"Woolmark is sort of like the fiber nerd prize, in the best way possible," said Dao-Yi Chow, one half of Public School, which won the regional and international Woolmark Prize two years ago. He was on hand Tuesday to judge the 2016/2017 U.S. competition for one of fashion's oldest and most respected prizes for excellence in merino wool.
Five womenswear designers and five menswear designers presented one look each to a panel of judges, who evaluated and voted on Tuesday before the announcement cocktail party at La Sirena in New York City.
The winners were announced by Chow, Maxwell Osborne and Jason Wu — just a few of the esteemed judges and past winners in the audience, which included Julie Gilhart, Stefano Tonchi, Laura Brown, Robbie Myers, Glenda Bailey, Tanya Taylor, Marcia Patmos and more. In the end, Gabriela Hearst and Rochambeau took home top honors in womenswear and menswear, respectively — including $50,000 AUD (about $37,476) each and the opportunity to compete for the international prizes in January.
Before the announcement, Chow said the newest batch of competitors pushed the limits beyond what he and Maxwell Osborne had developed two years ago. "When we went through the process, we did everything — we boiled it, we felted it... One of the designers used the wool as fill for a coat, which is something we never [considered]." CFDA President Steven Kolb, a longtime judge, was surprised by the lightweight applications of wool. He and the CFDA help bring new talent to The Woolmark Company's attention as they nominate new designers each year. Kolb said they look for the "kind of designer that's worth the opportunity to participate in a prestigious competition like this, and really invest the time to really participate at a level that's needed."
Indeed, it was a strong batch of nominees — Gabriela Hearst, Hellessy, Monse, Nellie Partow and Sally LaPointe for womenswear; Abasi Rosborough, Matiere, Pyer Moss, Rochambeau and Second/Layer for menswear — but Kolb said there wasn't any heated debate among the judges. (He only evaluated the womenswear category.) "If you're in the program, you're strong enough to get points and be liked… but there are always two or three that tend to gravitate towards the top," he said.
For winner Gabriela Hearst, wool runs in her blood. "It has literally fed my family for six generations," she said after the announcement. Hearst grew up on her family's farm in Uruguay where Merino sheep are still raised for their wool, so she was already an expert in the fiber's technical properties. "For my collection, I wanted to show that transformation of wool... I just wanted to show how light wool can be and you can use it [in] all weather," said Hearst, adding that Merino can regulate temperature and absorb bacteria. "Like right now, I spent the whole day in Merino wool. It’s like a second skin." And while Hearst hasn't used her own sheep's wool in her clothing collections, she said she has just now started to work with an Italian mill to produce knits from her ranch's wool.
Hearst also knows exactly what she'll use the prize money for: enterprise resource planning (ERP) software that will help her streamline and scale her less than two-year-old business. "I think in luxury, one can still be resourceful and you can still not be wasteful, so [with ERP] you know exactly the price and the quality of everything from the beginning to the end," said said. "It takes one year to learn." Hearst said the program will help her minimize human error in the design and sourcing process and can grow with her if she decides to expand to retail stores.
In the meantime, Hearst is looking forward to the international competition, where she will present a collection of six looks. "For me, to showcase the luxury side and the functional side of merino was really important."