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CEO Australian Wool Innovation Ltd.
The mercerisation process for Merino wool will continue to exert its importance.
Stuart McCullough, Chief Executive Officer of Australian Wool Innovation Ltd/The Woolmark Company, talks about new developments in the Australian Merino wool industry and the growing use of wool in luxury apparel, in an exclusive interview with Fibre2Fashion Correspondent Ilin Mathew.
Established in 2001 by the Australian Federal Government and wool industry, Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) is a not-for-profit company owned by more than 25,000 Australian wool levy payers who have registered as AWI shareholders. The company invests in R&D and marketing along the global supply chain for wool to enhance the profitability, international competitiveness, sustainability and demand for Australian wool.
AWI is the owner of The Woolmark Company and the world-renowned Woolmark brand, which has been applied to more than five billion products since its creation in 1964.
Stuart McCullough has over 20 years’ experience in international business planning, product development management, marketing and sales strategy, strategic alliance negotiation as well as corporate communication experience. He was appointed as CEO of AWI in 2010.
You have been associated with the wool industry for long. What major changes have taken place in the Australian and global wool industry over the years?
I’ve been involved with the wool industry for more than 25 years. I started my career in wool as a jackeroo on a sheep farm and later moved on to business management roles engaged in all aspects of the wool producing and demand generating pipeline: wool classer, wool testing, international wool exporter, trader and buyer, and global sales management roles. I’ve been at AWI for more than ten years and CEO for the past 3.5 years.
One of the biggest changes in the wool industry over the past 25 years has been the emergence of economically revived Asian countries, especially China, that have become the major world markets for processing wool, replacing the once dominant Eastern Europe. Indeed in recent years these countries have become prosperous enough to have their own significant domestic markets for wool apparel.
The launch of machine washable wool in 1997 was important because it eliminated a major barrier to purchase by consumers. These garments are machine-washable and are suitable for tumble drying. They won't shrink, lose their shape, fade or colour-bleed.
And the production of wool of an even finer micron by Australian woolgrowers and the development of improved manufacturing techniques, such as mercerisation for Merino wool (in 2005), have enabled the production of luxuriously soft clothing and opened up new markets in next-to-skin wear and sportswear.
While Australian (and global) sheep numbers and wool production have declined over the past quarter of a century, numbers appear to have stabilised over the past few years and we are now seeing a renewed demand and recognition for Australian Merino wool as a premium, natural fibre.
Only a limited number of countries supply wool to textile and clothing manufacturers across the globe. Do you view this as an advantage? Which countries are likely to continue or emerge as key wool suppliers?
I’m sure Australia will continue to dominate the production of Merino wool. Eighty per cent of the world’s fine Merino wool is produced in Australia, and Australian Merino wool is regarded by many as the finest and softest Merino produced anywhere.
Since 1870 Australia has led the world in both the quantity and quality of its wool production, as it does to this day. Selective breeding of sheep by Australian farmers has produced the authentic Australian Merino sheep with its long, fine fibres – ideal for the production of lighter, softer wool fabrics.
Australia has the world’s most advanced wool industry. No other country has such efficient, transparent and highly developed wool marketing system; a trained and registered workforce of over 20,000 wool-classers who prepare clean white Merino wool for the world’s processors; and objective laboratory test results attached to almost every bale of Merino wool exported.
You have once said that your aim is to position wool next to the best designers in the world. How big is the market for woolen garments in the luxury market?
The Woolmark Company works with brands and designers globally to highlight their innovative and creative interpretations of the Australian Merino wool fibre. We consider the partnership with leading designers such as Alexander Wang and Vivienne Westwood to be the pinnacle of this strategy. These designers and brands are the most respected in the world and showcase Australian Merino wool at its best, reinforcing our key marketing message to the apparel industry and through to consumers, that Australian Merino wool – with its natural, renewable and biodegradable properties - is the finest most luxurious of fibres.
The luxury end of the market continues to show steady growth in comparison to the fast-fashion end of the market, which reinforces Merino wool’s position as the fibre of choice for the world’s leading designers and premium apparel brands. Our aim is to also connect with the younger generation of discerning consumers and establish Australian Merino wool as the fibre of choice for fine, contemporary fashion.
Do you think that Merino fibre can be a choice for leading fashion brands in the near future? Please elaborate.
Merino wool is the fibre of choice for many high-end designers and brands due to its inherent natural qualities which offer benefits beyond a garment’s mere appearance: its tailorability and easy-to-handle traits make Merino wool a desirable fibre to work with for designers across the world.
Soft, comfortable and breathable, Merino wool is a highly efficient insulator, keeping the wearer cool and fresh in hot temperatures, and warm in cooler weather. It is also a resilient textile with low wrinkle and superior drape, which helps explain why the fibre is so highly sought-after by many of the world’s leading manufacturers, designers and retailers.
Already we have seen many of the world’s top designers and fashion houses rediscover the potential of Australian Merino wool.
This year alone designers such as Alexander Wang, Narciso Rodriguez, Richard Nicoll, Jonathan Saunders and Dion Lee sent wool down the runway at the world’s leading fashion events.
The regions with cold winters are naturally the major consumers of Merino wool products. How do you foresee the prospects of light weight wool fabrics and clothing in regions with long summer seasons, including the Middle East and Southeast Asia?
The key product which we promote within the warmer regions is Cool Wool. Cool Wool garments are manufactured from lightweight Merino wool fabrics with a maximum weight of 190 gram per square metre and a maximum mean wool fibre diameter of 22.5 micron. The fabric/garment surface is clean and smooth. Cool Wool fabrics and garments carrying the Woolmark logo are normally 100 per cent Pure New Wool but can include blends of wool with fine animal fibres.
Some of the most influential brands and designers have been using Cool Wool in their Spring Summer collections. The original Cool Wool program, launched by the International Wool Secretariat nearly 30 years ago and used up until the late-1990s, was very successful. The new Cool Wool campaign takes the concept of trans-seasonal apparel even further for the 21st century with even lighter weight fabrics and yarns.
The aim of the Cool Wool campaign is to ultimately extend the buying season of wool. Already launched in Dubai and India the new-look campaign has enjoyed success in these warmer climates which would normally shy away from wool.
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