By  on July 2, 2008

PARIS — Woolmark, the familiar ball-of-wool certification symbol for Australian merino wool, is in for a facelift, namely with the resurrection of the brand's historic Wool Secretariat Award program, now named the Australian Merino Woolmark Prize.

The prize, which famously springboarded the careers of then-young designers Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent in 1954, will be awarded at the Palais de Tokyo here Thursday at an event cohosted by Sonia Rykiel and Australia Wool Innovation. Choosing from 10 knitwear finalists — who include America's Tom Scott, France's Xavier Brisoux and Britain's Louise Goldin — the winner will receive AWI funding and will be carried in Paris fashion boutique Colette.

The fashion happening is one of several merino wool-boosting initiatives AWI has planned. Others include the development of merino wool base layer T-shirts, as well as a revolutionary shower-washable and drip-dryable wool suit. AWI also will act as the official supplier of formal uniforms to the Australian Olympic team.

The nonprofit, Sydney-based organization has several thousand licensees in 70 countries, and acts as a business-to-business middleman for all areas of the merino wool market, from scientific research to the sourcing, fabrication and marketing of garments. According to AWI statistics, close to 50 percent of the world's wool hails from Australia, with Australian merino wool making up 80 percent of the global fine apparel wool supply. Some 95 percent of Australia's merino wool is exported, 65 percent of which goes to China, followed by Japan and the U.S.

Craig Welsh, chief executive officer of AWI, sees reconnecting Woolmark with emerging designers as a vital step toward contemporizing wool, still stigmatized as an itchy, scratchy, granny fabric. "[Our aim] is to position Australian merino wool as an affordable, luxury fiber that is both sustainable and biodegradable," said Welsh.

Rykiel famously changed people's perceptions of wool in the Sixties when her "poor-boy sweater" made the cover of Elle magazine. "I became the queen of knitwear in a day, without knowing anything about knitting!" recalled the designer, who transformed her passion into a small family fashion empire.

"[Wool offers] a sweet protection. It's easy to play with, [highlights] what is beautiful on your body and hides what is less beautiful," Rykiel said. "It is the perfect sexy outfit with nothing under, and the contact of the wool on the skin is the most sensual ever."Prize finalist Annalisa Dunn, a 26-year-old graduate of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, said she believes the resurrection of the prize will open wool up to the designer realm.

Justifying the added value of wool is also part of AWI's campaign, with the market price of merino wool having climbed by 30 percent over the past two years. Factors include a decline in sheep numbers, affected by a recent backlog of wool, as well a spate of droughts in Australia. On average, wool, a niche, premium fabric, costs an estimated three to six times more than cotton or polyester.

But a growing consumer "megatrend" for fabrics that are natural, biodegradable and sustainable has meant that demand for merino wool is now keeping up with, if not outstripping, supply, according to Welsh. "Part of the increase in demand is also due to the fact that people are educated that it's a trans-seasonal fabric that is not winter-centric," he said, adding that emerging markets are also starting to show interest.

Wool represents 3 percent of the global textile market, compared with cotton's 30 percent share. "Merino wool is making its way into designer brands as it fills the green and performance criteria," he said.

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