It’s a cool, clear April night in Sydney, and the Royal Hall of Industries—an opulent, century-old colossus of brick and copper—is rocking. Beneath the hall’s towering vaulted ceilings, a thousand guests from across Australia and around the globe sip neon cocktails and mill about through glimmering hallways of wall-sized video screens. The crowd is littered with Hollywood action stars, foreign dignitaries and Laotian real-estate magnates, wrapped in finely tailored suits and a kaleidoscope of evening gowns.
Given the spectacle of the setting and the provenance of the guest list, you might expect this to be the splashy opening ceremony of an international sporting competition or the lavish wedding of an Arab prince. But the real reason for the festivities is something less expected: wool.
For the last 50 years, Italian menswear giant Ermenegildo Zegna has hosted the Zegna Wool Awards, an annual competition to determine the finest wools grown in Australia. More than just a token of appreciation, the awards are symbolic of the famed fashion house’s ongoing commitment to the Australian wool industry—a relationship that began when Ermenegildo Zegna himself eschewed the then industry standard of sourcing raw wool from Scotland and set his sights down under.
“It’s in the climate, and in the way they grow their sheep,” says Stefano Miglio, Zegna’s general merchandising manager and group fashion coordinator, of the allure of Aussie wool. “The rich, green open spaces with no pollution—it’s becoming more and more unique.”
Today, Zegna is among the largest global producers of luxury fabrics, weaving some 2.3 million meters yearly, and Australian woolgrowers are responsible for 90 percent of the world’s supply of the superfine and ultrafine merino fibres suitable for those high-end textiles. One tends to think of wool as a rather ordinary commodity, roughly akin to coal or lumber. In its most refined forms, however, wool transforms into something far more precious. Slip on a suit made from ultrafine merino, and you’ll feel the difference immediately: there’s an artful quality to the weight, to the texture, to the way it drapes on the body. It’s handsome, it’s covetable, and it’s most certainly worthy of an awards ceremony.
To mark the 50th edition of the Wool Awards, Zegna pulled out all the stops: a glitzy gala featuring a full runway fashion show, a live performance by Aussie indie darlings The Temper Trap, and a special trophy designed by acclaimed American artist Kiki Smith. This is a celebration of cosmic proportions, Baz Luhrmann-esque in its sumptuousness and excess.
But it’s a thousand miles north of Sydney, deep in the rural countryside of the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales, where the real magic happens. Here, at Westvale Merino, you’ll find none of the flash and glamour of the Wool Awards—just 2,600 sweeping acres of breathtaking plateau landscapes, 6,000 sheep and a few hardworking hands. Run by 77-year-old owner Leo Blanch, his wife, Judy, and just two full-time employees, Westvale produces over 50,000 pounds of the world’s finest wools each year.
Wool was integral to Australia’s modern development—the old saying goes that the country “rode on the sheep’s back” for much of the 19th and 20th centuries—and Westvale is indicative of that legacy. The estate has been in the Blanch family for three generations spanning more than a hundred years. Growing wool is in Leo’s blood, and it’s all he’s ever known.
Glancing around his property, it’s easy to understand why he’s stuck with the family business. The sun glistens across vast, impossibly green pastures, speckled with the occasional tree. Sheepdogs chase and corral their wards. Even the air is remarkable, as fresh and crisp as a just-plucked Granny Smith. The mild climate means that cultivating merino is a labour-intensive, year-round endeavour for Aussie growers, but when your office is as idyllic as Westvale, it’s tough to complain about going to work everyday.
And yet, for all its simple pleasures, Australian wool growing is far more complex and advanced a practice than one might assume. Under the watchful eye of overseer Scott Matthews, Westvale uses a highly specialized computer program that assesses the genetic traits and lineage of rams and ewes to determine the best possible pairings for breeding. When you’re aiming for uniformly strong, well-nourished merino wool that’s less than 19 microns per fibre in diameter—a micron is equal to one thousandth of a millimetre—it requires more exacting science than natural selection allows.
“I don’t think people realize how involved [superfine wool making] is,” Leo says. “There are people who grow other types of wool that probably think we’re fanatical. But we’ve got the environment, we’ve got the wherewithal to produce a fine wool, a sound wool, and it’d be silly if we didn’t utilize that.”
It’s that combination of technological precision and familial tradition that makes Australian wool such an ideal match for Zegna. Still owned and managed by Ermenegildo’s grandchildren, Zegna has fashioned itself as a leader in textile innovation, developing high-performance fabrics like Micronsphere, a lotus leaf-inspired suiting wool that repels water and resists stains. The consistent quality of Australian wool affords Zegna’s researchers the perfect canvas to tinker upon and weave into some of the most luxurious cloths in menswear.
At the Wool Awards, tipsy socialites meander about the ballroom, whispering frantically to one another about the celebrities in their midst. Behind them, on plush couches at the back of the VIP section, Leo and Judy sit amongst a group of fellow woolgrowers, the true stars of the night.
Westvale didn’t take home any awards—the trophies went to Andrew and Penny Hundy of Windradeen for their 11.3-micron superfine fleece—but Leo remains in good spirits, happy to be among his peers. After all, looking out at a sea of men draped in gorgeous wool suits—men enjoying and appreciating the fruits of his lifelong labour—what better reward could he ask for?