here’s why the international woolmark prize is more important than ever

As Woolmark announce the regional finalists for this year’s prize, the exciting British talents exclusively explain what the nomination means to them.

by i-D Staff
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27 April 2017, 12:26pm

Phoebe English

Woolmark have just announced their eight British nominees, and as you'd expect from an award that counts a young Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfield as past winners - they're a promising bunch. The nominee list reads like a who's who of up and coming British talent, with Helen Lawrence, Le Kilt, ROBERTS|WOOD, and Sadie Williams filling out the womenswear list. In the menswear department there's Liam Hodges, Matthew Millar, and Phoebe English Man.

Established in 1953 as the International Wool Secretariat Prize, the award is renowned for supporting emerging young designers in what can be a fairly competitive - and pricey - industry to get a start in. And this year, the financial support up for grabs is even more generous. The regional winners will take home a cool AU$70,000 to put towards their work (up from last year's AU$50,000), and the regional winner's prize has doubled from AY$100,000 to AU$200,000. The Woolmark Company's Managing Director Stuart McCullough explains that "due to increasing pressures on young designers, we have restructured our program spend with a greater focus on the design talent and our partners." As they say in Australia, home of the wool in question - on ya, McCullough.

To celebrate the shortlist, we chat Matthew Miller, Phoebe English, Sadie Williams, Katie Roberts-Wood and Le Kilt's Sam McCoach about what the nomination means to them.

Matthew Miller

In today's turbulent socio-political climate, industry shifts and increasing pressure on young designers, how important are initiatives like the International Woolmark Prize?
Matthew Miller: The Woolmark prize is one of the only last bastions of genuine help for young designers and purist ideology. It focuses on the incredibly important and relevant subject of materials manufacturing and sustainability as well as helping designers reach a global stage in business development. It's a remarkable opportunity.

Phoebe English: It's really beneficial for young designers to be able to work with organisations such as Woolmark, discovering how we fit into the supply chain and 'ecosystem' of the fashion industry as a wider framework gives us not only a context to our practice, but an overview of how the entire chain functions. All the intricate areas of that chain and the people whose lives and livelihoods we are involved with just by purchasing a particular type of fabric is such an important viewpoint to be fully knowledgeable about. Not only to enhance our design abilities, but this greater understanding will allow us to have better informed options when coming to making decisions about sustainability and responsibly working within this industry.

Sadie Williams: Massively! Without supportive schemes and sponsorships like this I am not sure if I would be able to do what I do. The insight and knowledge that come with them are invaluable and allow young designers to keep progressing, both as designers and businesses.

Helen Lawrence: Super important. It's an amazing opportunity to be involved in a prize that not only enables you to create a new collection, but educates you of the extraordinary properties and production of Merino Wool. As a knitwear brand, I often use Merino Wool and since working with Woolmark, I've massively developed my knowledge, which is invaluable to my brand and how we continue to ethically source our wools in the future.

Roberts | Wood: Turbulent times are also some of the most creatively prosperous - I think designers react, respond and rebel against this climate in different ways and can produce some of the most surprising and interesting things. In my experience, designers and creatives are nothing if not resilient - you have to be to exist in the industry. Initiatives like the Woolmark prize are really important -there are precious few opportunities for a designer to be able to show what they can do and be supported in this way. The IWP really puts the focus on creativity and innovation in design whilst also making the designer consider the commercial aspects of what they're creating.

Sam McCoach: Le Kilt originally started with one hand made wool kilt mini. Made for me as a gift by my grandmother. She used skills she had learn and mastered from her friends and work colleague's years ago and made it on her kitchen table with old tools. Winning The Woolmark Prize would give me an opportunity to grow my team and share skills I'm currently learning, by visiting and working with different creative people around the UK, who are working with traditional skills and craftsmanship.

Sam McCoach

What does this Prize mean to you? What would be winning mean to you and your business?
Matthew Miller: The prize would be instrumental in getting the business to the next level, and enable me to service the global demand for innovative wearable menswear. It would also help me to implement a complete new strategy in design communication and consumption.

Sadie Williams: It's a special prize because it invests in both design and material. As a textile driven designer it's ace to gain a better understanding and appreciation for materials. I love working with wool, and since I've been working with Woolmark I really appreciate how brilliant it really is, especially after visiting mills and seeing the whole process used in creating wool cloth. It would really mean a lot to be recognised for my designs, and it would be beyond great in helping me move forward and continue to do what I do.

Roberts | Wood: We were really excited to be nominated, as it's such an established and unique competition. I really admire the diversity of the designers that are chosen to participate and it's interesting to see how different the collections of the winners are - in a way the brief is very open. Regardless of who the winners are, being nominated for the prize is great for designers as it gives you opportunities to access to an incredible pool of knowledge and connection with wool suppliers. If we were to win the prize this would obviously have a huge impact on the business; for a young label, like ROBERTS | WOOD, investment and brand exposure are so important for the growth of our business and allowing us to continue to build on what we've started. For the winner of the Woolmark prize it is amazing because it provides support in both of these areas.

What's the best thing about being a young creative in London in 2017?
Matthew Miller: Anything is possible.

Phoebe English: The best thing is the complete freedom, there is no defining aesthetic or market that governs young designers in London, the variety of styles and types of businesses here is completely unique to this city alone. We also have the best infrastructure of support for young designers in the entire world, there really is incredible levels of support for young business here for every stage of our development and growth, we are extremely lucky to have this.

Sadie Williams: I don't think I'd have my own label if I lived anywhere else. The best thing is how supportive everyone is of each other. I'm always asking friends, fellow designers for help and advice and vice versa. There's constantly so much to learn after graduating, especially business-wise, and we all learn as we go along and learn from each other.

Helen Lawrence: The freedom to be yourself, and really the push the boundaries of what you believe in. London is limitless. There are so many amazing people willing to really support and help you realise your dreams.

Roberts | Wood: The community of creative people and the endless opportunities to collaborate.

Katie Roberts Wood

And the worst?
Matthew Miller: The establishment.

Sadie Williams: The studio rent! Up, up, up!

Helen Lawrence: It's too expensive. Although, sometimes it's a good thing, it makes you more creative, in terms of producing really amazing work with super limited resources.

Roberts | Wood: it's so expensive to start and run a business here! But then there are also a lot of opportunities and support here that wouldn't be available elsewhere, so we can't complain too much - it balances out.

Now, this is a question we posed in our current issue, can creativity save the world?
Matthew Miller: For sure! But a few things will have to align initially for it to do so. We quite clearly need a complete overhaul of the current political system that has realigned to stunt social mobility and create generation fear. Education needs a complete re-think as it has become the currency of the privileged.

Phoebe English: Creativity is something which is indistinctly linked to our inner psyche and comes from a very primeval place in our consciousness, it is part of what makes us human. You cannot separate humans from creativity, we are the same thing. As a race, we can be creatively destructive, but if we can destroy things we can collectively and creatively save them.

Sadie Williams: Creativity plus action can! Exciting, positive images/messages won't save the world but combined with organised pragmatism it could…hopefully!

Roberts | Wood: It certainly gives the world something worth saving.

Sam McCoach: Everyone has their own interpretation of creativity and what is meant by the word creative. I don't necessarily believe that to save the world you need to be radically different but I do believe we need to listen to others, work together and share our creativity. Then yes, I think it can save the world.

Helen Lawrence

What more can be done to ensure creativity thrives tomorrow and beyond?
Matthew Miller: Empower the disenfranchised with an education that offers them choices.

Phoebe English: Creativity will never die. It is in our souls, and it has survived through war, famine, poverty. It is an urgent extension of ourselves as beings, and as long as there are humans, there will be creativity.

Sadie Williams: Creativity will always thrive, no matter what. Ensuring that designers/artists are able build sustainable careers is the tricky bit, the bit I don't have a proper answer for because it deals with so many massive issues (rising fees and rents, consumer culture for fast fashion, copycats, Brexit, expenses rising etc).

Helen Lawrence: Encourage and inspire younger generations of their own creative abilities, and give them confidence to pursue them. Stop cuts to the Arts.

Roberts | Wood: Creativity will always thrive somehow, it's the nature of it. But I think recognizing the value of the creative industries on a national and global level is so important. An initiative like the Woolmark Prize is a really good example of investing in creativity at an early stage.

Sam McCoach: Education / Encouragement

Finally, what can you tell us about how are you using Merino Wool in your IWP collection?
Matthew Miller: I'm taking the raw material and looking to position it in the context of luxury performance and social responsibility.

Sadie Williams: I want to create something very true to me, something graphic, playing with colour and texture. Knitwear is definitely an area I want to develop creatively so this seems like the perfect opportunity.

Roberts | Wood: Merino Wool is an amazing luxury fibre - and so versatile - that the options of how to use it in the collection are really endless. As a brand that loves to experiment with fabric and invests a lot of time in developing creative textiles and construction, it's like the ideal brief! I will definitely be starting with a lot of experiments with Merino Wool, as that is how my design process always begins.

Sadie Williams