These Days It’s Wise to Pull the Wool Over Your Eyes

By SUZY MENKES
Published: October 25, 2010

LONDON — The sheep grazing the newly laid pasture in London’s Savile Row, home to gentlemanly tailoring, looked, well, sheepish.

But how could this flock — or the egg-yolk yellow sheep outside Selfridges, their wool color-branded with the store — know that they were there by royal appointment?

Prince Charles, whose once-ridiculed ecological ideas now look visionary, is behind a campaign to educate people about the joys and benefits of wool. Hence the event in London this month when shepherds were dressed up for the occasion in handmade-to-measure suits from the illustrious tailors Anderson & Sheppard and Gieves & Hawkes.

Like the campaigning “real food” supporters who want consumers to be able to trace the hens that laid their eggs, the cloth for those elegant suits came from wool from Exmoor Horn sheep, in the west of England, and was produced by the appropriately named Fox Brothers, historic wool manufacturers in Somerset.

This initiative from the Prince of Wales, to act as patron to a coalition of British industry groups, is not such woolly thinking. The world has changed since the Australian Wool Corp., 40 years ago, adopted the British slogan: “There is no substitute for wool.”

Today, an entire generation, grown up with padded nylon jackets and high-tech fabric sportswear, no longer has a closet filled with woolly sweaters and traditional winter coats. Ironically, the word “fleece,” used to describe ultralight, snugly zippered tops, often has nothing to do with sheep, but is made from 100 percent polyester — though fleeces made from recycled coffee grounds and soda bottles are also on offer.

“Wool Week,” with events involving 80 brands and 400 stores across Britain, was aimed at raising the profile of wool as part of a continuing five-year effort with a dedicated Web site: campaignforwool.org.

The fact that demand for wool is in decline was the spur to Prince Charles and caught the attention of wool suppliers in Australia and New Zealand.

The good news for the Prince of Wales is that fashion is on the same track. Stylish London retailers who supported the initiative with woolly window displays included Burberry, Pringle, Paul Smith, Jigsaw and Jaeger. Although the focus of the London event was men’s wear, for designers across the world, knits have taken pride of place from dedicated knitwear brands like Pringle of Scotland to the rarefied couture house of Chanel.

Far from spurning the natural and sustainable material in favor of space-age, man-made fabrics, a current urge for authenticity has brought wool back to the heartland of winter wear.

The autumn collections were filled with chunky sweaters and cardigans, thick knitted coats and even socks. Once a kiss of death to any fashionable outfit, ankle-high socks were hot at Prada, with knee-high knits shown in Top Shop’s Unique collection.

The “glamorization” of knitwear is only half the story.

It has been decades since wool came up from the country and into the city on fashionable backs. Elsa Schiaparelli’s trompe l’oeil sweaters, with knitted-in bows, collars and scarves, conquered Paris high society back in the 1920s.

Since then, knitwear has been in and out of fashion — reaching one of its peaks in the 1970s, when the hippie-deluxe style of Bill Gibb and Missoni conquered the world, and when arts and crafts in California offered artistry in wool.

It may be significant that this new millennium is another period when support for craftsmanship and natural materials has grown from a philosophy that is against global overreach and fast fashion.

The ever-increasing green spirit has made fashionable the essence of wool: that the fibre has beneficial qualities; that the material is biodegradable and sustainable. Wool has therefore become a “good thing” — as well as a pleasure to wear and a perennial challenge for the inventors of style.

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