On Thursday, when Mumbai hosts the regional round of the International Woolmark Prize (IWP) for West Asia and India, menswear created from Merino wool will compete as a new, if traditionally reliable, fashion category.

Ten designers from Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), India and Pakistan will compete for the prize that has an Indian buzz after Rahul Mishra won it earlier this year. Among the contenders in the menswear category are one each from Pakistan, India and the UAE.

A cross-border, cross-cultural fashion design exploration that looks for creatively talented and commercially viable emerging designers from all over the world who could help promote the use of Merino wool in the fashion and apparel industry, the award now offers greater experimental scope for design. Besides his fine construction and creative command, Mishra attached sociologically relevant meanings to his prize-winning garments at the IWP. He also busted the notion that Merino wool was just an autumn/winter fibre. By weaving it with handloom-produced fine Chanderi fabric to make it functional for spring/summer, and citing reasons like employment of rural weavers in the pursuit of fashion, he flexed the potential of the “natural and renewable fibre".

Surprisingly, menswear, the most predictable and saleable category for fashion fused from wool, hadn’t been considered for the competition so far. “Wool has remained the fibre of choice for quality formal menswear throughout the world. But our initial view was to focus on womenswear, where wool has been conspicuous by its absence for years. It was a priority. Now the time is right to extend an invitation to menswear in the region. I also believe that certain trends in menswear are influencing womenswear," says Peter Ackroyd, global strategic adviser, The Woolmark Co.

While menswear in India and West Asia reflects ethnic silhouettes and traditional construction, unlike the West, which responds to global demand, Ackroyd believes this itself could define innovation in the menswear category for the IWP. “Local customs and traditions in this region are perfect points of reference and inspiration for menswear, both for local and global consumption. I would be very interested to see how local entertainment, festival and ceremonial traditions of the region influence the entries in this new category," he says.

Wool-based menswear is a norm in the West, and would not excite extraordinary curiosity, but its commercial success in India and West Asia, which have essentially warm climates, is another matter. Even when The Woolmark Co. launched Cool Wool (Merino fabrics under 295g per linear metre) in March in New Delhi with Raymond, through a menswear collection designed by Gaurav Jai Gupta, questions on its wearability outside controlled, air-conditioned environments persisted.

Ackroyd rebuts this with a technical argument. “In Europe, North America and much of East Asia, suits, jackets and trousers for the cooler months are predominantly made of Merino wool. However, Cool Wool has far more efficient thermal management qualities than other fibres used in summer in the Middle East (West Asia) and in India. It is a question of educating the consumer that Merino wool is a fibre for all seasons," he says.

A design competition is an artistic way to engage the attention of global consumers in wool, but will it be enough to ensure the profitability of an innovative fabric? We must wait for actual sales figures of Mishra’s beautiful garments—stocked at fashion retail chains like 10 Corso Commo, Saks Fifth Avenue and Harvey Nichols, among others—and Raymond’s local run with Cool Wool to understand which regions and customers get attracted to wool as a fashion fabric, and why.

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