In a country like India, where winters, real winters, are largely a feature of the north, wool can be tricky for designers. Beyond pullovers and shawls, how do you make the fabric interesting? How do you make it dressy, fashionable, glamorous? How do you really innovate with wool?

Nachiket Barve thinks of this unfamiliarity as a godsend, a freedom from preconceived ideas. “Because wool is relatively untapped in the Indian subcontinent,” he said, “we have our own way of looking at the material.” The Mumbai-based designer is a finalist in the womenswear category of the 2016/17 International Woolmark Prize, whose winner will be announced in Paris on January 23.

Woolmark, a global brand and an authority on Australian-grown Merino wool, conducts competitions across six regions and then picks a winner each for menswear and womenswear. This year, for the first time, the menswear and womenswear will come together in one event. On Monday, the regional winners will present their interpretations of Merino Wool before a panel of judges that includes the most celebrated names in the fashion industry. The eventual winners will take home a cash prize, the opportunity to retail at the best fashion destinations, and, of course, global acclaim.

After working with wool for the last three seasons, Barve is surprised at the affinity he has developed for the textile. “I’m tremendously inspired by the fabric itself,” he said. “It drapes, tailors, and takes colour beautifully, is lightweight, wrinkle-free, and has a nice sheen. To have all that, and still look premium, makes it very important as a fashion garment... The fact that it is completely natural is its biggest trump card.”

With two winners out of the four editions since the Woolmark Prize’s relaunch in 2012, India seems to be a popular choice at the competitions stage.

“For decades, India was a factory to the West,” said Barve. “Now, for the first time, we have individual voices to match its skill and technique. It is the emergence of Design in India, instead of just Made in India.”

Giving Barve company in Paris will be Bounipun, the Indian label that won the regional competition (India, Pakistan and the Middle East) in the menswear category. Led by the husband-wife team of Renni and Zubair Kirmani, Bounipun takes inspiration in the couple’s childhood in Kashmir.

The play of light and shadow through the latticed screens, a common architectural element in the Valley, is the starting point – the couple terms this “endless expressions”. Taking the metaphor forward, they explore the multiple expressions of the Merino yarn. This means that they end, as they begin, with Merino. Even the polyester lining is eschewed in the work to maintain the purity of wool – instead, jersey has been added to give it a spring, silk to provide softness, and wool bonded on wool. Finally, the embroidery has been developed with Merino yarn, looped over and over to resemble shearling.

“For many, this may be their introduction to wool,” said Zubair Kirmani. “But for us [from Kashmir] wool spans a lifetime. Because we’ve already seen the best, our challenge was to take it beyond.”

Renni Kirmani agreed. “You need to have a story behind a garment, an emotional feel,” she said, “so that it extends further, and a customer can feel it too. I can be inspired by a million things but something that can inspire you as a child – when you’re of naïve intellect – I believe that feeling can never be felt again when you’re older. I wanted to focus on that feeling.”

For the Kirmanis, that is rare because, as Zubair said, “childhood is the only clean memory we have”.

As emotional and personal as their collection is, it is also pragmatic: the bomber jackets, the sweatshirts, pullovers and scarves, while addressing the athleisure trend, would also fit modern desk-to-drink lifestyles anywhere in the world.

For Grazia India Editor Mehernaaz Dhondy, who adjudged Barve and the Kirmanis’ regional entries “the re-telling of their personal journey” made their stories stronger – “in Nachiket’s case a thought for his future, in Zubair’s case his memories from the past,” she said. “Also the fact that they worked extensively on fabric development, treatment and innovation using Merino as opposed to just sourcing the fabric and then designing with it.”

Co-judge and Bollywood’s favourite designer Manish Malhotra, too, felt that their extensive work at the fabric stage won out. He explained:

“The clincher in both cases was the technique. Nachiket wove wool with silk – giving the fabric lustre and an easy fall. He also blended wool yarn with silk for the embroidery and did digital printing on wool, which is so atypical for the fabric. Bounipun developed its own fabric – the finest micron of wool, blended with silk and elastane for comfort. Also, for a majority of Indians, wool does resonate with luxury [think, pashmina] but absolutely does not evoke images of eveningwear or interesting detailing. I was very keen to see how wool would be translated into wearable, accessible designs. I do believe that this objective is what sets our entries apart. The best work comes out of the most disruptive situations.”  

An incredible showcase of the most promising womenswear fashion design talents from India, Pakistan and the Middle East. #WoolmarkPrize

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According to the first Indian Woolmark winner, Rahul Mishra, who won for his womenswear collection in 2013, besides their innovation, it is their silhouettes that work for them. “It’s important to work on modernising silhouettes,” insisted Mishra. “Because that’s a weakness that all of us from the subcontinent face. Right now, Zubair’s silhouettes and Nachiket’s new colourless aesthetic look truly global. And that’s perhaps the thing about Indian designers: they’re working really hard, but they’re also evolving. For example, what Zubair has done, is phenomenal. He may not have done this kind of shape for an Indian show. And that’s what gives us a chance at winning.”

Mishra would know. For his winning presentation, he presented a first-of-its-kind summer-friendly interpretation of wool. He wove Merino with Chanderi (something he was championing for a while at home). Using 95% wool, his experiment yielded a gossamer blend detailed with 3D hand embroidery. A major breakthrough, it set Mishra firmly on the international sartorial map. He now holds a slot on the Paris Fashion Week calendar.

“Woolmark is just the first step,” Mishra said. “I remember Franca [Sozzani, the late influential Vogue Italia editor] saying that it’s onto the winners where they take it from here. And that’s true. Woolmark is an entry point. You have to keep building it up. You’re really only as good as your last collection.”