July 27, 2018 09:25:54
When Australia’s wool industry collapsed in 1991, woolgrowers suddenly found themselves collectively burdened with 180 million near-worthless sheep and almost 5 million bales of unwanted wool.
Across the nation dozens of bold and innovative farmers tried their hand at value-adding; spinning and knitting their own fleeces into woollen clothing.
Most of them have long since given up. Manufacturing clothing like woollen apparel became a perilous pursuit.
But one brand, Toorallie, is emerging as one of the bright stars of Australia’s wool industry and it is the younger consumers who are propelling its growth.
“So the fact that wool is natural, bio-degradable, renewable, wicks away moisture, is odour resistant, it’s tapping into this generation which missed out on all of this,” Ms Griplas from Australian Wool Innovation added.
Toorallie, run by identical twins Simon and Steve Smith, are all too aware of this emerging market. They cut their cloth, so to speak, to meet modern trends.
“It doesn’t have to be 100 per cent Merino, it just has to have Merino as its core,” Simon Smith said.
Simon Smith oversees a lot of the technical elements, like the blending of wool with cotton or bamboo and development of stylish fabrics. Increasingly, today’s consumers want a more casual style.
“Now we’ve got a rail of diverse knit scarves, socks, jackets, coats, jeans, t-shirts,” Steve Smith said.
Toorallie takes its name from the Smith family’s former property at Bombala in south-east New South Wales, where Steve and Simon Smith’s parents Peter and Claire owned and ran a large wool-growing property.
The brand flourished for a decade — making colourful, bulky knit jumpers and classical knitwear. But by 2004, cheap Chinese clothes were flooding the Australian market. Sales of woollen clothing had stagnated. Fashion, ever fickle, had moved on.
The business collapsed under a mountain of debt. But Steve and Simon Smith had devoted the prime years of their 20s to the brand and never considered walking away.
The brothers brokered a business partnership with Peter Small, a veteran woolgrower who had spent decades processing Australian wool into fine yarn.
“Well it was bleak. It was as bleak as it could get really,” Steve Smith recalled.
Peter Small, became a co-owner with two other silent partners and the re-born Toorallie has gradually gone from strength to strength.
“With patience and commitment we’ve got it back up and now we’re in a good spot where we can invest properly in the brand and really that’s investing in design and creative elements,” Simon Smith said.
The company now supply more than 250 retail outlets in Australian and New Zealand, and makes a virtue of the fine Merino wool it uses.
All of the fleeces are sourced from Pooginook, a famed wool growing property near Jerilderie in southern New South Wales.
Wool industry executive Ms Griplas, sees that story of provenance as another growing consumer trend.
“The fact that people are so concerned of where their food comes and how their food is made, people are becoming more conscious of where their clothes are made and I think Australian wool perfectly aligns with this,” Ms Griplas said.
The Smith brothers are excited about the growth prospects for Merino clothing, domestically and in emerging markets such as the Asian middle class. They’re also proud to have toughed it out during the bleak years when Australian clothing manufacturers were falling over in droves.
“It would have been easy to step away. But now that we’re actually getting some returns on it, it’s good and no journey is an easy journey,” Steve Smith said.
Twin brother Simon, mirrors those sentiments.
“We love to tell our story of triumph I guess over tough times. And we hope the future’s bright. So, keep an eye on us!”
Tim Lee’s story TWIN SPIN screens on Landline this Sunday at 12.30pm.
July 27, 2018 05:05:56