In 1954, a young Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent won the International Woolmark Prize (IWP), an award launched to showcase the beauty of Merino wool and honoring the intrinsic connection between designer and textile. Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent soon became the next names to vault into the public eye, thereby cementing the IWP’s role in discovering design talent and presaging the rise of the global wool industry. Half a century on, the IWP is still the holy grail of fashion accolades.

Although winners receive a AU$100,000 cash injection into their brands, the IWP isn’t just about the money — it places a strong emphasis on wool design and mentorship for honorees. “The IWP helps emerging designers to build a solid selling network by providing them access to some of the world’s leading retailers as well as offering them exposure to media from around the globe,” explains Michelle Lee, Woolmark Company Director, Americas. “All finalists receive access to mentoring from esteemed industry leaders, and access to the IWP’s trade partner program, which connects them to the world’s best wool suppliers.”

Setting their sights on the 2015/16 IWP for womenswear, the British duo behind Teatum Jones successfully competed against five other finalists, including Nanna van Blaaderen from the Netherlands, J Koo from South Korea, Taller Marmo from the United Arab Emirates, Bianca Spender from Australia, and Tanya Taylor from the United States. The womenswear designers were judged by a panel at the New York Fashion Week, which included such luminaries as  fashion designer Thakoon Panichgul, Vogue’s André Leon Talley, Business of Fashion’s Imran Amed, W Magazine’s Stefano Tonchi; alongside many others. “Entry to the IWP competition is by invitation only through a panel of regional nominating bodies, which include the BFC and the CFDA. In order to be nominated, designers must meet certain criteria such as demonstrated experience with working with wool and have produced a minimum of four collections,” elaborates Lee.

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Teatum Jones SS16 research

Creating a winning collection was a gift as much as it was a challenge for Teatum Jones. They took a different tack in the creative process — as innovative as their design is, their fashion philosophy can be summed up in one phrase: human stories. As label co-founder Rob Jones explains, “We found out we are always moved by stories about people, whether it’s from the past or in the presence; those stories inspire our design and touch us on a personal level. And when we are inspired, we always get the desired outcome, which is to aesthetically assimilate to the story and stay true to our design.”

Together with Catherine Teatum, Central Saint Martins graduate Jones established the London­-based label in 2010. The team draws inspiration from nonchalant aesthetics and starts every design with a real narrative that speaks to them. According to Jones, their inspiration can always be traced back to a person or a character. “If we found someone from the past that inspires us, we wouldn’t necessarily look at the fashion landscape at the time. Instead, we would focus on what the person tried to achieve and how he or she dealt with times of hardship.” Teatum Jones’ search for a human story to anchor their collection ultimately led them to the life of Agnes Morrogh­-Bernard, who was born in 1842 and was a nun before becoming the foundress of Ireland’s Foxford Woolen Mills.

Morrogh­-Bernard overcame a litany of socioeconomic challenges to establish viable local industries in the Oxford area, which drew Teatum Jones to her incredible life. “People who were against her made vicious attempts to destroy the mills, but she never gave up. That strength and spirit in her fascinated and inspired us,” says Jones. Morrogh-Bernard might be a lesser-known historical figure, but she sure is the perfect embodiment of their design vision. Today, Morrogh-­Bernard’s 100-year­-old mills are still thriving with master craftsmen creating high­-quality tweeds, rugs, and blankets. “We visited the mills and started to study women in the area, and the way they designed garments and dressed to keep themselves warm,” adds Jones, explaining how they created the winning collection from scratch, by encompassing a compelling balance between a modern force and historic sensibility with an appreciation for centuries-old details.

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Guided by Morrogh­-Bernard’s story, Teatum Jones have enhanced garments with merino wool in surprising new ways. They did so by both consulting a cadre of specialists, engineers and scientists, and applying artisanal techniques to the textile. As Jones explains, “We’ve been working with a specialist guipure lace mill in France for two seasons and they’ve never used merino wool in the past 130 years — we eventually convinced them and now they use merino wool in their collections.” (Guipure lace, also known as Venetian Lace, dates back to 1327 and is one of the most enduring types of bridal fabric.) Offering further insights how they stretch the limits of textile design, Jones says, “We’ve always created our own fabrics and wanted to push for innovation. It’s actually the only way we know how to work and to be truly satisfied as designers.”

Winning the IWP is a significant step in forming a broader consumer base for Teatum Jones. Hoping to augment designers with resources, the IWP’s trade partner program and retailer network are organized to do just that—reinforce the development of their business, establish their retail presence, and give ongoing mentor support. Says Jones, “We will be using this chance to expand our brand presence by collaborating with department stores including Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, 10 Corso Como in Milan, Isetan Mitsukoshi in Japan, and Harvey Nichols in London.” The new business initiatives for Teatum Jones indicate their arrival on a global scale.

The IWP judges are keenly aware of the fortitude required for designers to compete at the highest international level. “It takes an incredible amount of hard work, diligence, focus and perseverance to be successful in the fashion business today. I’ve seen how hard the finalists had work to get to the finals, and I think that’s what’s unique about the IWP—it’s hard work, but good training,” states fashion industry veteran and IWP judge Julie Gilhart. At once innovative, polished, adorned and practical, Teatum Jones exemplifies the artistry and hard work that go into the winning collection, which embodies the spirit and vision of the IWP.

Words by Zoey Chu

All research images courtesy of Teatum Jones

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