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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Inside the 2017 International Woolmark Prize regional finals in Dubai

Founded in 1953, the International Woolmark Prize has helped launch the careers of many designers, including a certain Karl Lagerfeld. We report on the regional finals in Dubai

The outfits submitted by designers for the prize
The outfits submitted by designers for the prize

The International Woolmark Prize (IWP) is one of the biggest competitions in the fashion universe (rivalled only by the LVMH Prize), and yet, most people have never even heard of it. An incubator for emerging designers, this annual event aims to unearth the best newcomers in men’s and women’s fashion, and yet it remains almost entirely under the radar, an industry-only affair that operates behind the scenes.

Established in 1953 as an initiative of the International Woolmark Secretariat, the purpose of the competition was to promote the Australian wool industry, and safeguard the livelihood of thousands of farmers. To make it more appealing, it took the form of a design competition, inviting creatives to craft a collection out of merino wool. From the outset, fashion heavyweights lent their support. In 1954, judges Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Balmain named as winners two unknown designers, Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent.

Today, the premise of the competition remains the same: to support the merino wool industry by fostering high-quality fashion talent. A menswear category was first introduced in 2015, with hip New York brand Public School winning the gong.

To qualify, hopefuls have to be put forward by nominating bodies, which include the British Fashion Council, the Paris and Italia editions of Vogue magazine, IMG Australia, the Starch Foundation in Lebanon, and the Dubai Design and Fashion Council. To ensure that everyone has an equal chance, the world is divided into six regions – of which India, Pakistan and the Middle East are one.

The winner of the menswear regional award, Ujjawal Dubey, with his design
The winner of the menswear regional award, Ujjawal Dubey, with his design

This network of nominating bodies strengthens the event’s standing as a truly credible force, with a huge reach that can identify talent at the grass-roots level. With the fashion industry prohibitively expensive to break into, the prize is a vital lifeline to labels that might otherwise never get to New York or London fashion weeks.

Finalists from each region are being selected throughout this month, and John Roberts of The Woolmark Company was in Dubai this week to oversee the awards ceremony for this region. He explained the thinking behind the prize: “These young designers are our ambassadors, and they create a change of perception. It’s a big part of what we are trying to do. They are the young leaders, and if we can make a big impression with wool at an early age, it is something they are going to pass on as they move up the chain. Just as we did with Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. Wool was embedded into their art from a very early age, and it’s done us a lot of good.”

True to its no-nonsense Australian roots, this is not just about making pretty clothes, however. It is about establishing, nurturing and preserving links throughout the fashion and wool industry, creating a transparent line of contact from the farmers through to the designers and on to the shops that stock the final product. An entirely natural product, the IWP is particularly proud of its merino wool, and through its network, which includes Boutique 1, Harvey Nichols in the United Kingdom, mytheresa.com and ordre.com, it aims to present an antidote to the concept of fast fashion.

In an era where consumers are increasingly starting to question the origin of fabrics and clothing, as well as ideas of sustainability, environmental impact and fair trade, the IWP aims to be entirely transparent.

“Now there is a desire to look more closely and ask: is it natural; is it biodegradable? There is a desire to have a storytelling aspect to it that is stronger than ever. Which is why it’s a particularly good time for wool right now. Wool growers in Australia have always thought we had a great story, but we did’t think anyone wanted to listen. But that is changing now, and even the manufacturers and brands we talk to say they want a provenance, they want to know where this is coming from.

“This is all about creating awareness of what wool does naturally. If you look at what a lot of synthetics have been trying to do for decades, wool does a lot of it naturally. It is self-wicking, has moisture management, has odour management, is breathable, is fire retardant and is biodegradable – it ticks all the boxes. So the challenges we face aren’t technical, it’s more of an unlearning of how people perceive wool historically. People tend to consider wool as a bit boring, conservative, only for suits, so we are saying: ‘No, you can even put it in sportswear and wear it in warmer climates’.”

This year’s regional judges, including fashion designer Manish Malhotra, Nonita Kalra, editor of Harper’s Bazaar India and Kirsten Lock, co-founder and fashion director of ordre.com, gathered this week in a swish Dubai hotel to ponder the work of seven womenswear and four menswear designers, who all created diverse looks in wool, using very different methods. Dubai-based menswear label Varoin Marwah based his look on traditional Emirati weaving patterns, creating a jacket fashioned from merino and banana fibre. In contrast, Theorem offered head-to-toe sportswear, while Dhruv Kapoor created an urbane gent-about-town look. Indian designer Ujjawal Dubey won the regional menswear title for his label Antar-Agni, with a dove-grey look that was layered and draped.

He took inspiration from North India’s nomadic Rabari people, he explains. “Underneath the Himalayas, they wear wool even in the hottest temperatures. I was intrigued by how we have moved away from wool, while the Rabari just accept it.

A top coat by Zonia Anwaar
A top coat by Zonia Anwaar

“Their skirts and their shawls are all wool. Keeping in mind they are nomads, we introduced an element of functionality into our piece. The slits on the side, for example, we made them higher, to make it easier to walk, and we tried to incorporate the tribal tattoos into small details under the cuffs and in the pockets. The fabric is all hand-loomed and we worked with a weaver who only made carpets and had never done clothes. I could tell if he had a good day or not because the weave would change. It brings a lot of character.”

In the womenswear category, Lebanese label Timi Hayek delivered a deceptively simple bias-cut wool evening gown, while Zonia Anwaar offered an embroidered top coat. Nour Najem worked with disadvantaged women to create a dress that hung in gossamer layers, while Pero’s work utilised skills from traditional hand-workers across India.

The 2017/18 womenswear section was won by Ruchika Sachdeva and her label Bodice. “I worked on this for six months, with a lot of talented artisans in India. We even made the yarn ourselves, and it was hand-spun using a spinning wheel and mixed with a paper yarn. There are a lot of ancient techniques that went into this; the jacket, for example, has the kantha embroidery, a historic style in India for women to recycle their saris into quilts and bedsheets. We worked on the texture to make it stronger and more contemporary.

“The pleating on the skirt is a technique used inside garments to hide the seams, called binding. I have always questioned why we need to hide certain things, so I used it to create lines and give the skirt movement and fluidity. To achieve one pattern, we had to use one of the most ancient techniques, where you lift the warp threads and insert weft threads by hand. There are very few people who can do this, and in the end each line of the pattern is individual, like the leaves of a tree.

“I believe that’s the role of the designer, to bring this beautiful handwork to a global network; to take the work of the artisan and make it modern.”

Winners will receive AU$70,000 (Dh204,050) each in prize money, plus additional mentoring from established industry insiders.The grand finals of the prize will take place in Florence in January, where 12 regional finalists will go head-to-head. Having designed a collection for this round, the pressure is on the entrants to create something equally unique and innovative for the next. With judges including André Leon Talley, former American Vogue editor-at-large, the pressure will be intense. On offer is a prize of AU$200,000 (Dh585,000) and invaluable access to retail networks. In addition, and to acknowledge the highly creative treatments that arise each year, there will be a new prize, the first award for innovation.

Which, perhaps, is IWP’s biggest legacy. As John Roberts explains: “I think people are beginning to understand that there is no bottomless supply of wool, and that it is a pretty special fibre. People now realise they have to look after it, or it will go.

“As processes are becoming automated in many countries, craftsmanship is dissipating, and many regions no longer have that lovely story to tell.”