FARM TO FASHION
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.