menswear. It kicks off with regional competitions in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, the British Isles, Europe, USA, and India, Pakistan and the Middle East. Each designer presents one look and sketches of a six-piece capsule capsule collection. Regional winners will receive $50,000 AUS (about $38,000), go on to produce the entire collection and present alongside other global regional winners at the international competitions next year, where the prize is $100,000 AUS.
The 2016/2017 American crew includes the following nominees: Gabriela Hearst, Hellessy, Monse, Nellie Partow and Sally LaPointe for womenswear; Abasi Rosborough, Matiere, Pyer Moss, Rochambeau and Second/Layer for menswear. "It’s been very difficult because there's so much talent in the U.S.," says Lee. "The winners have to actually deliver global collections, so when we choose the winners we have to strike a balance — they have to show innovation but also they have to be able to sell their products." Final judges include the retailers who will ultimately carry the collections as well as editors, designers and consultants. But on Tuesday, the U.S. regional decision makers are Lee, Steven Kolb, Stefano Tonchi, Robbie Myers, Malcolm Carfrae, Laura Brown, Julie Gilhart, Jason Wu, Glenda Bailey and André Leon Talley.
When Woolmark and AWI are not focused on the annual prize, they allocate the budget — funded partially by the Australian government but mostly from a two percent cut of the profits of every bale of sold by members — towards research and development (40 percent) and marketing (60 percent). The marketing efforts try to increase the amount of people who wear wool, which currently represents only 1.7 percent of all fibers purchased, including synthetics. "If you’re a designer and you’re working with wool and you don’t know where to source something or you don’t know how to work with it, you can just call us up," says Lee, a service they provide for free. When it comes to the financial deals between designers and wool fabric manufacturers, which are mostly located in China with some in Italy, Woolmark removes itself from the conversation. (Designers in the competition, however, are set up with discounts to produce their collections.)
The designers Woolmark chooses to partner with outside of the prize are usually in the "upper echelons of the fashion pyramid" because Australian wool, merino, is a luxury fiber. "Depending on where the sheep lives, the wool fiber can be coarse or fine... for example, the Shetland sheep is what traditionally Ralph Lauren has used in their sweaters and that’s very coarse because they come from a part of the world [Scotland] where they have to be warm when its cold." But because Australia has such a hot climate, the hair fiber is finer, longer, softer and stronger.
Thom Browne is one such designer who often uses merino wool in his collections. Woolmark has been working with him over the past year after first partnering in 2006. "We supported him in product development and we invested in his show," says Lee about his spring and fall 2016 collections. "He uses so much wool and he's one of the most innovative people in terms of menswear." Woolmark also produced a social media marketing video campaign for the brand (see above).
Indeed, educating designers and consumers about wearing wool in warm weather is a major priority for Woolmark right now. "The fastest growing category for us right now is sports and outdoor," says Lee. "Over the years, the sheep has developed these wool fibers to withstand the extreme temperatures of the Australian environment and the DNA structure is so complex that every single part of the DNA has a benefit that we transfer over to the garment wearer." Those benefits include absorbing gasses from bacteria in sweat, which are then locked into the fiber and released only when the garment is washed. "Five, six years ago, no one was really using wool in sports and outdoor and now we are getting calls from everybody saying, 'We want to use wool, how can you help us,'" says Lee.
Another goal for Woolmark is beefing up its sustainability credentials. Lee explains that even though wool is natural, renewable and biodegradable, "it's important to note that we actually don’t say that we’re sustainable," says Lee, who emphasized that the company wants the hard data to back it up before making that claim. "For the past few years, we have been undertaking this study to understand all elements from cradle to grave, whether its carbon dioxide emitted and so forth."
Because sheep are used for both wool and meat, it's complicated to conduct a life-cycle analysis. The wool industry has also been criticized by PETA and animal rights activists for the harsh physical treatment of sheep. In Australia, ranchers perform “mulesing” on Merino sheep to combat a condition called flystrike by removing skin from a lamb's buttocks to prevent an infestation of flies — usually without anesthetics. The AWI has committed resources to researching flystrike prevention (according to ABC, $33 million since 2005) and has a long-term goal to remove the practice and short-term goal to replace it with more humane methods. However, as of this year, these solutions are recommended and not required.
But at Tuesday's regional competition, the focus of the night will be innovation, creativity, product development and presentation as the U.S. designers compete for a chance to go on to next year's global finals. The bar was set high in 2014, when the Americans swept both international categories thanks to Public School and M.Patmos. Lee calls the current crop of nominees "the best" group yet, and certainly wool's reputation has only grown in the four years since the competition was resumed. "I think we have more awareness, particularly with those who are more fashion conscious," says Lee. "We definitely have a lot more profile in the industry, whereas before we didn't.... Before we had to knock on people’s door and say, 'Hi, we are the wool people.' Now people [say], 'Oh, can you help us with this?'"