On a chilly evening in Florence, over flutes of champagne, fashion-world notables gather at Stazione Leopolda to see the International Woolmark Prize. The award recognises emerging fashion talent and promotes using Australian merino wool. Launched in 1953, the prize was once awarded to Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent.

After winning the regional Woolmark Prize in August last year, New Zealand label Harman Grubiša and Melbourne’s Blair Archibald join the race for the global prize – six designers vying for the womenswear award, six for the men’s.

With cameras rolling and sweat gleaming, each designer must make a presentation using merino wool before a jury, which includes American-Chinese fashion designer Phillip Lim; Emanuele Farneti (editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia and Harper’s Bazaar India); model and actress Amber Valletta and Vogue.com’s chief critic Sarah Mower, among others.

One look. One model. That’s all the opportunity they have to get their foot in the revolving door of the global fashion industry.

The Woolmark Prize works hard to anoint and financially support emerging talent; it offers $200,000 in prize money, ongoing mentorship, and the opportunity of being stocked at prestigious department stores and boutiques around the world. Nerves were heightened.

“It’s a key to [the fashion] world; it is everything to have our name sit alongside Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent … it [would be] a complete honour [to win the award],” Madeleine Harman of Harman Grubiša tells Broadsheet. Harman, along with Jessica Grubiša, make up the Harman Grubiša label, and their Wool Prize entry was inspired by the concept of the “urban nomad”.

For Blair Archibald, the prize would mean forging paths he can’t walk alone. “The international connections provided, and what they have given me, is unprecedented. To be part of a start-to-end process of a full collection, to retail partners, PR and production. These elements are so difficult to self-generate,” he says.

But it was Matthew Miller (British Isles) and Bodice (India) who took out the International Woolmark Prizes for menswear and womenswear, respectively. The USA’s DYNE was also awarded the inaugural Innovation Award.

Using indigenous textiles from her native India, New Delhi-based Sachdeca created a look with sustainable buttons using coconut shells. Matthew Miller showcased clean tailoring via tuxedos with detachable straps and buttons made from salvaged marble, as well as waterproof bonded wool.

Although the two Australian labels weren’t successful, the managing director of Woolmark, Stuart McCullough says he was “blown away” by both collections. “The [Harman Grubiša] girls showcased versatility of the merino wool, presenting a collection of ultrafine merino wool pieces … through to heavier items such as a wool-rich coat using broader micron wool.”

He noted Blair's collection, which looked specifically at wool as a renewable textile and used a range of 1960s Australian army blankets, showed how “old fabrics can be revitalised for a second lease on life.”

But does offering young designers a giant cheque and a big name mentor – and racks at international department stores – deny them a chance to find their own way? McCullough doesn’t think so: “The exposure via our retail partner network provides the opportunity to fast-track and propel these designers into the global retail environment, which otherwise can be extremely difficult to break into.”