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Tightly knit

A merger between two Australian wool organisations could revitalise both the Woolmark brand and the knitwear industry, as Linda Foster discovers

Wool may be an essential fashion fibre, but there is no denying that in a highly competitive marketplace where so many innovative fabrics are vying for consumers' affections, it can sometimes come across as too classic and lacking the 'wow' factor.

As a result, Woolmark, which was launched more than 40 years ago and became one of the most recognised global brands, has lost its lustre. But all that is about to change.

The long-awaited merger between Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) and Australian Wool Services (AWS), which owns and operates Woolmark's licensing, is due to be finalised this month. AWI will then focus on a new strategy for wool product development and marketing, as well as Woolmark's branding, which is likely to have a significant impact on the UK fashion business.

AWI, a not-for-profit-organisation owned by Australia's wool farmers, invests about AUS$60 million (£24.5m) a year supporting those working with Australian merino wool throughout the clothing industry. Australian merino sheep graze on more than a quarter of the country's land and produce half a billion kilograms of fleece per year, worth about AUS$2.8 billion (£1.14bn) each year.

According to the AWI, wool is "not currently at the centre of consumers' wardrobes" and has not kept up with changes in lifestyle and fashion. It is struggling to be "relevant, interesting or desirable", while the value of the Woolmark brand and its licensing business has been in decline.

AWI wants to boost wool's fashion profile, regain its share of the natural fibres market and rejuvenate the Woolmark brand. Chief executive Craig Welsh says that in developing a new marketing strategy, AWI will take on board the views of partners and licensees. "We have a great natural fibre, but that alone is not enough. We must win by using innovative technologies, product development and product marketing, to help us shape fashion's trends," he says.

This will no doubt be welcome news to the UK brands and retailers that consider wool essential to their collections, many of which have been working to give wool a greater fashion appeal this autumn. Among them are Karen Millen with its 100% merino knits, and Oasis, which has increased its use of wool by offering 100% fabrics as well as wool and cashmere blends.

Jigsaw's sister fascia Kew has included blends and 100% fabrics in its range. Meanwhile, Australian brand Driza-Bone will showcase its merino garments in a Harrods window display this month.

AWI will kick off its publicity programme for Australian merino with an exhibition taking place in London later this month, which will celebrate both the past and future of the wool trade between Australia and the UK. The event, called Fleece to Fashion, will take place at Billingsgate Market in the capital from September 26 to October 4, marking the 200th anniversary of the first bale of wool being exported to the UK from Australia.

The exhibition will explore the development of wool over the past two centuries and highlight the contribution made by leading British and international designers. It will look towards the future with a series of workshops for brands and retailers to show how they can benefit from working with AWI and Woolmark. The workshops, conducted by AWI UK product marketing manager Charlotte Mills, will explain a programme called KIM, which stands for knowledge, innovation and marketing.

KIM offers AWI's business partners the opportunity to access a global knowledge network, from supply sourcing information to consumer insights, market intelligence and trend forecasting. AWI will work with partners on merino innovations and provide marketing support with a range of tools, from brand development to PoS materials and PR, all of which will help to communicate the added value of Australian merino to consumers.

AWI recently completed a consumer study of more than 22,000 people in its major markets, the largest global sample base ever used for wool. One of the most significant findings was the worldwide trend, irrespective of country, towards casual garments. As a result, AWI intends to concentrate much of its efforts on making merino wool a more popular fabric in the casualwear arena.

The survey also revealed that consumers' choice of fabric is mainly driven by comfort, trans-seasonality and ease of care, and that a third of those questioned said they preferred natural fabrics. AWI concludes from this that the natural, eco and green demand is not merely a fad or a niche but a mass-market and long-term trend.

While wool already has all of the desirable eco credentials - natural, sustainable, renewable and biodegradable - to satisfy the expectations of the growing number of environmentally-conscious consumers, AWI wants to increase the amount of organic wool that is produced by Australian farmers.

Currently less than 1% of wool is certified organic, and switching from conventional to organic production is a slow process, taking three years to gain accreditation. But AWI cannot afford to ignore the organic trend, with top retailers including Marks & Spencer, one of its major UK partners, now committed to selling organic fibres.

Another key plank of AWI's strategy is VAM - Verification of Australian merino. The organisation believes this adds value to products by giving its business partners a way of differentiating the quality and authenticity of Australian merino. VAM allows the origin of the fibre to be traced through the supply chain so that designers and retailers can be sure they are using the genuine article, helping them with premium product positioning.

A new AWI initiative with Savile Row tailors takes this process even further. Customers who buy a merino suit will be given a certificate indicating which farmer provided the wool, an idea that ties in with the growing consumer demand for authenticity and personalisation.

As well as working with established retail partners, AWI wants to encourage emerging design talent via its protege programme. This pairs top designers Paul Smith, Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace, Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein, plus Franca Sozzani, editor of Vogue Italia, with five young proteges who, under their guidance, will create an entire fashion line made exclusively from Australian merino wool fabrics.

Their collections, which will be unveiled during the Pitti Immagine Uomo trade show in Florence in January, will be produced with the assistance of leading Italian textile brands such as Cerruti, Ermenegildo Zegna, Loro Piana and Zegna Baruffa.

AWI will also be emphasising the luxury of fine micron merinos, from Super 100s to Super 200s and perhaps beyond. Savile Row tailor Huntsman has already produced an exclusive Super 160s, 10.5degz cloth using 14.8 micron merino, and is about to launch an even finer one in 11.9 micron fibre.

Both are classified as 1PP fabrics, the 1PP grading being awarded by the Australian wool industry to breeders who have reached the pinnacle of superfine wool growing excellence. Huntsman claims the 11.9 micron cloth in two patterns, which will make only 40 suit lengths, will give customers the "best suit in the world".

Knitwear brand John Smedley has also started working with superfine Australian merino by launching a premium collection using Super 120 yarn for autumn 07. The ultra-soft yarn is worked into seamless dresses, fluid tops and men's sweaters. John Smedley brand manager Dawn Stubbs says it is aimed at consumers looking for something luxurious and different.

AWI's plans mean that wool and the Woolmark brand look set for a brighter future, and that can only benefit their UK brand and retail partners.

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