Kiwi designers Harman Grubisa win International Woolmark Prize

Jessica Grubisa and Madeleine Harman of Harman and Grubisa. 

(Photo:long bridesmaid dresses)In a Sydney hotel room last night, after a long celebratory dinner and a series of repetitive interviews, the fashion designers Madeleine Harman and Jessica Grubiša sat down to reflect on how an achievement that afternoon may have changed their future.

The duo, who together founded the label Harman Grubiša in 2014, were yesterday named winners of the International Woolmark Prize’s womenswear category for the Australia New Zealand region. They were nominated last year, but now they’d won the AU$70,000 prize and – potentially more valuable – entry to the international final next January in Florence. There, they will compete against eleven other designers for the top prize of AU$200,000.

It was the first time a New Zealander had made the international final and, in their hotel room, the duo considered the value of the win: “Money is one thing, but I think for us it’s being one of the first New Zealanders to have a nomination, and one of the first ever to win an Australian regional final,” said Harman. “We felt like we’d created history.”

Launched in 1953, the International Woolmark Prize is one of the fashion industry’s most prestigious competitions, challenging designers to create a capsule collection made predominantly of merino wool. Past winners have included Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent.

For the last three months, Harman and Grubiša spent their weekday evenings in their Ponsonby studio working on their entry. The brief for the regional competition: to design a range of six looks, 80 per cent of which is made from merino wool, then produce and present one outfit to a panel of fashion editors, designers and industry folk.

“It’s really like a Dragon’s Den situation – people at a table staring at you, 10 minutes to convince these people about your designs,” said Harman. “It’s an intimidating environment.”

Using a merino fabric from an Italian mill – a material Harman described as “the ultimate travel companion: crinkle resistant, stain resistant, odour resistant” – the designers created a robe-style coat with an invisible zip in the back, so it can be converted into a clutch. “It sounds really gimmicky but it’s really beautiful,” she said.

One of those judging the clothes was designer Gabriela Hearst, who last year won the international competition. “I think Harman Grubiša are very entrepreneurial and very driven,” said Hearst. “They have commercial viability and are creatively there. I think this is a great opportunity for them to expand.”

Hearst’s comments are spot on. At present Harman Grubiša has 10 stockists in New Zealand and is due to begin selling with an Australian online retailer shortly, but the designers have their sights set on the international market. While in Australia, they plan to meet with a public relations agency, with a view of picking up overseas stockists. “We’ve been really conscious of creating a home for ourselves in New Zealand ,” Harman says. “It’s grounded us in the way we develop out product, get feedback, know who we are. We’re at the jump-off point at the moment.”

For the International Woolmark Prize final, the designers will finish producing their capsule collection, to be judged by a panel of international fashion heavyweights. (Last year’s judging panel included Victoria Beckham, Vogue Paris contributing editor Suzanne Koller, and chair of the British Fashion Council Dame Natalie Massenet.) The prospect bolsters Harman: “I feel great about it. It’s where it belongs.”

Alongside Harman Grubiša, the menswear category was won by the New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based designer Blair Archibald.Read more

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