I’m in danger of becoming a bit of a hardened cynic if I get too immersed into the cogs of fashion week-ing. It’s something that I rectify by escaping every now and again into anonymous showrooms, into a park for a random jog and into McDonald’s where nobody cares whether you’ve got an invitation or not – you just need to fork over enough money for a coffee to have a seat. No, this isn’t a “Woe is me” plea. Just a stray thought as we reach the home stretches of fashion month as Paris beckons.
In Milan though, I got the opportunity to see a different side to fashion week, handed to me on a plate as I was asked to be a social media ambassador for the International Woolmark Prize global final. Emerging designers getting wads of money as well as international recognition from the inner sanctum of the industry? I’m down with that, hence why I like following the ins and outs of fashion prizes – ANDAM, Swiss Textiles and with the latest convo revolving around the much-talked about LVMH Prize. The International Woolmark Prize, promoting the use of Merino wool, comes with an illustrious history, as Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent came together as winners at the inaugural 1954 awards, in an auspicious sign of their later years as designer foes. Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Donna Karan have also scooped up prizes subsequently.
The regional finalists of this year’s edition have already won AUD50,000 and the grand prize awarded at this year’s final is AUD100,000 plus the chance to be stocked in stores like 10 Corso Como, colette, Harvey Nichols, Joyce and Saks Fifth Avenue, so the stakes were high. The finalists were Sibling from Europe, Christopher Esber from Australia, ffiXXed from Asia, Rahul Mishra from India and the Middle East and Altuzarra from USA – admittedly, they’re all at different levels and in my view, it’s a little unfair to compare say, Joseph Altuzarra, a fully emerged designer with Kering backing and support of the press, with Mishra, an emerging designer from India. But the jury bucked convention and something of a fairytale unfolded at this year’s competition when the “wildcard” finalist Rahul Mishra emerged as the winner. That was a delight to see, not because the other finalists were not worthy winners (the jury had a tough decision to make) but because the prize went to a designer, and region, that would arguably benefit the most from the money and the exposure.
Every finalist took something away from the experience of the competition. Especially when facing a daunting jury that included the likes of Tim Blanks, Alexa Chung (who looked pretty awesome in Valentino), Angelica Cheung of Vogue China, Sarah Andelman from colette, Franca Sozzani and Carla Sozzani. Watching the finalists present their brand and their collection during the judging sessions, was terrifying only because I wouldn’t want to imagine myself in their shoes.
It’s definitely worth reflecting on the participants who missed out on the prize as they were all incredibly accomplished and without getting too specific, it was fairly close all round in the scoring by the judges. Cozette McCreery, Joe Bates and Sid Bryan of Sibling, are always up for a laugh and after the winner was announced, they were fairly philosophical about it. Their collection, mostly taken from their A/W14-5 collection much like their menswear, was about lavishing love on old-fashioned craft. They married that up with modern life as seen in pieces like the stand out pixelated portrait of McCreery, by none other than Lucian Freud (“Irishwoman on a Bed” does indeed depict the wonderful Cozette). Or in the trailing godet-insert dresses constructed out of a machine-knit tube and then ripped and laddered, and patched-up and mended with hand crochet. Machine meets handiwork has been an ongoing exploration in Sibling’s work and here you could really see the labour of love.
Christopher Esber from Australia was another familiar face. He’s been the rising star of Australian Fashion Week, following in the trail of the likes of Dion Lee. Esber does intriguing textiles work that often skews conceptual. For his Woolmark collection, he experimented with contrasts – between the soft and the hard – sporty mesh with chunk rib knit, shaggy shearling with sleek tailoring and then an unexpected use of puff print lines and grids that are bonded with fabric to create an interesting relief of draping. The trompe l’oeil effect was a surreal and engaging.
Can I get a whoop whoop for ffiXXed, a design duo headed up by Kain Picken and Fiona Lau. Originally from Australia, the couple found themselves setting up their business in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, shuttling back and forth between the two hubs. Their unisex label often coincides with art and design projects but they never lose sight of wearability. Their Woolmark collection latched on to the theme of “homebodies” – being couch potatoes really on the most tactile of rugs and carpets. They warped and glitched rug prints to create their jacquard knits that draped liked blankets and were accessorized by mohair sandals and cushion clutches. On my next visit to Hong Kong, ffiXXed are definitely on my hitlist for visting.
Joseph Altuzarra needs no introductions. He is the darling of New York fashion week but he is savvy enough to know that being flavor of the season does not a business make. Every collection he puts out seems assured and confident of his woman – and she really is a “woman” – refined, confident and with plenty of disposable income to splash out on Altuzarra’s intimidatingly chic-to-the-next-lev clothes. His Woolmark collection went a touch softer, looking to Grace Kelly’s wardrobe in Rear Window or Marilyn Monroe’s penchant for cashmere sweaters. Using needle punching, these fuzzy textures were felted on streamlined structured tops, jackets and skirts in a subtle way. It was undoubtedly finessed. Many in the industry had him down as a shoo-in for the prize.
Then came Rahul Mishra from India. Rahul Mishra doesn’t even have a website (just a Facebook page). He was the one name that I wasn’t familiar with – in fact I can barely count to five when listing out designers based in India, which is surely something that needs to be rectified. Having studied at the Instituto Marangoni in Milan, he only recently began his label and has been working hard to promote Indian handlooms, empowering and employing Indian Craft Community through his sustainable design. Mishra had a fine story to tell and a mission statement to share. It piqued the judges’ curiosity as everyone collectively felt like they were discovering something new. He genuinely investigated new techniques to enable him to use wool to embroider garments – spinning his own yarn, thining it out and then mixing different colours together to create an ombre effect on wool jersey and wool silk mix fabrics. None of it felt like wool because of the intricacy. The motifs on the dresses – the lotus morphing into complex structures and cityscapes came from the very idea that wool is completely natural, and like a lotus remains unpolluted, and goes on to reach fashion capitals on its journey. Mishra takes his job as a responsible fashion designer incredibly seriously and that shows in his work. “I always think of the three Es when I start to create a collection: environment, employment and empowerment, and if you can think about all these things then your product will be perfect.” How can you resist a statement like that? His ideal for sustainable luxury is something that spoke to everyone in that judging room as we are in the process of shifting values in the luxury sector. Mishra talked about fashion being all about product in the last century and that this century, it needs to be about participation. And so he engages with villages all over India (“through the power of 3G” he says) to pass work to them at an above average wage. “I work with people who may not have great privilege but who have a great skill and so it also savours crafts and skills which could otherwise be lost.”
It’s a backstory that isn’t superfluous. It matters and that story showed in the clothes. Regardless on their own, the collection was made up of beautiful pieces in their own right. That’s what really got the judges oohing and aahing. And that’s why Mishra was the unanimous outright winner. Now these pieces will go into those aforementioned stores in August this year and Indian fashion can claim a pretty historical landmark. Mishra’s win chimes in with the increasingly globalised state of fashion. He sobbed a fair bit when it was announced he had won the prize at the finale show. It brought tears to my eyes too – and for the right reasons.