A forward vision

A forward vision


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The Woolmark Company's Milan-based marketing communications manager Francesca Ginnasi (left), takes a closer look at this ladies wool denim suit from a recent Max Mara range.

The Woolmark Company's Milan-based marketing communications manager Francesca Ginnasi (left), takes a closer look at this ladies wool denim suit from a recent Max Mara range.

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HE wasn't born to the fibre, but The Woolmark Company's (TWC) Paris, France-based general manager western hemisphere, Stuart Ford, describes himself as the ultimate wool evangelist.

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HE wasn't born to the fibre, but The Woolmark Company's (TWC) Paris, France-based general manager western hemisphere, Stuart Ford, describes himself as the ultimate wool evangelist.

"I get up in the morning and I am genuinely excited to be working with this amazing fibre and the people involved with it," he said.

Mr Ford came to TWC two years ago leaving a position as senior director of a major US retailer with 1400 stores and 700 franchises in 40 countries, but says nothing compares to his current role.

"I have never before worked with such an engaged group of people where everyone is so passionate about what they do and so keen for success.

"And wool certainly is great right now," he said.

"We're finding good acceptance at the retail end and the price is good for growers but we have to keep looking for the next big thing for wool to stay at the cutting edge of fibre applications.

"Wool is a fibre for the future and we need to capitalise on its inherent qualities of being sustainable, renewable and eco-friendly, unlike synthetics."

"Some of the projects we're looking at currently might seem a bit futuristic to growers but it's where we need to be."

Mr Ford said this included looking ahead to where technologies such as 3D and 4D printing for enhanced functionality and things like adding graphene, a very fine carbon, to wool to enable tactile experiences or touch sensations may have application.

"Imagine a time where a graphene infused wool jumper might be able to provide a sensation of warmth when you touch it or being able to feel the quality of a woollen fabric through a virtual experience," he said.

"We are also looking at wool's UV properties and SPF factors as well as using it in compression apparel and other adaptive applications because of its elasticity and healthy, pure status."

Mr Ford said TWC had also recently been approached by 5-11 Brand based in New York, USA.

The company is one of the world's biggest suppliers of uniforms to police departments including the New York Police Department (NYPD), fire brigades and SWAT, New York's tactical response policing unit, as well as supplying hunting and outdoor clothing.

"They came to us to see how they could utilise wool in their ranges," Mr Ford said.

"Some of these guys and girls, their customers, work in the most extreme of temperatures and conditions so we looked at things like fire retardant wool products and base layer garments."

"And National Geographic recently used wool in an extreme expedition which was filmed and beamed across multiple social media platforms."

"Given National Geographic has a digital reach of about 65 million readers, with more than 24 million in China alone, that is a big audience for us to be putting the Woolmark brand and wool message in front of."

Mr Ford said other innovations and fashion trend changes from which wool was benefitting included woollen shoes and deconstructed suits.

"Improvements in circular knitting technology have made it possible and economical to produce woollen shoes and sneakers and this has been a huge growth industry," Mr Ford said.

"Athletes are now requesting what they want in shoes but there is also the travel and casual wear market where they want style plus function for healthy feet.

"Casualisation in the workplace has changed public perception on suits and there was a risk there would be less suits worn and less wool used but actually the opposite has happened," he said.

"It's now much more about casual suiting with unstructured and unlined jackets in cooler and lighter weight wool.

"This is especially prevalent in Japan which prompted an industry commentator to recently quip that the Japanese are now doing Italian wear better than the Italians."

An increase in demand for sport wool and leisure wear had also had positive ramifications for Australian wool.

In response, Mr Ford said TWC would be launching a campaign with the World Surfing League in Newport, California, USA, in July promoting a range of surfing friendly products such as wool rashies, hoodies and base layer garments.

"Surfing used to be the bastion of young people into a good time but with little disposable income," he said.

"Now it is becoming a richer person's sport and a high spectator sport to the point surfing now has a bigger following than ice hockey.

"That carefree young generation of surfers has grown up and they are now the ones with money," Mr Ford said.

"People want actualisation in life and with the likes of surfing and cycling the trend is for a blend of street wear and leisure wear.

"This is the beauty of having TWC offices around the world, it allows us to be right in touch with what's happening on our doorstep, the trends in these regions.

"It's very hard to keep in touch from Australia.

"We live it, breathe it, see it and can keep up direct contact with industry," Mr Ford said.

To this end TWC had just opened an office in Berlin.

"Germany and the neighbouring countries accounts for a population of 125 million people and they are the highest users of wool per capita," he said.

"Also we are seeing an influx of designers moving from London and the UK to Berlin in the wake of uncertainty about what the impact of Brexit will be."

Mr Ford said another recent positive was that as wool's profile had increased, brands were now starting to call TWC to see how they could partner with it, rather than the company having to always make the approach.

"Many haven't figured out what their wool story is yet and that is where we step in to help.

"We are not product salesmen, we need to be conceptual and show others what wool can do for them and help them to do it," Mr Ford said.

"Big brands aren't used to building a story around a fibre, they're used to building a story around a brand, their brand.

"We have just had Max Mara do a range of wool denim and it was a brand that had not used wool in this way previously," he said.

"And car company Mini has recently begun a collaboration with TWC to develop a leisure/travel wear capsule collection in wool.

"Through a selection process they are potentially looking at using some of our previous International Woolmark Prize (IWP) entrants and emerging designers to help design the collection."

On the other side of the coin, Mr Ford said there was starting to be some consumer pushback against big brands for big brands sake with a focus back to artisan industries, renewables and sustainability and wool was also fitting that bill brilliantly.

"They (consumers) have environmental concerns such as the effects of plastics in the ocean," he said.

"As part of TWC's Campaign for Wool, when Prince Charles buried some woollen garments and some polymer garments and the wool broke down but the polymer didn't, that provided a significant and far reaching message for wool."

While not forgetting the 50 to 55 year old audience which was a big spending bracket it had helped shape a more concerted effort to target the 25 to 35 year old age group.

"They have money, they are image conscious, socially aware and they are the innovators which will be the next generation of big spenders," Mr Ford said.

"We need to influence these new kids on the block, which is a big part of what IWP is helping to achieve.

"They want clothes they can wear to the office and dress up to go out at night.

"Their focus is on smaller, better quality ranges of clothes and signature pieces."

Mr Ford said there had also been a vigorous effort to focus more on the female executive.

"Men have been relatively well catered for in business but females are becoming increasingly prevalent in the corporate structure and they have largely been overlooked.

"While they essentially both like and want the same things from wool our messaging is slightly different for both.

"For men for instance it might be that wool doesn't crease and doesn't smell, whereas for women it might be about properties of fashion, drape and hygiene," Mr Ford said.

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