The battle of Saxon

When some of the top fashion houses of Europe and the United States—Gucci, Comme des Garcons, Louis Vuitton and Brooks Brothers—are wearing our wool, you’d think we’d do our darnedest to ensure that that wool is forever associated with the pasturelands of New Zealand.

Not so. Repeated bids by North Canterbury farmer Peter Radford to have the certification process of his top-shelf Saxon wool endorsed by the New Zealand Wool Board continue to fall on deaf ears.

Now, attempts by European wool suppliers to put low-quality ‘Saxon’ wool on the international market are sabotaging Radford’s business selling high-quality fibre under the Saxxon and Escorial brands.

What’s leaving the door wide open to such sabotage, and putting this multimillion-dollar retail market at risk, is the Wool Board’s ongoing refusal to endorse the authentication of this distinctive wool.

The weariness in Radford’s voice is palpable.

“US clothing retailers just can’t believe New Zealand is not prepared to protect the integrity of what they see as one of the best products they’ve ever had to offer their customers. They want that country stamp of approval, but the Wool Board refuses to recognise Saxon as a wool type. Until it is recognised, like Perendale or Merino, it will continue to be a victim of international piracy.”

Since 1998, when Radford first approached the Wool Board with a business plan in hand, he has lobbied to have the rare Saxon wool (featured in Idealog #4) differentiated from the general merino classification. But to no avail. Because the Wool Board had contracted Merino New Zealand to market all New Zealand merino wool, it felt it could not endorse Escorial. Now, as Radford’s international customers see inferior, so-called Saxon wool being offered at one-third the price of Radford’s real deal, they wonder why this country seems determined not to endorse a brand sought after by the world’s top fashion houses.

“In years gone by cheap Sauvignon Blanc from Chile was being passed off as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc,” Radford says. “And that was stopped. Now they talk about trying to get special niche marketing and high value products out on to the market—but it’s really only talk.”

Certainly the spiel is there. Addressing the Exposicion Rural in Argentina last month, Minister of Agriculture Jim Anderton said that New Zealand’s response to the changing global market “is to shift more of our primary produce to high value and branded goods. Instead of trying to compete on price alone, we are trying to compete more and more by meeting demand for premium produce.”

Without any appellation control to authenticate the origins of this particular premium produce, flogging of inferior wool fibre as Saxon will become an international pastime.

Contacted by Idealog, Anderton says the Government is keen to support “the kinds of value-adding developments exemplified by Mr Radford and Escorial”—hence the funding made available to Escorial through New Zealand Trade and Enterprise—but now that that New Zealand Wool Board is under the responsibility of the Wool Board Disestablishment Company (DISCO), Anderton says that he is unable to insist on any particular course of action.

“Since woolgrowers voted to deregulate the wool industry the Government’s involvement has become greatly diminished and Escorial’s issues are now a commercial matter between private companies.”

Yet DISCO still has to report to the Minister and still has a legal responsibility to sort out any liabilities of the Wool Board. The Wool Board’s reputation remains intact and its stamp of authentication is respected internationally.

But if New Zealand will not endorse a Saxon qualification and certification process, there are countries that will.

“We’ve got to the position of saying that if we’re not going to get any assurance from New Zealand, we might as well cut ourselves adrift,” says Radford. “The Australians are desperately keen. I always knew I could have gone there but I’ve always resisted it. This is where I live.”

It seems that if New Zealand can’t lay claim to Saxon, as France has laid claim to Champagne and Bordeaux under their 70-year-old Appellation of Controlled Origin rulings, we might just find that the models on the world’s most-watched catwalks are wearing Saxon … of Australia.


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