I had a really interesting conversation with Stuart McCullough, the CEO of Woolmark, yesterday, about his plans to reframe wool as a brand. A luxury brand.
Woolmark, of course, is already a logo, and there are unquestionably luxury fibres (see cashmere, vicuna, silk), but to turn a fibre itself into a brand seems like . . . well, a challenge. Isn’t it a material? Can materials be brands? Is this the ultimate example of the contemporary belief that everything, but everything – people, dogs, washing machines – can be a brand? Maybe. But he does have two recent developments going for him.
First, here’s the hurdle: Australian wool (which is what Woolmark signifies) is responsible for 90 per cent of the wool used in apparel – globally. Which means that while a meaningful chunk of it is used in extremely expensive mens and womenswear suiting – you buy Savile Row, and outside of Harris Tweed, you are probably buying Australian wool – another big chunk is used in mass market goods. However, in order to keep the price of wool up, which in turn will keep Australian farmers convinced to use their land to keep producing it – as opposed to, say, beef or grains – Mr McCullough needs to imbue it with enough brand equity that mills, and the luxury brands that buy from them, will be willing to pay for what it represents to the end customer. He needs to make it more than a fibre.
Hence Mr McCullough is targeting the fashion world. He subscribes to the trickle-down theory: concentrate on the super-high-end retailers and designers, get them to think of wool as a luxury brand in itself, and then the image will trickle down and out into the High Street (the Reaganomics of fibres, if you will). And here, I think, he may be on to something.
After all, supply chain issues as well as the need for sustainable production are increasingly high on the awareness/priority list for high-end companies. And wool – and Woolmark – ticks those boxes incredibly well. You can go visit the sheep farms in Australia! You can marvel at the sheep running free (or at least milling around their fields)! You can meet the farmers themselves! It is all-natural! And so on. Designers love that sort of thing.
And though luxury brands generally do not want to give lip service to any brands other than their own, in this case it might actually make them look good.
After all, they would also be helping to preserve local industry; according to Mr McCullough, the number of sheep in Australia has fallen over the last decade plus from 180m to 70m, where it has somewhat levelled out, but if demand for wool, and prices, fall, well – so will the sheep population. And then guess who could take over?
Oooh, scary. Do luxury brands want to be more dependent on the Chinese market than they already are? According to Mr McCullough, they don’t have to worry yet (and he says he would know, because Chinese buyers would pop up in Australia looking for merino stock), but it’s always a possibility.
Anyway, Zegna already understands the upsides, and has been working for years with Woolmark on their Wool Awards, which have become a major event on the Australian social calendar. Loro Piana is also a supporter. I’m quite interested to see what happens next.