28 September 2017

Sheep graziers-come-trend setters: the farmers turning to fashion

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By Sarah Hudson, The Weekly Times

LIKE most farmers, Julian von Bibra is no fashionista.

But the fourth generation Tasmanian sheep grazier has become the unlikely poster boy for Australian fashion house Country Road and top-end international designers.

This winter’s Country Road catalogue even features Julian and his wife, Annabel, describing them as farming “royalty”.

“Most of the people who know me took the p--- out of me when they saw that because I’m no royalty, I get my hands dirty like any other farmer,” the 50-year-old says.

Julian’s foray into fashion is a result of designers seeking a story and provenance for the materials they make into garments.

So if you have heard of single-origin wine and coffee, well now there is single-origin wool.

For Julian, that means there is star power in the 17.5-micron fleece from the 20,000 breeding flock of Merinos on his 12,400ha farm, called Beaufront, in Ross, which also has cropping and beef.

In May, Country Road released a limited edition polo jumper in three colours (grey, navy and black) and in all sizes from XS to XL, with a swing tag that provides a snapshot into Beaufront’s sustainable and ethical farming enterprise.

“The product sold well mainly because my family bought it all,” he says with a laugh.

“We have bought a few polos as gifts. I wear mine all the time and it makes me happy.

“As a farmer, to be given this opportunity is massive.”

Jokes aside, Julian could see the potential of marketing single-origin wool when, in 2014, he was approached by his livestock agent, Robert Ltd state wool manager Alistair Calvert, and director of Australian Merino Exporters James Thomson about the idea of taking a container load of single origin wool to the overseas market.

“I was always saying we get lost in the auction system and encouraged Alistair to slot our wool in to any premium opportunity,” Julian says.

“They asked whether we were interested in taking a chance and I jumped at the opportunity.

“The plan was to ship the container to Italy, process the raw wool into top (scoured, washed, combed and sorted) and then approach Italian spinners in the region to establish a relationship with a customer who might see the value in single-origin, sourced wool.

“The heroes in this story are Alistair and James.”

Julian and Annabel made two trips to Italy — including selling their Beaufront farm story to designers at Milan’s biggest fashion show.

“Annabel pointed out there were very groovy men in suits who weren’t wearing socks in Milan and I wasn’t one of them, but I was OK with that,” says Julian, who has protected critically endangered native grasslands on his property.

“I was there to tell my story, about how we’re passionate about caring for our animals — we don’t mules — and the environment, and about how we grow our sheep in a sustainable way.”

The plan paid off and they secured a deal with an Italian mill, Tollengo, to whom they now supply two container loads (136 bales in each container) annually of superfine fleece, which is then onsold to designers, including Country Road. (The couple produce about 1000 bales of wool a year, not all 17.5 micron.)

“It’s awesome Country Road took it on and it’s gaining traction,” he says.

“They don’t tell me who buys it. I don’t need to know what they do with it.

“I’m just a raw material provider with a story to tell.

“It’s not about me doing anything particularly smart in the fashion industry, nor is it about any kind of fame, it’s about a marketing twist.

“The whole project has been better than expected, mainly because we started with no expectations.”

Simon Cameron is another sheep grazier who has benefited from the fashion industry’s new interest in single origin wool, although Simon’s foray was more a case of “right time, right place”.

His property, Kingston, is 3125ha, southeast of Launceston, with a flock of 5000 Merinos, producing 120 bales a year, including fleece with a 15.9-micron fibre.

For many years he has supplied Italian textile manufacturer Vitale Barberis Canonico with his wool and it was at a VBC event three years ago that Simon was introduced to Matt Jensen, who owns the MJ Bale menswear brand, sold in more than 50 shops around Australia.

“At the time Matt said we should keep in contact, which we did. I invited him to come to the farm to see how we operate and look after the land and animals,” he says.

A year later Matt ordered 40 bales of Simon’s wool through VBC — the equivalent of about 10,000m of fabric.

Last May the Kingston Collection of men’s suits was launched at an MJ Bale event in Sydney, with Simon’s wool and farm featured in brochures, a video and instore branding.

“I went to the launch and it was frightening,” the 66-year-old says, laughing.

“I’m a farmer so I was absolutely out of my element. Lost.”

With the Kingston Collection promoting Simon’s farm and its conservation work, Matt gives a small percentage of the sale of each suit to Kingston’s environmental work.

Matt even visited the farm at the time of shearing wearing a suit made from Kingston wool, which was a “surreal moment” for Simon, and has committed to buying more wool in the future.

“I think consumers like the provenance story. They want greater transparency in where items come from, particularly ethically produced, sustainable goods,” Simon says.

“It’s just like eating pies with beef farmed at Cape Grim, except with this it’s a higher value item and Matt is breaking new ground.

“To see a product made out of your own wool is the holy grail of wool production. It’s wow.”

Dapper gent: Julian von Bibra in a suit made from wool he produced on Beaufront Station near Ross. Picture: SAM ROSEWARNE
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