When Italian luxury label Ermenegildo Zegna purchased a stake in the historic Achill Farm in Armidale, New South Wales, no one could have guessed how hard the subsequent three years would be.
Zegna learnt the harsh truth about Australian farming. Its 6300-acre property was hit by a debilitating drought, forcing a decision to "tighten the belts", according to Chairman Paolo Zegna, and test every hope he and sixth-generation wool grower Charlie Coventry had for the property.
The idea was to become the only fashion company to become fully integrated from sheep to shopPaolo Zegna
But it seems that things are finally taking a turn for the pair. Whether by providence or luck, Fairfax Media's arrival at the property Saturday morning happened to coincide with the region's single biggest rain event in four years.
"As farmers, this is really exciting for us," says Coventry. "It's really put a smile on our faces. Especially over the past four years, we have really been dogged sideways. What we started with in this joint venture has really been a challenge but we continued with our investment."
While this may have prevented the farm from hitting the ground running, according to Zegna it did allow for three solid years of preparation and auditing of process.
"We started to buy new rams, better quality rams, to know what kind of wool we wanted to get for the property," Zegna says. "We worked on the genetics, on the breeding, taking care of the welfare of the animal and increasing water reserves, a new paddock for cattle – all things which we believed would put us in a much better situation, when the drought ends.
Achill is home to 10,000 sheep (and 1000 cattle), and the property, which the Coventry family has been involved in since the town's early beginnings, is now looking to become ground zero in the reinvigoration of the wool industry and finding new and improved methods of wool farming in Australia.
"A small test," Zegna says.
"A lovely jewel, hopefully, in the entire organisation of the company. It will be a place to improve our learning curve and experiment, grow better fibres. It's to find the right mix of animals, particularly sheep, and always find the right wool."
Currently, wool being produced at Achill is weighing about 16 microns, which, while still in the top ranges of wool quality in Australia, is not quite fine enough to make it into the coveted top 10 of the annual Zegna Wool Awards (which were held in Melbourne on Friday) that earns a guaranteed spot within the Zegna storehouse of merino wool.
But aside from guaranteeing that Zegna would have local access to what the company declares is the best wool in the world, the decision to purchase Achill was to "close the circle" as it were.
"The idea was to become the only fashion company to become fully integrated from sheep to shop," says Zegna.
Although Zegna points out that while Achill will supply some of the company's demand, the intention was never for it to become a sole supplier. Demand for product is too high – overall consumption of Zegna products in wool is equivalent to half a million kilograms and at Achill the average yield is up to 20,000 kilos. But he hopes that, after seeing what he and Coventry do at Achill, their relationship could inspire other farmers and goad the improvement of Australian wool.
But will it be enough to reinvigorate the industry, which has seen an increasing number of farmers walk away from the land due to lack of funding, support or crippling environmental conditions?
"I think having Achill is more about being here in front of a lot of wool growers," Zegna muses. "It is to show that through a careful management of the company, we can demonstrate that the industry is still viable and can be continued for generations. Many people were compelled to abandon [the industry] and we would like Achill to strike a balance where we can be an example to others."