Sustainability and innovation were the buzz words on everyone's lips at this year's International Woolmark Prize (IWP) held in Florence, Italy, recently, in conjunction with Pitti Uomo, the world's biggest trade show for men's fashion.
With the final beamed live around the world it provided the perfect platform to reinforce wool's superior attributes in satisfying expectations and requirements for both.
The prize, which seeks to identify emerging design talent through a capsule collection of garments utilising Australian Merino wool is judged in six regions, Asia; Australia and New Zealand; British Isles; Indian subcontinent and Middle East; Europe and USA.
One finalist from each region is selected in the categories of menswear and womenswear and for the first time this year the 12 successful designers also had the opportunity to vie for an inaugural innovation award.
India, Britain and USA proved victorious on the night with Rachika Sachdeva and her label Bodice, New Delhi, India, claiming the womenswear title, the self labelled Matthew Miller, London, the menswear title and Christopher Bevans of DYNE, USA, the innovation award.
A London College of Fashion graduate, Ms Sachdeva said it was an honour to follow in the footsteps of previous Indian womenswear winner Rahul Mishra (in 2013) and to win such an ethical competition.
“Wool is a natural fibre which is beautiful but still recyclable and it takes the natural dyes I use so well," she said.
"Rahul showed us it's possible to win a global competition from India because sometimes we can feel a bit isolated from the rest of the world there.”
Ms Sachdeva used Australian fine wool Merino fabric sourced from local Indian mill Raymonds as well as product from local artisans.
From ceramics capital Stoke on Trent, Matthew Miller's family were involved in ceramics and he believed that would be his destiny too until the industry collapsed in the 1990s prompting his move to fashion.
He studied fashion design at university in Manchester, did his masters at the Royal College of Arts, London, then learn't tailoring in Briony, Italy, "graduating with no job in the crash of 2009".
Inspired by designer and philosopher Dieter Rams, who said form follows function, or for Mr Miller functionality first and fashion second for his clothes, he says his work is a mix of sportswear meets tailoring.
"My generation don't want to dress up, but don't want to look like kids, plus clothing can be used to change your identity or the way you feel so it's a great form of escapism," he said.
Mr Miller said wool was a menswear staple, a fibre he loved to work with and that almost 80 per cent of his winter range was wool.
"I've been around Woolmark for a while and I love their education programs, plus the great thing about wool is it's a sustainable fibre, not like petrol and oil based products which are just adding to landfill, so wool is a no-brainer really."
In the innovation category Christopher Bevans was the unanimous choice.
His label DYNE, meaning a unit of force, is about pushing the limits and he wowed the judges with his technological creativity which included sewing an NFC chip into every garment (replacing swing tags) which could be scanned to provide comprehensive information about the manufacture, design and fibre composition of the garment as well as a link to his website.
And given his interest in snowboarding which influenced his garment design, it could also be customised to track a skier if they were caught in an avalanche or lost on a ski slope.
Mr Bevans said he grew up around sewing machines in a religious household in Brooklyn which meant dressing up to go to church.
His first taste of high fashion was through his Jamaican grandma who custom made dresses and garments for socialites, but having worked at a dry cleaners he also saw the effects of chemicals on clothes and skin, which shaped his eco-conscience.
"Mother nature is not happy with us right now, look at world floods, fires, tornados, so we all have to do our part for a sustainable environment and wool fits that so well," he said.
Without exception, each of the 12 finalists mentioned sustainability in their presentations, not just in throw away terms as something the judges might want to hear but as something central to the core of how they live their lives based on a genuine belief in its importance.
Making her IWP debut, Australian judge, fashion buyer and founder of retail and online fashion outlet Parlour X, Eva Galambos, said it was interesting to see each of the 12 finalists mention sustainability without any prompting.
"Millenials don't just think fashion, they think functionality, the message behind a product and sustainability," Ms Galambos said.
"The calibre of entries was outstanding tonight, which really puts the pressure on to make the right decision because winning this award with its substantial prizemoney ($200,000 each for menswear and womenswear and $100,000 for the innovation award) can kickstart a brand.
"I want to see creativity and innovation but as a buyer of 17 years I also want to see commercial viability," Ms Galambos said.
"If Woolmark is putting up this money, they need collections that will provide growth to their business and provide a voice and a message for their product."
It's a comment that would have been music to the ears of fellow judge and AWI CEO Stuart McCullough who said he was looking for some good business acumen and ranges that were suitable to be mass produced, as well as innovation in their use of wool.
"These designers have to be able to supply a retailer with a quality garment and on time so things like knit time or production time matter," Mr McCullough said.
"Sometimes super creatives are impractical and often let romance override finance," Mr McCullough said.
"But it's demand at the retail end where wool's message will strike strongest and ultimately where greater value will be realized for the Australian woolgrower."
More than 65 designers from more than 60 countries took part in this year's awards.
The judging panel also included Amber Valletta, Elizabeth von Guttman, Emanuele Farnetti, Julie Davies, Livia Firth, Liya Kebede, Miroslava Duma, Nonita Kalra, Phillip Lim, Riccardo Vannetti and Sarah Mower.