It was the broken Prosecco glass heard 'round Italy on Tuesday night when the winners of the International Woolmark Prize were announced. At the Stazione Leopolda in Florence, the applause was so rambunctious it rippled through the ancient archways of the train station — and it was all in the name of sustainable fashion.
Each year, the Woolmark Company sets a rigorous path for designers to try their hands at creating capsule collections using Australian wool, for both the fun of it and some serious recognition on fashion's global stage (not to mention a mentorship and hundreds of thousands of dollars for their brand — a life- and business-changing accolade). Finalists Chris Bevans of DYNE and Matthew Miller of his namesake label took home the awards for menswear and innovation, respectively, while Indian designer Ruchika Sachdeva snatched the womenswear prize for her brand Bodice. But it was Sachdeva's acceptance speech that drove the purpose home.
"India is not known for fashion," Sachdeva began, nervously. "It's known for its textiles, its handicraft, and tradition — but not fashion." The New Delhi-based designer aims to explore transitional wardrobe staples of modest fashion, using innovative techniques to revamp and explore the ways that traditional and indigenous textiles of her home country can be manipulated and shared with the world. Her pride for India was top of mind whilst accepting her award, especially the women who helped her along the way.
"It's incredible that all the people that I work with back home will have the opportunity to retail in these amazing stores that none of us ever think we're going to get to because, you might be doing incredible work, but nobody's seen it or knows about it," she told Refinery29. "I traveled all across India to so many small villages and discovered tons of interesting artisans just sitting there making fabric and selling it to the locals. And I was like, Are you serious? People would love this in the world. It's just that nobody knows about it because it's so hidden."
Sachdeva's deviceful production techniques made her the perfect finalist to compete in this year's competition — whose theme was Innovation, no less — in partnership with Miroslava Duma's scientific Future Tech Lab, which strives to source more sustainable operations in fashion. The choice to work with Duma was a no-brainer for Woolmark's managing director Stuart McCollough, who knows how heavy the hand millennials have in fashion's future: "As the International Woolmark competition continues to evolve, our aim is to encourage designers to think beyond today and embrace future technologies, which will ultimately provide a positive impact for tomorrow."
First launched in 1953, it wasn't until the following year, when designers Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent would go head-to-head and winning their respective categories, that the Australian wool competition was put on the map. Wool being one of the most inventive fabrics out there, it's a competition that, like the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, has the power to influence the industry at-large and put a brand, even a once little-known Chanel or almost-famous Bodice, on the map.
"Consumers, especially millennials, are label turners. We’ve seen this in the food industry and it now crosses over into fashion," explains McCollough. "People want to know the back story of a garment: where it was made, how it was made, and what it's made from. Wool is a completely natural, renewable and biodegradable fibre, making it the ultimate fibre for today’s conscious consumer. The Woolmark Company shines light on Australian woolgrowers, highlighting their sustainable farming practices. Each and every woolgrower cares equally about the environment and their sheep — they are true custodians of the land."
Jury member and model Liya Kebede echoed the significance of awareness around indigenous textiles and Indian craftsmanship that goes beyond the factory — and why Sachdeva's win is so important. On hand-weaving, for example: "It's nice to inject something new into fashion, even though some people may think it's old. It's not that it's old — just because we're bringing it back doesn't mean it has any less value. Bodice is bringing value back to that," she said. Kebede founded her brand LemLem in 2007, which shills hand-woven cotton scarves, and women and children's clothing, all made by traditional artisans in her native Ethiopia. "You can't tell the difference between a machine and a real person. I know how it's made and how challenging it is."
With the global industry now being Sachdeva's radar, and some hefty funding from Woolmark, the future for Bodice looks awfully bright. But in the spirit of the women who helped her snag this important win for her career as a designer, she remains humbled and focused on what really matters when it comes to creating clothes for women, by women. "It's just so simple. There's no process, not even computers — nobody uses laptops or email. We use Whatsapp. That's literally how we work," she says, catching her breath. "They're just happy to work. They love what they do, but nobody cares about the 'fashion' part of it. They don't care."
Disclosure: Travel and expenses for the author were provided by The Woolmark Company for the purpose of writing this story.