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The Baron of Saxon wool

For 40 years, Peter Radford stubbornly fought to transform his rare Saxon sheep breed into a super-fine branded wool. Now he’s cornered a megamillion-dollar market with the world’s most exclusive suit makers, reports Sally Blundell

The Baron of Saxon feature

Idealog July/August 2006, page 70. Picture by Guy Frederick

For 40 years, Peter Radford stubbornly fought to transform his rare Saxon sheep breed into a super-fine branded wool. Now he’s cornered a megamillion-dollar market with the world’s most exclusive suit makers. Here’s how

The opening shots of a documentary on entrepreneurial sheep farmer Peter Radford would pan across the rolling foothills of the Hurunui range in North Canterbury. The final credits would appear over the catwalks of Milan, Paris and New York. The 90-odd minutes in between would take us from 11th century North Africa to the royal courts of Spain, from Nazi Germany to Campbell Town in northern Tasmania, then finally to here—The Rocking Frog gallery and café in Waikari, North Canterbury, on a clear autumn morning talking about a pint-size sheep.

This is the story of the rise and rise of the Escorial brand of ultrafine wool from the very old and very rare Saxon sheep.

Sitting in the café owned by his wife, Viki, Peter Radford wears the stuff of his success on his sleeve—a pale blue sweater that has survived nearly a hundred wearings and regular washings and still looks soft, shapely and very, very fine.

The fibre is well under 17 microns thick (a micron is one millionth of a metre). It has a unique corkscrew shape (with an impressive eight to 13 crimps per centimetre) that traps the air, making the wool warm, crease resistant and light—about half the weight of cashmere.

But this story is not, Radford insists, about fine wool.

“Wool is a commodity, like coal. This is about something different. Until 20 years ago in the wool and textile industry the grower got the reward. Today the retailer and the consumer have all the power—so you have to devise a package that motivates them, that has a set of values they can recognise and want to be associated with. Wool’s gone from something that people need to something where you have to create the ‘want’. We knew this fibre was different, and we thought the package, the whole story, was interesting.”

Wool is a commodity, like coal. This is about something different. Today the retailer and consumer have all the power so you have to devise a package that motivates them and they want to be associated with.

That story begins in the Maghreb—the countries of North Africa, known in Europe as the Barbary states, that stretch from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to the Sahara on the east. It includes the countries of Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, lands of desert and rugged coastlines capped by the historical, legendary Atlas Mountains.

It’s here that the small breed of merino sheep with its fine, unusually springy wool had its origins. In the 11th century the sheep were brought into Spain with the invading Moors. There they were crossed with Spanish sheep to become Spanish merino, except for one strain of the original Maghreb sheep which found sanctuary in the royal Spanish monastery, El Escorial, north of Madrid. According to the story, the light, slightly luminous wool was so favoured by King Philip II that he decreed the fibre to be used only for royal garments.

In 1765 Charles III of Spain gave 90 of the prized merinos to his cousin, the Elector of Saxony (before then, the export of Spanish merinos was a criminal offence commanding the death penalty). The threat of interbreeding, however, again raised its head. Nearly two centuries after the delivery of the Saxon merino Germany’s Nazi administration decreed that all German wool breeds were to be crossed with mutton breeds. Except for a very few flocks the Saxon sheep was subsequently cross-bred, or eaten, into near extinction.

The breed survives only because in 1829 Scotswoman Eliza Furlonge, preparing for a new future in Australia, bought 100 sheep from the German flock. She drove them across the countryside to Hamburg, shipped them to Scotland and then on to Tasmania.

Five years later Furlonge sold her flock to the Taylor family who have farmed the sheep ever since. In Campbell Town in 1965 Peter Radford, a young Otago student in Tasmania on a bank scholarship to study the Australian sheep and wool industry, encountered the “funny little sheep” being farmed on the banks of the Macquarie River.

He stayed on for two years, later returning on numerous occasions as the potential of the very fine fleece got the former polo player from Hinden thinking of a new kind of venture in wool.

He talked to the farmers, he researched the breed, he realised these small Saxon sheep had a future outside of the raw commodity market.

In 1987, after moving from Otago to the drier, more stable farmlands of North Canterbury, Radford succeeded in importing 120 frozen embryos from the Tasmanian flock and implanting them in 45 ewes of his own. It was a costly experiment with advances and some setbacks—lacking a certain hybrid vitality, the breed is susceptible to illness and does not have a spectacularly high interest in reproducing—but by 1988 he had 40 animals on the ground. With two further flocks of the original Saxon strain in Australia, the opportunity to control both the supply and the processing, right up through the supply chain, was obvious.

Radford was adamant that Saxon fibre was a unique product. He knew it had an engaging story and he controlled the entire bloodline. Like the French with their champagne, he was determined to control each stage of the supply chain.

“We realised we had something that was significantly different from anything else on the market, so there seemed to me to be an opportunity to create a brand of different fibre,” says Radford. “I was very interested in how Europe marketed things like feta cheese and champagne. It’s about creating a product for a consumer that has a point of difference and controlling it all the way back to the vineyard. So the whole concept came with the same opportunity for control that the French use for wine. We modelled our business on that.”

The wine analogy is apt. While New Zealand boasts many varieties of wine today, 40 years ago grapes were thrown into the great mix of ‘wine red’ or ‘wine white’. The same commodity mindset, says Radford, dominated the wool industry. When he first began working with the Saxon fleece in 1991, making knitwear with Auckland company Glengyle, all wool types were sold off and marketed in purely generic terms. It was frequently mixed with other breeds and origins, including cashmere.

But although his attempts to have the Saxon wool differentiated from the general merino classification were met with deaf ears by the now-defunct New Zealand Wool Board, Radford was adamant that Saxon fibre was a unique product. He knew it had an engaging story and he controlled the entire bloodline. Like the French with their champagne, he was determined to control each stage of the supply chain. While the rest of the country was charging down the road of high volume, low cost, low quality products, Radford put his sights on the top end of the fashion industry and worked back from there.

Following advice from an intellectual property lawyer, he first trademarked the Saxon Merino name and cast his net for garment makers that could meet the standard required by such a rare and expensive fibre.

“But the ultimate goal is to have our own clothing label,” Radford says, “Saxon by Tom Ford or by Karl Lagerfeld. The easiest thing to do is to work with fashion companies and let them have the fabric and they take all the credit. Eventually you lose everything—it’s their brand. We’re working back through the supply chain and creating a brand. It’s not the farm that gives it value, it’s the whole package. It’s the design of the business, not the fabric.”

In 1998, when the Wool Board continued to refuse to recognise the distinctive fibre, he trademarked Escorial, Saxmere, Saxxon, Elector and Maghreb—any name associated with the odd-looking sheep with the potentially golden fleece. A year later he set up the Escorial Company, establishing a new label to give the ultrafine fibre both credibility and a distinctive story.

“Saxon fibre had this story of being lightweight, almost ethereal. There had to be that point of difference otherwise it would be seen as just another cashmere.”

The ultimate goal is to have our own label: Saxon by Tom Ford or by Karl Lagerfeld. We’re creating a brand. It’s not the farm that gives it value, it’s the whole package. It’s the design of the business, not the fabric.

For the Escorial label, there was the added advantage of the association with far-away New Zealand. “If it’s something made in New Zealand, then that’s good for tourists. But the minute you go overseas you have to have a really good story as well. Look at Ralph Lauren. He’s taken the myth of the mountains of Virginia—he’s airbrushed the American west, he’s claimed it and built it into his brand.

“Here, this is the sanctuary for Escorial, for the Saxon bloodline,” Radford says. “It’s travelled the world and ended up here and this is where it’s driven from.”

With Escorial, Radford turned his gaze to the leading names in international fashion: Yves St Laurent, Brioni, Chanel, Gucci, Comme des Garçons.

To win the heart of Europe’s fashion aficionados, Radford had to ensure both the quality and the exclusivity of his product were sustainable. He developed his own guild of weavers—The British Escorial Guild, including Borders companies Reid and Taylor, Alex Begg & Co and Linton Tweeds—and contracted a spinner, a French topmaker (responsible for cleaning, scouring and combing the wool into a form that is consistent in weight, length and thickness) and, more recently, the esteemed Italian yarn manufacturer Filato Drago—respected artisans able to process the fine, stubbornly springy wool.

And then?

“Leather.”

Leather?

“Shoe leather. We’d ring someone up and say we’re coming over to show you. If you can’t demonstrate some passion for what you are doing, it doesn’t matter how well-researched or packaged, you’re not going to get there. And people are impressed by the fact that you’ve travelled 12,000km to see them.”

So Radford went door knocking. He sought out garment makers, designers and retailers who he knew would respond to the demands of a temperamental luxury fibre. He visited fashion houses, he made calls, he lived out of suitcases.

Peter Radford

“I put everything on the line. If people see you putting only half an effort in, they won’t follow you. I can remember my mother saying, when riding, you throw your heart over the jump and the horse will follow. It’s the same thing in business—you can’t run it like a bureaucracy. To get people to understand, you have to motivate them.”

And for that you need people skills. With all the exclusivity and premium quality of the Saxon fibre, the core aspect of his approach to business, says Radford, is how he deals with people.

“This whole business is built on relationships and to make relationships you have to meet people and then these people will take you on somewhere else. You have to get on with people.”

A lifetime of living on the land, a long-term interest in animal breeds, many years as a polo player and a certain rapport with animals has given Radford what he believes to be an excellent starting point in getting on with people from all walks of life, from the farm to the fashion industry.

“Unless you have an affectionate nature and you can communicate with horses or dogs, it’s hard to communicate with people, particularly people in the artistic world. I’d come from a life on the land, and that tradition goes with dogs, birds, any member of the animal kingdom. That kind of rapport is important.”

Two bulging scrapbooks bear testimony to the homegrown skills that saw Peter Radford introduce the rest of the world to his remarkable cloth. As his second cup of coffee grows cold, Radford points to the photo of former Prime Minister Jim Bolger presenting a jacketlength of pure Saxon cloth to visiting German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1997. The next page shows the Bernstein room in the prestigious Le Crillon Hotel in Paris, where Radford and creative designer Ben Frankel launched the Escorial label that same year with a three-day expo of six fabrics processed by Scotland’s Reid & Taylor. The guest list included Stella McCartney, Joe Barrato (CEO of Brioni USA) and Crittenden Rawlings (CEO of Oxxford Clothes).

The following pages of reviews show just how seriously the fashion world took note. The prestigious Robb Report gave the fabric a glowing report. Comme des Garçons’ revered Japanese designer, Rei Kawakubo, heralded the cloth as “the world’s new cashmere”. Esquire’s A-Z style guide tip for 2000 included the very simple directive: “Buy Escorial”.

The biggest break came through the attention of fashion guru Suzy Menkes. Writing in The International Herald Tribune she said the fine Escorial scarves and shawls were “as light as thistledown, soft as pussy willow”.

Following the successful launch of Escorial in Paris, Italy’s top fashion house Brioni (which sells suits to the European aristocracy for up to US$40,000) promptly obtained the sole rights to use the cloth for its exclusive suits, impressing the fashion media by selling jackets with sleeves tied in knots to prove their uncreasibility. Neiman Marcus, US supplier of Brioni menswear, sold out its first order of Brioni’s Escorial suits and jackets within two months.

But while Radford built an exclusive brand sought after by Europe’s fashion royalty, support back home was less forthcoming. The New Zealand Wool Board for a long time refused to recognise his Escorial brand—an endorsement Radford desperately needed to stop other manufacturers from passing off related wool under the same name at lower prices. Because the Wool Board had, at the time, contracted Merino New Zealand to market all New Zealand merino wool, it felt it could not endorse Escorial.

It took a threat by Radford to move his whole business offshore and the subsequent last-minute intervention by two MPs to finally win the vital Wool Board recognition in 2001—which was withdrawn before the year was out.

Further difficulties arose when, despite levies paid to the board by the Saxon wool farmers, there was no funding available to assist with marketing and distribution. Despite the board’s legal responsibility to help fund industry groups for projects that would benefit growers and the country’s economy, requests for financial assistance were fruitless. Such funding, they were told, was available only for research and development. Although a High Court case last year against DISCO (the Wool Board Disestablishment Company, the statutory body responsible for winding up of the business of the now-defunct Wool Board) found in favour of the Saxon farmers, Radford had in the meantime found a new financial partner in Ngai Tahu Holdings. Ngai Tahu recognised the potential of this determined entrepreneur and has since held a share in the Escorial company.

Radford is convinced that New Zealand can benefit from the kind of Champagne-style model he has followed with his wool. While the processing of the Saxon fibre is done overseas, he says, the model can be highly profitable for New Zealanders trying to look beyond the commodity market.

“There is huge potential for other New Zealanders,” he says. “Take furniture makers—they can take their designs to India or Thailand, sell them in New York, then bring that value back to New Zealand. Because we don’t process it, it doesn’t mean New Zealand can’t benefit from people’s creativity. Design, creativity, marketing—that’s where the money is.”

Radford is convinced New Zealand can benefit from the Champagne-style model he has followed. ‘There is huge potential for other New Zealanders … design, creativity, —that’s where the money is’.

Escorial is proof. Within its first few years Escorial wool racked up US$40 million worth of retail trade. In 2001 the retail value of Escorial and Brioni and Chanel co-branded apparel was in excess of US$100 million.

The business is now a two-tiered operation. Overall there are 50,000 sheep in Australia and New Zealand. Every pure-bred sheep is numbered, with the bloodlines kept in a global register in Tasmania. The three flocks of the luxury ultrafine Escorial meet the demands of fashion giants Gucci, Comme des Garcons, Yves St Laurent, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Brioni. The output remains small and very select. Only 20-30 tonnes of Escorial are produced each year (less than one percent of the world’s cashmere production) and the sheep are shorn only once a year. To protect the brand’s exclusivity, each grower supplies only Escorial. Fleecescan technology, developed with Australian government science organisation CSIRO, is used for quality control during shearing.

Saxon wool from the 100 ‘daughter’ flocks (“like cashmere but different”) is marketed internationally under the Saxxon brand. This cloth caught the attention of giant retailer Brooks Brothers, the oldest menswear retailer in the United States and the name dominating many a presidential wardrobe. With cloth woven and spun at a mill in Chile, the range of exclusive Saxxon knitwear was launched in the retailer’s flagship Manhattan store and some 20 other branches last year. This year Brook Brothers’ retail line of Saxxon is expected to reach US$17.7 million and Radford estimates a figure of up to US$140 million next year.

Impressed with how well the fibre had been moved up the value chain to target top-end customers, NZ Trade and Enterprise, through its Better By Design programme, is now working with Saxxon, offering advice, assisting with a new marketing package to sell the fibre and instigating a new sheep identification and registration system. (In June Radford will appear at Better By Design events in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.)

But Radford isn’t resting on his success. He has five staff working for him in New Zealand; he has offices in London, Tokyo and New York. In a few days he is off overseas again, this time to Milan—part of an annual calendar that sees him spending about four months of each year in Germany, Italy, the UK and New York.

With a global economy that makes it easier by the day for the various stages of processing to straddle several countries, the story of the small sheep from the Atlas mountains is far from over. This year Radford hopes to launch the Maghreb name in luxury fibre. And there is the US$350 billion skincare industry, just waiting for some products derived from the wax of the Saxon wool.

And then there’s Radford’s dream to visit the Maghreb and the historical, legendary Atlas Mountains, geographically and culturally another world from the fashion houses of Europe or the hills of the Hurunui. But through the story of a 35kg fine-fleeced sheep, it’s not such a big step at all.

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