Menswear designer Blair Archibald wins the 2017 Woolmark Prize

Re-use. Recycle. Repurpose. That's the message to be taken from the Australia and New Zealand winners of the coveted Woolmark Prize announced this week.

Melbourne-based designer Blair Archibald took home the menswear spot with a look that placed utilitarian wearability and sustainability centre stage, while New Zealand label Harman Grubiša took home womenswear.

A former New Zealander himself, Archibald presented a look that, while emphasising the importance of recycling in an industry that's become synonymous with excess, maintained a polished finish that you'd expect from Savile Row.

Eco, but cool

"My angle or philosophy really came through, I think, in the sustainable part of the competition," says Archibald.

"I wanted to reconfigure the way we see wool because it's such a renewable textile and part of that was to showcase sustainability in a refined, fresh, modern and clean way, rather than the stereotypical idea of it being a bit naff and all 'eco'."

Archibald's piece de resistance was a coat made from a combination of repurposed wool military blankets, recycled wool fibre and plastic bottles – compressed into a yarn so fine that the final product had a cashmere-like softness.

The judge's call

Stuart McCullough from the Woolmark Company says business savvy was just as important as creativity when deciding the winners.

"We select a really diverse panel of judges who critique according to their discipline, but for me a solid sense of business acumen is really important." he explains.

"These designers start small but they have to be prepared to move on to bigger things, with orders coming in from huge, international stores."


Supporting local industry

But it's not just the designers who gain from these awards. Australian farmers and woolgrowers reap the benefits of both local and international coverage that comes from the competition.

"These awards are incredibly important for the farmers," says McCullough.

"About 90 per cent of the world's wool apparel comes from Australian wool growers. These awards help boost the profile of farmers, and the value of their product and build a strong profile in the northern hemisphere. As marketing strategies go, you couldn't ask for a better one."

Slow fashion in the fast lane

For Archibald – a strong believer in slow fashion and small batch – it's a challenge to make changes at ground level.

"The conversation, really, will be about why these companies will be interested in purchasing my product to begin with," offers Archibald.

"You can't be pulled into a brand because of the sustainable philosophy it has and then go and expect it to produce all these units on a scale that contradicts the vision in the first place. I think these stockists will be more interested in the philosophy than just how they look on the website."

Next stop, Florence

For both Archibald and Grubiša, the next step is to create a complete capsule collection made using merino wool, which will then be unveiled at the final event held in Florence.

"We haven't had an Aussie or a New Zealander win yet," rues McCullough.

"But we've had some really hot candidates such as Dion Lee represent. I think this year, it could be very interesting."