What International Woolmark Prize judges say about 2016/17 winners Gabriela Hearst and Cottweiler

A great story about growing up on a sheep farm in Uruguay, as well as beautiful clothes that show off wool’s qualities, helped Hearst to womenswear prize

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 January, 2017, 3:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 February, 2017, 5:33pm

Charm and a great life story, as much as her beautiful merino wool designs, lay behind the victory of Gabriela Hearst in the womenswear finals of this year’s International Woolmark Prize in Paris. And the fact she didn’t “lose it ... in front of people like Victoria Beckham”, one of this year’s judges, says Stuart McCullough, managing director of the Woolmark Company which awards the annual prizes.

Along with Hearst, British label Cottweiler was named winner of the menswear prize.

The prizes, awarded since the 1950s to promote Australian merino wool, are one of fashion’s most global and most prestigious. Both winners receive cash prizes of A$100,000 (HK$590,000) mentoring by industry leaders, Woolmark certification for their winning collections and the chance to have their clothes stocked in leading boutiques and department stores including Hong Kong’s Lane Crawford.

The annual prize challenges young designers to study wool and use it in ways that push its boundaries and capabilities. That certainly applied to Hearst’s winning collection, which used wool fibre so fine – just 14.5 microns thick – even McCullough confessed he’d never seen the like before.

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Hearst’s winning line-up of wearable pieces included an off-the-shoulder, button-down long dress, worn over a fine long-sleeve knit, a pleated skirt and bomber, as well as a gorgeous trench. There was a Celine-like purity and streamlined beauty about pieces that wanted to combine “the utilitarian and the beautiful” for slower, lasting fashion that doesn’t just follow trends. All in all, sophisticated looks that you would wear instantly out onto the streets.

“Her whole thing was about understanding that merino wool should be next to your skin, and using this ultra-fine merino that is so light and luxurious,” said one of the judges, Lane Crawford’s chief brand officer Joanna Gunn, “It’s about really understanding the modern woman.”

Gunn said the Uruguay-born Hearst’s “passion and understanding” had helped her beat the likes of Toton from Indonesia, Faustine Steinmetz from Britain and Germany’s Tim Labenda. “She shared a very emotional story about how she grew up on a sheep farm. I think she has a real finesse and talked about how the collection goes from day to night and how it travels.”

For McCullough, Hearst was a clear winner because of her “genuinely beautiful, great quality” designs but, again, because “she had a great story, and we really want to pick people who will succeed as a business as well as having great creative talent. It looks bad for us if our winners fail in the long run.”

Some of the candidates, he said, “kind of lose it when they’re standing in front of people like Victoria Beckham”. But Hearst was well practiced, charming, did a great presentation and had the models walk up and down to show how outfits moved.

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Hearst had already been in design for a decade in New York before launching her label in 2015, but has unique understanding of wool fibre from growing up on her father’s sheep ranch, making her the perfect Woolmark ambassador.

“She has a great seduction, I loved her personality,” said another of the judges, Bouchra Jarrar of Lanvin, “but I don’t want to forget some other candidates who were really good too.”

Hearst and Cottweiler were selected from 12 regional finalists, winnowed down from 75 entrants hailing from more than 40 countries. Jarrar said: “If it had been up to me I would have awarded three candidates. The level was very high and interesting for a couple of them. {The judges] exchanged a lot to get the winning results. My priority is to celebrate creativity and the development of the product – that’s the key to success, you always have to be in reality.”

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Like Hearst, Cottweiler is a label that has already had exposure – in this case in Europe. The Cottweiler designers, British pair Ben Cottrell and Matthew Dainty, beat the likes of Münn from South Korea, Tonsure from Denmark and Ex Infinitas from Australia in the menswear contest, which was judged by

Imran Khan, founder of Business of Fashion; W Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Stefano Tonchi, and Jefferson Hack, CEO & founder of Dazed Media.

“Apparently they were a clear winner here,” said McCullough, of Cottweiler’s innovative line of athletic, street-inspired fashion. The label drew praise for its concept, forward-thinking design and manufacturing.

The prize money both labels won will help them develop, but the real value of a win is the international prestige and exposure to retailers and their clients. Sales are the ultimate goal here, after all.