By Eric Wilson
Updated Jan 24, 2017 @ 9:15 am
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Credit: Marc Piasecki/WireImage

At Monday night’s finale of the International Woolmark Prize, held this year in Paris during Couture Fashion Week, designer Gabriela Hearst was clearly in it to win it. The New York-based designer, representing the United States amid a wide field of international talents, was wearing a Merino wool sweater of her own design that depicted a diagram of woman’s ovaries and uterus that had been abstracted to also look like a ram’s heads.

“It’s my ram-ovaries,” Hearst said, adding a note of solidarity to all of those who participated in Women’s March events around the world.

“We should reproduce that,” said Michelle Lee, who heads the Americas division of The Woolmark Company, making an unintentional pun.

Woolmark promotes the use of Australian wool throughout the world, and in the five years since the organization revived its talent contest for fashion designers, its profile has grown substantially stronger. The price of wool has doubled in that time, noted Stuart McCullough, the managing director of Woolmark, adding that the Paris event was its most successful from a media perspective so far. This year, the judging panels for both the men’s and women’s final prizes were expanded to include several big designers like Victoria Beckham, Bouchra Jarrar of Lanvin, and Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air.

Hearst, a crowd favorite, won this year’s women’s award, besting Faustine Steinmetz of the United Kingdom, MacGraw from Australia, and Tim Labenda from Germany, among other designers who had competed in regional competitions. The men’s prize went to Cottweiler, a British label designed by Ben Cottrell and Matthew Dainty. Each comes with a prize of about $75,000, and, more significantly, the promise of having the designers’ clothes sold by influential retailers around the world who support the prize.

Hearst was among the finalists who competed over three days, preparing collections made using Australian wool and explaining their concepts to the judges. And she stressed her personal affinity for the material, having been born in Uruguay where she grew up on a sheep farm. “I went between wearing gauchos in wool to going to a British school where I wore wool blazers, wool jumpers, wool socks,” she said. “I’ve been surrounded in wool my whole life. My dreams have always been wrapped up in wool.”

It is hard to imagine the judges could have been unimpressed by that endorsement alone, but Hearst went further to promise to lead the charge for wool back home.

“Especially in the U.S. market, people think that wool is itchy,” she said. “But wool is one of the softest yarns you can use, and when you wear it close to your body it can help regulate your temperature so you can use in very thin layers to be cool in warm weather or warm when it’s cool.”

Hearst said she plans to use the prize money to invest in production, noting that she is as passionate about quality as she is about wool. “I don’t think anybody here cared about wool as much as I did,” she said.