The reality of life on an Australian or New Zealand sheep farm couldn't be further removed - literally or figuratively - from the luxurious world of Italian high fashion.
But without access to the world's finest merino wool, Italy's famed fabric makers wouldn't be nearly as successful.
It was appropriate that Italian textile and apparel giant Loro Piana held its annual awards dinner last Friday night at Werribee Mansion on Melbourne's western fringe, a historic property built by wealthy sheep farmers adopting Italianate-style architecture.
The prize up for grabs was the title of the finest bale of wool produced in Australia and New Zealand over the previous 12 months. This year it was a Victorian farm, Pyrenees Park, that took out the prize with a 100kg bale made up of fibres of just 11 microns, or one millionth of a metre, in diameter (a human hair is, on average, 100 microns).
The record bale, which is consistently bought by Loro Piana, this year fetched an eye-watering $4000 per kilo.
And while the knowledge behind growing ultra-fine wool is developing at a rate of knots, the real interest at the award ceremony was not in how the wool was grown, but in what it will produce. Namely, the world's most exclusive suit fabric.
Add together the ingredients of world's best quality, true scarcity and demand, and you get the perfect formula for creating pure luxury.
With the record bale producing enough fabric for only 40 suits, the finished product is highly sought after, and priced accordingly at between $15,000 and $30,000 per suit.
Who will be fortunate enough to own one? Loro Piana's deputy chairman, Pier Luigi Loro Piana, won't be drawn on who his customers are, except to say that they are "very demanding and sophisticated men".
"There are some men that want really the best of every year," he says. "We have customers who have a collection which starts from 1996."
Worth the wait
However, money alone won't get you a suit crafted from the world's finest wool bale. With existing customers having the right of first refusal each year, an aspiring owner has to wait until someone passes on the opportunity – possibly through lack of space in the wardrobe.
Although demand for suits made from luxuriously fine merino wool shows no sign of abating, the Australian wool industry, which dominates global supply of fine apparel wool, understands it has more work to do to promote its natural fineness and luxury to younger generations raised wearing thick, prickly school jumpers.
The 'Merino Wool. No Finer Feeling' campaign launched last year targets discerning customers with the message that merino wool is the fibre of choice for leading designers and premium apparel brands.
The industry's goal is to increase wool sales by 1 million kilograms by 2016, with China's growing luxury-seeking middle class firmly in its sights.
A technical distinction
However, the continued popularity of synthetic fibres, especially amongst younger people, is leading the Woolmark Company, and its research and development arm, Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), to explore other apparel uses for wool, says Woolmark/AWI chief executive Stuart McCullough.
"Tailored apparel, that market segment is well looked after, but certainly AWI and the Woolmark Company is very keen to present wool as a technical textile as well, which is at the other extreme," he says.
"We see the other side of the ledger being technical textiles, presented as something that can be worn everyday in a technical environment [where people are] skiing, hiking, fishing, cycling and [performing] extreme sports. So we are doing work in that space and so is Loro Piana, for that matter.
"They have got some storm system fabrics and some very interesting technical textiles that are suited to those particular endeavours … we think that if you can achieve that and position wool in that market, then all the rest between the tailored and the technical will look after itself."
The Milan connection
Even so, it is the Australian wool that returns from Italy in the form of suits, jackets and other fashion apparel that continues to ignite the passions and open the wallets of discerning Australian consumers.
Marco Maria Cerbo, the Italian Consul General in Melbourne, says fashion exports from Italy to Australia increased by 16 per cent in the first six months of 2014 compared to the first six months of the previous year.
"We are experiencing a good moment for Italian big brands here in Victoria … major brands like Gucci and Zegna are opening new shops," he says.
Smaller Italian brands are also feeling a halo effect, Cerbo says, adding the sister city relationship between Milan and Melbourne - which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary - is of key significance.
"It is helping because it is giving visibility to the fact that Melbourne is home to a thriving local fashion industry."