Christian Wijnants wins the International Woolmark Prize

hugh stewart/australian wool innovation
Congratulations are due to Belgium's Christian Wijnants, who has just been awarded the International Woolmark Prize in London. Competing against finalists from five other countries - Dion Lee, Sophie Theallet, DressedUndressed, Pankaj& Nidhi and Ban Xiao Xue - Wijnants was awarded the AUD 100,000 grand prize by a prestigious judging panel that included Diane von Furstenberg, Donatella Versace, Victoria Beckham and Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani. Wijnants' Australian merino capsule collection will now head into production and be stocked by international retailers including Bergdorf Goodman in New York, London's Harvey Nichols, Milan's 10 Corso Como, China's Joyce, Germany's Eickoff and Australia's David Jones.  

The Woolmark prize purse will obviously help with Wijnants' overheads. 

But the real value of winning this competition is priceless really. In an earlier incarnation, under the auspices of the International Wool Secretariat, this is the same competition that launched the careers of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld in Paris in 1954. 

Unlike Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld, however, 34 year-old Wijnants was already well on the radar of the international fashion industry prior to even winning the competition's European final in July last year. A graduate of Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Wijnants worked for fellow Belgian Dries van Noten and Angelo Tarlazzi in Paris, before launching his own brand in 2003. Considering the fact that his brand is 10 years old and that he has presented his collection in Paris for over 18 seasons, some might question his eligibility for entry for the competition. 

Australians will no doubt be disappointed that their much younger compatriot Dion Lee did not take home the grand prize. Many predicted he would. Presumably it might not have been such a great look for an Australian to win the first round of such a high profile Australian competition - and hopefully Lee can re-enter the next round, the 2014 regional finals for which will take place around July. 

But Lee and all the other Woolmark contestants have already benefitted enormously from the publicity generated by this event. They have the good fortune of arriving on the world stage at the same moment that the Australian wool industry has renewed marketing efforts after two decades of poor prices, drought and, more recently, the public relations disaster of the mulesing debacle, which pitted Australian woolgrowers against the People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals - and spooked a number of international retailers. 

Australian Wool Innovation has been spending up a storm in marketing over the past three years via a myriad of international advertising campaigns, efforts that have apparently not gone unnoticed by woolgrowers. Late last year, the latter voted to devote yet more resources to marketing, essentially upping AWI's marketing budget by 56percent over the next three years to AUD 54million. Considering that wool prices hit a record high of 1,436 cents a kilo clean on the benchmark AWEX Eastern Market Indicator in the first half of 2011 and continue to hover above the 10-year average - and with at least one analyst on the record that prices may well have been impacted by the industry's renewed marketing efforts - who could blame them. 

In a recent interview, AWI chief executive officer Stuart McCullough revealed that the International Woolmark Prize had a first year budget of AUD 800,000, but had already recouped over AUD 10million worth of publicity according to analysts Media Monitors and Cision. The AWI board has committed to run the competition for four years, but given its success, it may well continue after that according to McCullough.

As part of its three-year, AUD 20million 'No Finer Feeling' campaign, AWI has also partnered with over 30 international brands and designers, from Marc Jacobs to Giorgio Armani, Vivienne Westwood and Narciso Rodriguez, not to mention the international editions of Vogue, in which AWI has become a major advertiser. High profile fashion writers Tim Blanks and Colin McDowell have also become paid wool ambassadors - Blanks as the author of seasonal trend reports for AWI's website and McDowell as a consultant. 

Once the backbone of the Australian economy, but long since eclipsed by other sectors such as mining, the wool industry still nevertheless generated AUD 2.68billion worth of export sales in the 2011-2012 financial year. 

That's a lot of resources to throw behind the promotion of talented emerging designers. 


all images: hugh stewart, supplied by australian wool innovation