A centuries old tradition and a centuries old fibre have been reunited in a perfect match with the gondoliers of Venice returning to their roots to again wear wool. And not just any wool but fine Australian Merino wool.
The islands of Venice on Italy's north east coast are famous for canals and gondolas, the original mode of transport from 1200 BC for crossing the canals and now one of the world's most sought after tourist experiences.
In a move to put wool in front of that global audience, estimated at 26 to 30 million visitors annually compared to Venice's population of 54,000 people, The Woolmark Company (TWC) joined forces late last year with renowned local design house Emilio Ceccato.
TWC's Milan-based global strategy advisor Fabrizio Servente said the idea was born two years ago when he and Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) CEO Stuart McCullough were meeting in Venice.
Staying at the Monaco Grand Hotel, perfectly located on the Grand Canal near Piazza San Marco they watched gondolas coming to and from the traghetti (gondola rank) in front of their hotel, one of the six gondola ranks operating throughout the city.
"Stuart said to me if only we could get these gondoliers wearing wool how good would that be for our fibre branding and some global exposure," Mr Servente said.
"I said great idea, I know exactly who we need to talk to."
Emilio Ceccato, established in 1902 is the official clothier for the Association of Venetian Gondoliers (AVG), the governing body for its 433 registered gondoliers and Mr Servente knows Guiliano Ceccato, grandson of founder Emilio Ceccato and his family well.
An initial conversation with the company's CEO Alberto Bozzo and dialogue with former Italian rugby player and AVG president Aldo Reato sparked the seed of an idea that finally became reality with the launch of three woollen garments in September last year.
The range includes a woollen polo shirt, perfect for Venice's temperate summers, a woollen rugby jumper and a puffer vest made from waterproof 100 per cent woollen fabric and filled with woollen down, all in traditional colours of navy blue and navy blue and white stripes.
Each item carries the Gondolier Association logo, designed by Emilio Ceccato and more notably for Australian Merino woolgrowers, the Woolmark logo.
The sizeable Woolmark logo is positioned on the sleeve of the upper arm of the polo shirt and rugby jumpers and on the bottom right hand corner of the vest, strategically placed at eye height to passengers riding in the gondola.
But the exposure goes well beyond the gondoliers themselves with all products available for purchase by the general public in the official stores operated by Emilio Ceccato and online at www.emilioceccato.com
And when local Venetian basketball team Reyer, owned by the mayor Luigi Brugnaro won the national basketball championship it was gondolas that were used to transport the mayor, players and officials around the city for a celebratory procession.
With the intention of spreading TWC's collaboration Mr Servente said the three garments designed and made by Emilio Ceccato used Australian woollen product from three Italian companies, with active fabric for the polo shirt sourced from Reda, yarn for the rugby jumper from Tollegno and product for the vest from Tessuti Marzotto Fabrics.
As a company focused on top quality, high end fashion for men and women through its 14 stores in north eastern Italy and online including its own Al Duca D’Aosta label which uses 60 per cent wool in winter collections, Mr Bozzo said his company was very proud to work with TWC on such a significant project to Venice.
"Gondolas and gondoliers are part of the heart and soul of Venice and we are happy to be bringing a mark of quality back to them and revisiting the tradition of using wool which is such a top notch fibre," he said.
"We're taking tradition and giving it a new twist with the technology utilised in creating these modern fabrics."
But perhaps the best seal of approval comes from the gondoliers themselves.
Mr Reato said the use of wool provided a best class uniform, raising the quality and visibility through a noble fibre for a noble profession and he liked the fact it revisited their heritage bringing wool back to the gondola after 100 years.
With gondoliers doing shifts of 10 to 15 hours in summer and five to six hours in winter and each tour averaging four to five kilometres, the woollen garments were comfortable to wear and the wives loved them because they could be thrown in the washing machine to wash.
That said gondoliering is no longer a male dominated industry with two of the 433 Venetian gondoliers now women and Mr Reato keen to welcome more.
The quota of 433 registered gondolier licences is fixed and licences can only be handed down within a family from a father to a son (now also daughter) or sold on the rare occasion there is no succession lineage.
As part of its contract, Mr Bozzo said Emilio Ceccato undertook to provide each of the 433 gondoliers with a new woollen kit every year and moves were afoot to extend the range, with Woolmark wool set to replace cotton and other fabrics in future.
"Traditionally gondoliers could wear red and white or blue and white stripes so we are introducing red and white striped woollen garments into the next issue, including short and long sleeved t-shirts and also looking at woollen beanies (French berets in use currently) and long sleeved jackets," Mr Bozzo said.
Woollen throw rugs for use by passengers in the gondolas in cooler weather was another possibility.
Mr Bozzo said every garment worn by the gondoliers, plus a range of other memorabilia totalling about 140 different items, was available for purchase in their three designated gondolier stores, including one at the base of the historic Rialto bridge, and on line at www.emilioceccato.com
This provides an even stronger branding opportunity for wool as tourists avail
This provides an even stronger branding opportunity for wool as tourists avail themselves of products made from the unique fibre and early feedback from within store is the woollen garments are proving extremely popular with the visiting public.
"A royalty for every item sold is paid to the gondolier association and this money is being used to fund several projects close to the heart of the organisation," Mr Bozzo said.
Mr Realto said this included re-opening two traghetti which were shut down several years ago and the hope of reopening four more in the future.
Funding is also utilised for training of additional artisan axeman to craft gondolas as currently there were only three craftsman skilled in building and repairing vessels and all were getting on in years.
Mr Servente said the intiative to clothe gondoliers in wool had been brilliant for putting wool and the Woolmark logo in the spotlight.
"Can you imagine the number of pictures taken every day in Venice and shared around the world that have a Woolmark logo featured in them?" he asked.
"Plus it is showing wool off as an action fibre perfect for wearing during physical activity because of its comfort, breathability and thermal properties," Mr Servente said.