Prove­nance is no longer the pre­serve of food­food, fine art anand wine, writes Clare Press. Now fi­bre is getting in on the act.


Prove­nance is no longer the pre­serve of food, fine art and wine: now fi­bre is getting in on the act.

Cate Blanchett strides across the stage in cropped cream woollen Stella McCart­ney trousers and a match­ing coat. (“I wish I hadn’t worn this dress …” thinks ev­ery other woman at La Scala this evening.) “It gives me par­tic­u­lar plea­sure,” says Blanchett, “to present tonight’s Eco Stew­ard­ship Award to a group of peo­ple who are gen­uinely lead­ing the sus­tain­abil­ity charge, and in an as­pect of the fash­ion in­dus­try that is foun­da­tional: the pro­duc­tion of merino wool.”

Tas­ma­nian wool­grow­ers Vanessa and Matt Dun­babin, and Vic­to­ri­ans Jenny and Richard Weatherly, ap­proach the stage to col­lect their Green Car­pet Fash­ion Award – they’re wear­ing Akubra hats with their evening dress. It’s a pinch-me mo­ment, one that makes you proud to call Aus­tralia home. They come rep­re­sent­ing all the other wool­grow­ers, Richard Weatherly ex­plains, “who have shown re­mark­able stew­ard­ship of their coun­try … [and] want to pre­serve this won­der­ful land for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions”.

Now, this is some starry crowd. Donatella Ver­sace, Elle Macpher­son, Suzy Menkes and Diesel’s Renzo Rosso have all been given gongs, doled out by the likes of Cindy Craw­ford, Ju­lianne Moore, Valentino’s Pier­paolo Pic­ci­oli and Gucci’s CEO Marco Biz­zarri. To see the farm­ers in their bush hats be­ing feted in these sur­round­ings brings a tear to the eye.

Asked later if such ro­man­ti­cism might be jus­ti­fied, Matt Dun­babin says: “I get that feel­ing some­times my­self be­cause of the his­tory of our prop­erty, and the idea of us be­ing cus­to­di­ans of the land.” Ban­gor, on the Forestier Penin­sula in Tas­ma­nia’s south-east, has been in his fam­ily for five gen­er­a­tions. Merino have grazed there for 130 years. “It is emo­tional be­cause it’s our life. It’s not the sort of job you can put aside af­ter 6pm.”

While Tas­ma­nia has es­caped the worst of it, much of east­ern Aus­tralia is stricken by drought. In Oc­to­ber, Prince Charles, who is Global Pa­tron of the Cam­paign for Wool, wrote to farm­ers ex­press­ing his great sad­ness over “per­haps the worst drought on record in the wool-grow­ing re­gions”. That wool prices are strong due to re­stricted sup­ply is small con­so­la­tion to those who’ve had to re­duce their flocks. “As a sheep farmer my­self,” wrote the Prince, “I can­not be­gin to imag­ine the an­guish that those of you who have been af­fected by this cli­matic tragedy must be fac­ing.”

Richard Weatherly has seen it all be­fore. In the early 1980s, their prop­erty near Mort­lake was se­verely im­pacted by drought; they were watch­ing their pre­cious soil turn to dust and blow away. Their so­lu­tion was to re-for­est. They’ve since planted about a mil­lion trees. To­day their son and his wife run the prop­erty, and Richard and Jenny talk about re­spect­ful co­ex­is­tence with na­ture, both to en­sure the wel­fare and com­fort of the sheep and that the land con­tin­ues to be fruit­ful. “In a world in­creas­ingly dom­i­nated by self­ish­ness and greed, we have a moral re­spon­si­bil­ity to pre­serve the land­scape,” they say.

Livia Firth, founder and cre­ative di­rec­tor of Eco-Age and the driv­ing force be­hind the Green Car­pet Awards, vis­ited the Dun­babins to make a short film with Wool­mark. “I learned so much,” she says. “I used to take wool for granted; it was fa­mil­iar, you know? Like cof­fee and pasta, some­thing that I grew up with [in Italy]. What is the name in English of the car­toon dog? Snoopy? And Char­lie al­ways has the blan­ket? It was like that. Com­fort­ing. Of course, I also un­der­stood wool in the fash­ion sense, as a high-qual­ity fab­ric, but now I view it dif­fer­ently.”

Firth says she sees wool as “a sus­tain­able way for the fash­ion in­dus­try to part­ner with the eco-sys­tem. The grow­ers, they re­ally care about their an­i­mals and the land, they ex­ist in bal­ance with these things by act­ing as cus­to­di­ans. The prob­lem with so many of us to­day is that we’re not cus­to­di­ans. If we were, we wouldn’t treat the en­vi­ron­ment like we do.”

The Dun­babins, who also grow grapes on their prop­erty, say ur­ban­i­sa­tion means con­sumers are in­creas­ingly dis­as­so­ci­ated from the source of the things that they eat, drink and wear. They’re right. A Bri­tish par­lia­men­tar­ian was telling me re­cently about some kids in London who asked what the green bits were on a car­rot; they had no idea that car­rots grew in soil. When we don’t see pro­cesses with our own eyes, don’t plant and har­vest our food or fi­bre, and, more­over, don’t know any­one who does; it’s easy to be­come un­teth­ered from prove­nance. How many fash­ion fans re­ally un­der­stand where their tex­tiles come from? How they were pro­duced and at what en­vi­ron­men­tal or so­cial cost?

But it works both ways, says Matt Dun­babin. “The farm is a very dif­fer­ent place to La Scala. I’m stat­ing the ob­vi­ous but the point is we don’t or­di­nar­ily get a sense of the fash­ion in­dus­try that we are a part of ei­ther. And we are a part of it. I think it’s in­cum­bent on pro­duc­ers to get our sto­ries out there in or­der to re­con­nect us all.”

His tim­ing is good. In fash­ion’s new era of sus­tain­abil­ity, ev­ery­one is look­ing for an an­gle, whether it be busi­ness-with-pur­pose, sup­ply chain trans­parency, pre­serv­ing craft or us­ing eco-friendly fab­rics. Prove­nance is gain­ing trac­tion. We want to know where our tex­tiles come from.

Paolo Zegna, of Ital­ian lux­ury menswear gi­ant Ermenegildo Zegna, has been work­ing with Aus­tralian merino for decades. In 2014 the brand ac­quired a stake of a wool-grow­ing prop­erty Achill in Ar­mi­dale. Zegna says sus­tain­abil­ity has al­ways been cen­tral to wool’s ap­peal, along with dura­bil­ity, qual­ity and her­itage. “Wool is unique,” he says, “it is re­new­able and nat­u­ral. It needs only wa­ter, grass and sun­shine to grow. We some­times still hear peo­ple talk­ing about how the con­sump­tion of wa­ter is enor­mous, but the evo­lu­tion of tech­nol­ogy has re­ally made the clean­ing and fin­ish­ing of wool much more ef­fi­cient and sus­tain­able to­day.”

“If you re­ally care about sus­tain­abil­ity, you will judge a fi­bre cra­dle to grave, not cra­dle to gate,” says Stuart McCul­lough, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Wool­mark Com­pany. “Re­cy­cled poly doesn’t re­ally fix the prob­lem be­cause of the en­ergy and chem­i­cals re­quired to re­con­sti­tute it, then there’s mir­cofi­bre pol­lu­tion and the fact that it doesn’t biode­grade. You can bury a wool gar­ment in your gar­den and it will re­turn to the earth.” As Prince Charles fa­mously did at Clarence House. His Royal High­ness buried a syn­thetic jumper too, then came back with the cam­eras, six months later, to dig them both up. The wool one was de­com­pos­ing nicely; the syn­thetic one good as new.

“The fash­ion in­dus­try is re­spond­ing to Gen Y and Gen Z’s in­creas­ing in­ter­est in where fi­bre comes from, how it was made, and where it’s go­ing to end up af­ter they dis­pose of it,” says McCul­lough.

Lux­ury brands like Zegna, Chris­tian Dior and Stella McCart­ney have long been smit­ten with the fi­bre, which lends it­self so beau­ti­fully to tai­lor­ing and sculpt­ing. But wool is now reach­ing a younger, edgier crowd, who are re-imag­in­ing its uses.

Syd­ney de­signer Ma­rina Afon­ina’s la­bel Al­bus Lu­men is short-listed this year’s International Wool­mark Prize. “I don’t re­late to those old heavy, for­mal, Euro­pean aes­thet­ics,” she says. “Our way of us­ing wool is a non­tra­di­tional, light way. It can be eas­ily used in sum­mer and for warmer cli­mates. I cre­ate pieces for a woman who trav­els around the world. I’m think­ing in Greece or the desert. That’s where I’m see­ing wool.”

Oth­ers are at­tracted by its per­for­mance qual­i­ties. “Merino wool has pos­si­bly the best qual­i­ties of any fab­ric for ac­tivewear,” says Pip Ed­wards, who with Claire Tre­go­ning de­signs of Aus­tralian ath­leisure leader P.E Na­tion. “It’s sweat-wick­ing, odour­less, tem­per­a­ture-reg­u­lat­ing and holds its shape,” they say. “Ab­so­lutely wool can be street,” adds Ed­wards.

“These young de­sign­ers are chang­ing the con­ver­sa­tion,” says Firth, who is on the Wool­mark Prize judg­ing panel. She cites Amer­i­can de­signer Christo­pher Be­vans of Dyne, who won the 2018 in­no­va­tion prize. “He’s a young guy, su­per-hip, his aes­thetic is very skate. He looked at the fi­bre through the whole chain from farm to prod­uct, via the mills in Italy, and he tells that story through tech.” Be­van em­bed­ded NFC chips into his snow­board­ing pieces so that to track users in avalanches. “There are no fab­ric la­bels in his gar­ments,” says Firth. “You just scan [them] to get all the in­for­ma­tion about the fab­ric and the make on your phone. He is of­fer­ing a way to look at prove­nance that is to­tally mod­ern.”

Richard and Jenny Weatherly (left) and Vanessa and Matt Dun­babin (right) re­ceive the 2018 Green Car­pet Eco Stew­ard­ship Award from Cate Blanchett at La Scala, on the clos­ing night of Mi­lan Fash­ion Week.

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