The Woolmark Prize has a long history of recognizing on-the-rise talent. Founded back in 1953 as an initiative of the International Wool Secretariat, the prize celebrates outstanding fashion talents from around the globe who showcase the beauty and versatility of Merino wool. Among those fashion talents? Just little, unknown designers like Karl Lagerfeld, only 21 years old when he won, and Yves Saint Laurent, who took home the inaugural prize. Since then, it’s gone on to recognize Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne of Public School, and Gabriela Hearst.
Suffice to say, the talents in the running are immense—and up for the challenge. Each year, the competition holds semifinals, in Hong Kong, London, and New York, where nominees are invited to pitch a capsule collection crafted from Merino wool to a judging panel. Four designers are selected at each of the semifinal events and receive a financial contribution to create this very capsule collection. This year, three brands from America made the cut: Brandon Maxwell, Willy Chavarria, and Colovos. This weekend, as the final returns to London during London Fashion Week, they will compete for the grand prize of 200,000 Australian dollars and mentorship from industry experts. Here, meet the three American designers who may very well become the next Karl Lagerfeld.
Even if you have just a vague interest in fashion, chances are you’ve heard the name Brandon Maxwell. The Texas native started off as Lady Gaga’s stylist, before pivoting to launch his own industry-beloved brand, and will soon make his television debut as a judge on Bravo’s reboot of Project Runway. One has to wonder: Between the Woolmark Prize and the fall 2019 collection he just presented, how does he do it all? “I’m going to go ahead and give the glory to the people who have made it happen,” he demurred. “The ideas are stemming from ones that I’ve had, but, as with everything that I do, this was a real group effort.”
For his part, Maxwell started conceptualizing the collection in the spring of 2018, stemming from his idea of wool as activewear—his first foray into the category. “I had an idea for 10 easy pieces, 10 classics that were more athletic and based on some of our best-selling shapes and sizes, and how that could translate from being able to wear it on the court to then throwing a stiletto on and wearing it to the club,” he said. So will customers be surprised by what Brandon Maxwell—a line known for feminine silhouettes and eveningwear—gym clothes look like? “I don’t think so,” he said. “I really look at this now as I look at my first collection, and you see how things evolve over time. I’m always walking down the end of the runway in sweats, so I don’t think people will be shocked.”
A former designer for Ralph Lauren, Willy Chavarria has since gone his own way and cemented his place as one of men’s wear’s most interesting designers, crafting his namesake collection with equal parts sharp tailoring and cool streetwear. Naturally, it’s that type of innovation that he hopes to bring to the Woolmark Prize. “It was something we took on as an exciting challenge,” he said. “Even since the get-go, the road has been challenging, trying to execute the merino wool that are things that haven’t been done. And at the same time, at this point, even if we don’t win the prize, it has been a cool adventure.”
The idea for his collection was inspired by his own history, coming from a family of Mexican immigrants who were farmworkers. “I was looking at immigration from the ’30s and ’40s from Mexico and how those apparel trends have translated to what eventually came to be known as streetwear,” he said. “Then I was thinking about the future and what the juxtaposition would be like between the past and this very futuristic society that we are actually now in. And with that, there’s an element of sustainability—with wool being the most sustainable fiber you can imagine.” The result? Vintage-looking apparel mixed with modern, tech-inspired garments.
They don’t get much cooler than the life partners Nicole and Michael Colovos, the duo behind Colovos. Launched in 2015 by the two industry vets (Michael has been designing since college and interned with Guy LaRoche; Nicole is a former fashion stylist), their label offers chic, minimal wardrobe offerings with a focus on clean lines and luxe fabrics. For Woolmark, the pair has honed in on the idea of denim. “We’ve been working with wool for a long time, and I primarily have always championed natural fibers,” Michael said. “There’s something about wool that is very similar to denim, in terms of it being really durable. We wanted to create a group of clothes that has the spirit of denim. You don’t really think about it; you can wear them every day and dress them up or dress them down.” To achieve that goal, the team developed a cold-water dye technique that results in a chambray-looking hue. “It’s funny,” Michael said. “With denim, we try to make it more elevated, but with wool you’re kind of dressing it down a bit, but it still has a really expensive look to it.” Added Nicole, “The intention is clothing that feels really modern. It’s clothing you can add into your wardrobe and cross over a lot of boundaries.”