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December 16, 2017
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Merino sheep. Source: brittanica.com.

When it comes to sheep's wool, there is one coveted above all others: merino. Known for its warmth, lightness and fine texture, merino wool is the crème de la crème of the wool family. Like Indian silk and Italian leather, not all merino is the same and the best is widely acknowledged to come from the world's largest wool producer, Australia. But its current status within luxury markets has not been easily forged. Having fought its way out of an industry slump spaning two decades, merino wool has finally begun to re-establish itself as the pinnacle of quality in apparel fibres.

Karl Lagerfeld Yves Saint Laurent Woolmark
Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent at the
1954 International Wool Secretariat.
Source: thewoolmarkprize.com.

After the introduction of second generation synthetic fibres in the last quarter of the 20th century, wool was no longer the first choice for garment production. Between the 1980s and 1990s, the Australia Bureau of Statistics documented that global wool consumption slipped 10 per cent, with repercussions felt greatest within the close-knit Australian wool industry. The Australian Government's Reserve Price Scheme, which was implemented to prevent price collusion amongst overseas buyers, allowed for wool bale prices to inflate to unprecedented highs and, with no concessions made for decreased demand, the scheme collapsed in 1991. With stock in excess for four billion bales and industry debt of more than A$2 billion, the national flock dwindled from 172 million strong, to 70.8 million today. 

But merino sheep, which account for 80 per cent of Australian sheep numbers (with the remaining being predominantly half-breeds), are steadily increasing at roughly five per cent a year - and just in time. Merino is back bigger and better than ever, re-branded and promoted as the new It luxury fibre. As Asia flourishes amid European woes, merino producers are grasping at the opportunity to drive sales in emerging luxury markets, with some, like international trading centre Shanghaimart, calling merino wool the "new cashmere." China's largest luxury textile company, Shandong Ruyi, has predicted a 15 per cent yearly growth in merino demand from its textile factories, which last year processed 30 tonnes. Whilst India, whose wool imports were worth A$150 million in 2010, are strengthening ties with Australian producers through a joint wool testing laboratory venture in Mumbai. 

We will be geographically selective in spending our marketing resources; we will target New York and the other affluent parts of the States. 

With Europe not to be relied upon for strong export opportunities, aside from consistent buyers like Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna, wool producers are looking elsewhere to instigate new trade out with Asia. Marketing and research cooperative, Australian Wool Innovation Limited (AWI), is focusing its energy on the United States. Speaking to Jonathan Lobban, AWI CEO Stuart McCullough said, "We will be geographically selective in spending our marketing resources; we will target New York and the other affluent parts of the States." And target they have, seamlessly collaborating wool with fashion to boldly ignite the imagination of the global fashion community. Speaking at the opening of the Wool Modern exhibition in London, McCullough discussed the strategy, "We're making a conscious decision to move back into that luxury segment. We know very well that fashion doesn't filter up and the very pinnacle of the fashion triangle is watched by all the others operating in that triangle."

Traditionally, Woolmark, the trading subsidiary of AWI, has a history of mainstream, merino-meets-fashion initiatives. Market events held for the fashion and retail industry in America have proven successful in generating interest in the qualities of Australian wool among retailers such as Nordstrom and Macy's. However, the most renowned series on the calendar is the International Woolmark Prize. Formerly known as the International Wool Secretariat, the award boasts having awarded a then 21-year-old Karl Lagerfeld and 18-year-old Yves Saint Laurent in the 1955 awards. Judged by a panel that included Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Balmain, the young fashion royals won prizes for coat and dress designs, respectively. Relaunched in 2008, the award is opening doors for young designers working with wool across the globe, with 30 designers from America alone having entered hoping to be a recipient of either a regional or international bursary. The revived awards come on the back of the highly successful Woolmark protégé initiative in 2007, which brought together designers, including award alumni Lagerfeld and Donatella Versace, with rising fashion talent.

The Australian Five Woolmark
The Australia Five collections at G'Day Australia.
Source: mbf-trendtalk.blogspot.com.

Most recently, as a part of the G'Day USA campaign, Woolmark, with the Australians In New York Fashion Foundation (AINYFF), brought the best of Australian fashion to the city to show just what can be achieved with merino wool. The Australian Five, as they were coined, included L'Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival Designer of the Year, Christopher Esber, Kym Ellery, Michael Lo Sordo, Fernando Frisoni and Magdalena Velevska. The designers flaunted their collections at a cocktail party on Australia Day eve at the Crosby Street Hotel in Soho. While showing off the diversity of merino wool, the event was a remarkable publicity platform for Australia's most promising designers. AINYFF founder Malcolm Carfrae said of the event, "This is a unique opportunity for New York opinion formers to view the work of five talented young Australian fashion designers in a very intimate and close-up setting, to meet the designers and really see the fabric innovation and design skill." 

While the industry continues to go from strength to strength, slowly but surely regaining its momentum and glory of yesteryear, its luxury appeal and fashion focused rejuvenation will guarantee a niche following. With more designers seeking out natural fibres for their garments, Merino Wool will soon be the name to drop in fashion circles around the world.

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