The bundled up wooly days of NYFW seems like an age away, especially now that I’ve just landed in sunny Seoul for Korea Fashion Week but as I’ve been working with Woolmark on highlighting all things wool at the shows for Merino.com, I also wanted to recap here what was an interesting contest between technique and tale in amongst the finalists, behind the scenes at the International Woolmark Prize Womenswear Final, held in New York in February.
The discussions in amongst jury panels at fashion competitions are always intriguing affairs. I’ve participated in a few myself. There’s nearly always an unfiltered conversation going on, where opinions are more forthright and honest, because the discussions tend to be conducted behind closed doors and when there’s a huge prize money at stake – in the case of Woolmark, AUD100,000 plus mentorship and the chance to be stocked at prestigious department stores like Harvey Nichols, Isetan and Saks Fifth Avenue – you get down to the nitty gritty pretty quickly. With a judging panel that included the likes of Andre Leon Talley, Julie Gilhart, Tim Blanks and Stefano Tonchi, views were bound to be strong but what emerged at the Woolmark Prize was a common interest in the balance between an innovative technique in the use of Merino wool and a fascinating backstory behind the collection that could be communicated to consumer. All the finalists had one or the other and one happened to have both.
J Koo, from Korea, designed by Jinwoo Choi and Yeonjoo Koo marked high on technique. Tim Blanks dubbed their collection to be made of “wenim” – as in woven wool made to look like denim. After an exhaustive process of dyeing, bleaching, washing, rinsing and sand papering all done by hand, Choi and Koo came up with a fabrication that had the look of roughed up and frayed denim but with the tactile feel of soft wool. It was a fabric hybridisation that I certainly hadn’t seen before and made me look forward to seeing what other fabric trickery the duo will come up with, as I’ll be at their show at this season’s Seoul Fashion Week.
Bianca Spender hailing from Australia, where Merino wool is birthed, took inspiration from her native extreme surroundings – a landscape of cracked earth that has undergone flooding and droughts. Contrasting fine wools and heavy micron wools in a neutral palette of earthy beige, grey and soft lilac, Spender’s pieces undulated around the body on the bias. Her statement pieces came in the form of bonded wool coats and jackets that were stitched in three layers of wool and then slashed in to mimic trickles of water flowing through the ground. This was where technique married up with the tale beautifully.
I wasn’t familiar with Nanna van Blaaderen from the Netherlands, but of all the finalists, she was the only knitwear specialist and it showed in her tactile collection entitled “Hide”, intended to show the beauty of nature. The stripes of a zebra, the spots of a giraffe and a leopard are rendered exclusively in innovative wool jacquard knits that showcase the sophisticated simplicity of the material. Van Blaaderen doesn’t mask the wool with too much trickery or embellishment and instead, allows it to flourish in a naturalistic state.
The collection that perhaps looked the least wooliest of all, was the one by Taller Marmo, the finalist from the India, Pakistan and Middle East region. Based in Dubai and founded by Riccardo Audisio, from Italy and Yago Goicoechea, from Argentina, this thoroughly international brand is based on a conversation between the craftsmanship of Europe and their Middle Eastern surroundings . And so they created a club-ready collection in wool, with touches of organza and lurex and inflected with Egyptian motifs taken from catacombs. Taking advantage of the breathability of Merino wool as well as using waterproof treatments on wool, it was a clever use of wool for a very specific climate in their market.
Tanya Taylor‘s collection perhaps needs no in-depth exposition, as she created a collection featuring jolly flowers segueing into bullseyes and optimistic stripes in the brightest of hues on easy-to-wear silhouettes that have made her print-centric collections so successful. Again, aside from the chunky turbans and the thicker ribbed knits, there is was an unexpected summery lightness to Taylor’s collection, particularly the off-the-shoulder dresses. When matched with Paul Andrews’ cute flats, Taylor’s love of an exuberant matchy-matchy look was infectious.
Not to patriotically flag wave or anything, but it was brilliant to see a British brand be awarded the winner of this year’s International Woolmark Prize. Catherine Teatum and Rob Jones of Teatum Jones thoroughly deserved it though as they managed to combine the ace technique with the compelling storytelling to create a collection that visually appealed and had some interesting layers beneath it all.
Seeing wool as an emancipating tool of freedom, Teatum Jones were inspired by English nun Agnes Morrogh-Bernard, who came to Foxford in County Mayo, Ireland and established the Foxford Woolen Mills in 1892. Creating employment for an impoverished community, the mill went on to be a success, with its luxurious woolen blankets. Teatum Jones went back to that mill to create folkloric blankets that would then inspire the rest of the 98% woolen collection. Call it “Anglo-Navajo” (I believe that was another hybrid coined by Blanks), as geometric patterns were rendered in innovative materials. Such as the guipere lace made out of wool, which was a first for the French mill they worked with. This Merino lace was then bonded onto an Italian stretch wool that had the feel of neoprene, but with the breathability of wool. As far as research and fabric techniques goes, Teatum Jones dived headfirst into the possibilities of Merino wool and emerged triumphant. Mother Agnes saw wool as a tool of “empowerment”. That certainly resonated in Teatum Jones’ winning collection and coupled with a forward thinking behind the fabrications, it definitely set a high benchmark for the Woolmark Prize missive.