Australian farmers overcome drought to win big at annual Ermenegildo Zegna Wool Awards

Adversity is something Australian farmers are familiar with on extreme levels. But it's their unending resilience in the face of such tests that was celebrated at the 56th edition of Ermenegildo Zegna's Wool Awards, held at Luminare in Melbourne and presented by Paolo Zegna, president of the Zegna Group.

NSW-based farmers David and Angie Waters took out top spot for the Superfine Wool Trophy for the third year running, and Victoria's David and Susan Rowbottom – who hold the world record for the finest merino wool at 9.9 microns – were named winners of the Vellus Aureum Trophy with a 10.2 micron fleece to give them their fifth win in six years.

But these achievements weren't without their struggles, with prolonged dry weather conditions seeing an overall reduction in the quantity of wool produced in 2018.

"The reduction was more than 12 per cent, almost 13 per cent in other areas," explains Mr Zegna, "and due to heavy drought some areas hit almost 20 per cent."

But Mr Zegna sees this as an opportunity for the wool industry to learn, both on a consumer and a corporate level.

"Everybody, starting from companies such as Zegna, right through to the wool growers on the production side, must be aligned with each other so we can continue to make wool appreciated in the market ... to see it as a beautiful fibre for a new generation."

Seeing wool as a natural resource is no longer enough. Mr Zegna's, and by extension the Zegna Group's, belief is that wool needs to be seen for what it really is – as a precious fibre.

Wool, like any organic substance, is entirely dependent on the climate for its continued production. Reframing it in terms normally reserved for materials such as gold is a reminder that its production can be finite should conditions no longer be conducive.

This attitude towards wool, Mr Zegna suggests, is one that is generational.

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"My generation has always lived with wool, whereas the younger generation has gone into other fibres and is only now moving back to it.

"It is a precious fibre that everyone should appreciate especially since we are better armed to show where wool comes from; and how it grows with the wool growers and how complicated the chain of production is. I think there is a lot to tell the customers and really sustain wool as a major industry."

In part, this also involves maintaining a strong international demand for wool, driven by smart marketing and campaigns as much as ongoing education on the fibre itself.

"The best we can do is, aside from recognising Australian farmers for their work with the Wool Awards, is continue to evolve and innovate from the company side," says Mr Zegna.

"So we try to feed the demand and keep it growing and to make beautiful things on the other end, telling the customers why we use wool and making them appreciate the quality of the wool we use in our product. And this is something that every manufacturer who uses wool should be doing."

Zegna's relationship with Australian wool dates back to the early 1900s, when Australian wool growers were first contacted by the Zegna family to use their fibres in what are arguably some of the best suits in the world.

It's a relationship that was further cemented in 2016 when Zegna purchased a stake in their own sheep farm – a 6300-acre property located in NSW's New England region that currently houses 10,000 sheep.

This acquisition made Zegna the first fully integrated brand that could boast control of every step of the fabrication process and last year saw the release of their line of suiting using Achill wool.

"The response [to Achill wool] has been very good! Obviously the story behind the suit added elements to it ... but people really appreciated the fact that they had something which was entirely made within the Zegna production chain," Mr Zegna says.

"And the fact you could tell them about Achill and where the farm is ... It had a reality and beautiful story that people seemed to like very much."

It's an achievement that cannot be overstated as Achill sits in one of the regions most affected by the ongoing drought. But it's a struggle that Mr Zegna believes has provided a valuable lesson.

"The lesson we have taken is that, in one way or another, we need to be prepared.

"And these droughts which, thanks to climate change, happened maybe once in six or seven years are now happening more often. If the drought's are coming more frequently, and the rains are more rare but quite strong when they happen – we have to find a way to collect the water and the rain to be used during dry periods. What we aim is to study ways to manage your farm in order to have the best possible growth."