FARM Weekly's WENDY GOULD first interviewed Matt Jensen, founder and CEO of leading menswear fashion retailer M.J. Bale, for WA Merino in 2012. In conjunction with Sydney advertising agency Whybin/TWA, his company had just been awarded two gold PR Lions, two silver PR Lions and a bronze Direct Lion at the 59th annual International Festival of Creativity event in Cannes, France.
This is the global creative communications industries' equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival, so success there is a big deal. And it's no mean feat that an Australian company championing home-grown fleece should match it on a world stage with some of the biggest names in international retail and global marketing. M.J. Bale's innovative Grazed on Greatness campaign married Australian fine Merino wool to members of the Australian Men's Cricket Team on a roots-to-suits journey from the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) and back.
Eight years on we look at where Matt's wool journey has taken him, what has changed in his industry and his continuing passion for this most unique of natural fibres.
MATT Jensen founded M.J. Bale, the company which carries his initials combined with raw wool's packaging modus, in September 2009.
His love of wool is part of his genetic make-up, instilled in him growing up on his parent's fine wool sheep property at Yass, in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales.
As a gentlemen's clothier, M.J. Bale is committed to making garments of integrity for men of character and prides itself on its pillar principles of provenance, authenticity, integrity and character.
The company now has annual operating turnover of about $60 million, with Matt the largest shareholder.
Not bad for someone who says he was not really into fashion until he started working in London during the mid-to-late 1990s.
"I volunteered to create the uniforms for my local rugby club," Matt said.
"I ended up talking to weavers and makers in Italy, then followed up with a visit.
"The heritage, craftsmanship, quality and culture of these makers was something I had never witnessed before, and immediately I was hooked."
M.J. Bale was born of his desire to combine "the fantastic product being produced by woolgrowers in our district" with that new found interest in fashion.
The other nine shareholders are all friends and family and most have been on the journey with him since inception.
Matt surrounds himself with good people, but it's clear he is the driving force - the quality controller, partnerships steward and marketing visionary.
That Grazed on Greatness campaign is now immortalised as one of the most innovative marketing ventures in sporting sponsorship history.
As the exclusive provider of the Australian Men's Cricket Team's formal wear uniform, woollen suits of course, M.J. Bale was a minor player in the cricket team's contracts structure, so the underlying motive was to be noticed.
A square of turf was cut from the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), transported to the Armidale, NSW, property of fine wool grower Bill Mitchell and propagated over an 18.5 hectare plot.
A special line of the Mitchell's Merino sheep were given grazing rights to the hallowed turf and the wool shorn from them was made into the cloth from which the team's suits were made.
The result, as Matt said at the time, was high performance suits from high performance sheep to clothe a high-performance team.
It put M.J. Bale in the winner's circle in Cannes and as a result its tailored suit orders increased by 520 per cent.
But more significantly it put Australian Merino wool centre stage in front of a global audience, something the company continues to do on a regular basis.
M.J. Bale is still the official tailor to the Australian Men's Cricket Team and to national teams in several other high profile sporting codes including the Wallabies (Rugby Union), the Kangaroos (Rugby League) and the West Coast Eagles (AFL).
It's an impressive list, but it is wins for the industry, things that will financially benefit Australian woolgrowers, that Matt rates as his greatest achievements in 11 years in business.
"I'm proud we've done our part in continuing to raise the profile of wool, working with communities and at grass roots level," he said.
"It's what gets us up in the morning and keeps us going in these challenging times everyone is in."
M.J. Bale now has 55 branded stores in seven Australian States and Territories and retail floor space in Myer stores nationwide, plus online.
It employs about 350 staff, most of whom have "passed the barbecue test".
"We employ people who represent our values and are the sort of people you would like to have around to your house for a barbecue," Matt said.
"Work should be fun and if you do things with people you like to be with, it's more enjoyable, you get more done and with a better result.
"Tailored products account for about 50 per cent of what we do and wool equates to about 60pc of our fibre usage, with the remainder cotton and linen."
Pre COVID-19, M.J. Bale was selling about 100,000 suits a year, but like many businesses it is preparing for post-pandemic adjustments in a time of challenge and change.
Turnover is significantly down as a result of the closure of major events such as horse racing carnivals and the crowd restrictions imposed on weddings, functions and funerals, all dressing up occasions for which M.J. Bale has been a go-to brand.
Throw in the disruption to office working protocols and it's the company's equivalent of what drought, fire and flood is to woolgrowers.
"A lot of our customers, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, were working five days a week in city offices but now we're seeing things like a three days, two days split between office and home, with others working from home full-time," Matt said.
"That's created a trend for a lot more casual clothing so we have had to be agile and adapt.
"Knitwear, along with sportswear and active wear, are definite growth areas and wool is well-suited given its natural elasticity, thermal regulating properties, and it is so comfortable to wear.
"We've had to find ways to be innovative using our beautiful natural fibres and it's been interesting to see casual products being matched up with tailored products."
Much of the innovation, especially with fabrics, has come from the work of Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) and its marketing arm The Woolmark Company (TWC).
M.J. Bale is a regular user of TWC's Wool Lab, which offers a smorgasbord of new and creative woollen fabrics with relevant information about where and how to source them.
One such product is its Reign Man line, a practical but smart offering of water, oil and stain resistant 100pc Australian Merino wool overcoats with the catchy marketing cry of "when it pours, you reign".
M.J. Bale holds a Woolmark licence meaning it can legally use the powerful Woolmark logo, a symbol embodying quality and integrity, on its garments and swing tags.
With so many Australians in enforced or self-imposed isolation, Matt said online purchasing has exploded and now accounted for about 15 to 20pc of their retail sales.
"In the month of April alone we saw a 500pc increase in online sales," he said.
It's helped push their product beyond Australian shores, particularly into the United Kingdom and United States, but M.J. Bale remains predominantly locally focussed.
"We attended Pitti Uomo (one of the world's most important men's clothing and accessories trade shows held in Florence, Italy) in January and had some really good interest from international buyers, but COVID-19 has put a halt to that," Matt said.
"The supply chain is very dynamic at the moment, it is a week-to-week proposition.
"We have had trouble getting air freight out of Italy.
"There is real demand shock to consumption in the industry at the moment with a glut of fibre and cloth," he said.
"There are lots of stores sitting on inventory, so wool has to keep marketing in what is a very crowded space."
Collaboration with woolgrowers to provide garments made from single source wool has been a big part of M.J. Bale's DNA and something to set it apart in the marketplace.
The company's focus for two of its signature ranges, Kingston suits and Ashby knitwear, named after the properties from which the clips originate, has been the pristine environment of Tasmania.
"There's something unique about the climate, the pastures and the environment in Tasmania that allows it to produce amazing superfine wool," Matt said.
"We are really proud to work with woolgrowers to take the beautiful product they have produced and turn it into something special in a garment.
"To see the pride on their faces when they see the end product from the wool they have grown is a fantastic thing."
M.J. Bale began working with fourth-generation farmer Simon Cameron at his historic Kingston farm, 65 kilometres south east of Launceston, five years ago and now takes the majority of his 16 to 17 micron clip annually.
The raw wool is processed spun and woven in Italy, and made by hand into high end suits in Japan, before returning to Australian stores.
It is clearly a win-win situation with M.J. Bale getting the quality and provenance its brand is built on and Kingston ensuring viability of its farming enterprise and financial support for the biodiversity conservation measures central to its being.
Not far away at Ross in the Tasmanian Midlands, the Bennett family produce their special 17 micron wool used in M.J. Bale's Buchanan Ashby knitwear range of lightweight woollen jumpers.
On greasy wool prices, Matt said it has been interesting to observe market machinations of price fluctuations.
"When wool prices went through the roof 12 to 24 months ago I was cheering for the fact it was putting more money in grower's pockets," Matt said.
"It was a great thing for resetting the levels on price and most likely kept a lot more of them in the industry.
"But at the same time I was seeing the effects of this price spike on the spinners and weavers.
"At all the fabric fairs I was attending you could see less and less wool being included in their product lines and there was a lot more blending of fibres.
"Worse still, there was a noticeable increase in the use of polyester and synthetics in the blends, which is very much against what we stand for (at M.J. Bale).
"Our business is built on a quality and integrity of using only natural fibres, so it significantly limited our range of choice in sourcing fabrics.
"It showed the (processing) sector does have a level on price.
"That said I think wool is really well positioned to capitalise in a post COVID world," Matt said.
"There is certainly a greater awareness of environmental issues, of interest in natural fibres and in provenance.
"People increasingly want to know where what they're wearing and what they're eating comes from.
"And there is a definite less-is-more attitude of buying fewer but better quality items that last longer.
"Thoughtful consumers, and there are many more of them today than there were five years ago, recognise there is too much landfill being created and the impact synthetics and polyesters are having on the environment."
Matt said wool was such a noble fibre and this created many opportunities, but the industry had to ensure it was doing the right things from the farm level right through the chain to the consumer.
He said this included on-farm practices, animal welfare and transparency.
"Feedback we're hearing from our weaving partners in Italy is that it is likely they will only accept wool grown from non-mulesed sheep in the near future," Matt said.
"It is what it is, and for those growers wanting to play in the luxury international space, it's something we're all going to have to adapt to.
"In reality, only a tiny fraction of the wool we produce is consumed in Australia.
"International markets are what is going to drive consumption of wool, so we need to stay mindful on that front."