Wool farming is a glamorous business. Or at least it is if the well-dressed crew who attended the gala dinner at the Melbourne Victoria Museum for the annual Ermenegildo Zegna Wool Awards are any indication. In the words of the company's chairman himself, Paolo Zegna, imagine the Oscars, but for the sheep industry (and thus far more interesting folk), and you're getting close.
A long tradition
Established in 1963 – incidentally also making it the oldest of its kind its kind in the world – the Wool Awards were created by the Italian luxury brand to reward Australian (and New Zealand) wool farmers for their dedication to producing quality fibres. And to make sure that Ermenegildo Zegna continued to have access to only the best, finest and softest, merino wool available.
In 2002, to recognise the leaps being made in wool technology, Zegna launched the Vellus Aureum Trophy (Golden Fleece), a global award for wool of 13.9 microns (one millionth of a metre) and finer.
Judging is strict, with the selected harvests measured for trueness to type, colour (or "bloom"), density and character and conformity of length. The complexity of these principles might be lost on many, but the results of these have meant that Zegna remains as the pinnacle merino manufacturers.
Among the crowds
It's hard not to notice that the crowd is an incongruous mix of fashion pack, designers and industry insiders. But the focus, for once, isn't on them but the real people propelling the luxury fashion industry into the future – the farmers.
And more poignant is the support and camaraderie they have for, and with, each other.
Winners of the Superfine Wool Trophy, fifth generation wool farmer David and Angie Waters, admitted that it's the love for the industry, not the accolades or even profit, that drives him.
"The industry isn't that profitable as far as enterprises go but I do love it," he chuckled, still high on the adrenalin of taking out the coveted spot.
"A lot of people are leaving the industry because they might not find it that profitable but there's nothing else I would do, it's what gets me up in the morning and I really do love everything about it.
A competitive edge
The event itself isn't all champagne and trophies (although they're present) either, but a high stakes competition. The best lots of wool from the 10 prestigious finalists are purchased by Ermenegildo Zegna at a 50% premium over the market price. And for the winner of the much-coveted Vellus Aureum Trophy – for wool 13.9 microns and finer - is the recipient of 750 grams of gold.
And competition is fierce. For the Vellus Aureum, the difference between winning can come down to a literal millionth of a metre.
David and Susan Rowbottom, from St Helens in Victoria, took out the Vellus Aureum Trophy with a fibre weight of 10.7 microns. Their fourth win in this category, in 2016 they broke the world record with a wool that weighed in at 9.8 microns.
While Waters admits that the Superfine category is a little broader in it what it takes into account, there's no denying that the smallest detail can be make or break. Factors not even the host, Paolo Zegna, can escape.
"He entered the competition as well!" confesses Waters.
"It's definitely not easy to win!"