Nuevo Culture

The 2021 International Woolmark Prize Will Focus on Sustainability and Supply Chain Innovations—Meet the Six Finalists Here

The International Woolmark Prize has been fashion’s foremost award for emerging designers since 1954, when Karl Lagerfeld became its first winner. Six decades later, the IWP has evolved in step with fashion, but perhaps never more so than in the past few years. While the concept remains the same—young designers are tasked with creating a full collection using Australian merino wool—it’s recently become an exercise in sustainability, responsible sourcing, and traceability. Consider the past five winners, all designers known for their commitments to people and planet: Gabriela Hearst in 2017; Bodice’s Ruchika Sachdeva in 2018; Nicole and Michael Colovos in 2019; and Richard Malone in February of 2020, just weeks before the pandemic locked down Europe. Malone’s ideas about upcycling, regenerative agriculture, and made-to-order fashion felt genuinely radical, and he’s since become one of the industry’s leading voices on sustainability.

The six finalists for the 2021 International Woolmark Prize are similarly bold thinkers: Bethany Williams, Casablanca’s Charaf Tajer, Kenneth Ize, Marie-Eve Lecavalier, Thebe Magugu, and Matty Bovan. They were selected from a group of 380 applicants across 55 countries by an advisory council including Naomi Campbell, Vogue’s Sarah Mower, Sinéad Burke, Livia Firth, and Carlos Nazario.

Over the next few months, the designers will create Australian merino wool collections and present them to the judges in the spring of 2021—though the customary runway show at London Fashion Week is TBD, given the uncertainties around COVID-19. Whether it’s a physical or virtual event, this year’s competition is unique in that it is challenging designers to consider both sustainability and the implications of a pandemic. Working on the collections this winter may add an additional challenge as cities around the world enter their second lockdowns.

Each designer will interpret those challenges in different ways. Their own definitions of “sustainability” vary greatly: For Casablanca’s Tajer, it comes down to organic materials, timeless designs, and re-educating the customer about value. “We must fight against fast fashion and to create clothes that people can give to their child and have a longer life,” he says. “If we keep consuming for one season only, we will continue to damage the environment.”

In Nigeria, Ize is dedicated to keeping the Aso Oke weaving tradition alive, and has built workshops that employ and support weavers and their families. “Social impact is of utmost importance to us,” he says. “Our hope is to create opportunities and resources that build our weaving communities. We believe it is our duty to invest into our local artisans to ensure we sustain the longevity of this beautiful ancient craft for generations to come.”

In South Africa, Magugu is similarly passionate about local production. “I’m from a place that grapples deeply with socio-political issues and where unemployment stood at a staggering 30% [rate] before COVID-19. So keeping production local is how I can contribute to that in my own capacity,” he says. “This also leads me into areas like upcycling, because I am trying to utilize the resources I have in a local capacity, doubly preserving ideas of craft and handwork local artisans have been doing for years.”

Williams is known for her inventive upcycling, but also spoke of the need to break free from the traditional fashion system and drive real change: “My practice reflects the concepts of positive critique and alternative systems, looking toward designers providing their own system to evoke change within a community, rather than using those that are already established…. [and] creating a new business model that gives back to charitable and social causes and supports local craftsmanship.”

Nearly every designer spoke of creating less, too, which reflects the theme of this year’s competition, “Less is more.” Matty Bovan uses everything from vintage Fiorucci samples to deadstock denim to create his small-batch, limited-edition collections, but says the IWP will strengthen his knowledge of traceability and sourcing. “Exploring fabrics and yarns from different mills and factories has been interesting, and as merino is such a versatile fibre, it’s been really exciting [to work with],” he says. “Traceability has always been very important to me, and I have always found it key to understanding who we work with and where they are in the world. I try to work with artisans with hand skills, and I myself try to make and treat a lot of textiles in-house. I like the touch of the hand on everything that comes under Matty Bovan.”

Marie-Eve Lecavalier, the founder of Lecavalier in Canada, also hopes to gain a better understanding of traceability through Woolmark. “I hope to learn that from a small to big scale, sustainability and traceability will be feasible and crucial within the fashion industry,” she says. “Woolmark has been able to grow and strengthen clear values and principles around their sourcing process. This is a great example for the rest of the industry to follow… I aim to get to this level of transparency through everything I do.”

Next spring, one finalist will be awarded with the grand prize of $200,000 AUD to invest in their business, and another will receive the Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation and $100,000 AUD. There will also be a third, brand-new award in 2021: the Supply Chain Award “celebrating outstanding contribution from a trade partner to drive awareness for wool supply chain innovation.” The finalists will also have the opportunity to stock their collections in IWP retail partners, including, Ssense, Browns, and Net-a-Porter.