“Someone asked me if I expected this to happen,” said Suket Dhir, an Indian fashion designer whose Suketdhir brand was awarded the International Woolmark Prize for men’s wear on Wednesday night.
“I didn’t expect it, but I was hoping. My God, was I hoping,” he added, beaming, after the finalists’ show. “This is the most beautiful and surreal moment for me, my family and all my team back in New Delhi. It is a real game changer for the house of Suketdhir.”
Mr. Dhir is probably right. In an increasingly challenging retail environment for small labels and mega-brands alike, awards like Woolmark’s — a $70,000 cash prize and partnerships with department stores around the world to sell the winning collection — are increasingly make-or-break moments for fledgling designer businesses. Last year, the men’s wear prize was awarded to Public School, the New York-based brand, and the stars of its designers, Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, have continued to rise since they were appointed to the creative helm of DKNY in April.
There were more than 70 nominees from around the world for the 2015-16 Woolmark award, which promotes the use of merino wool.
“We were absolutely ready to go international,” Mr. Dhir said. “We just didn’t have the means or the contacts. I feel ready to take that next step.”
“Winning this prize gives me that launchpad to grow my name worldwide,” he continued. “I’ve done what I could in India, and this is the best thing that could happen to me, for me to move in a bigger way.”
The judging panel, in Florence for the twice-a-year men’s wear trade show Pitti Uomo, said it was impressed by Mr. Dhir’s contemporary take on classic Western tailoring with an Indian twist — a homage to the style of his grandfather that marries sharp lines with a romantic subcontinental fluidity.
The Paris-based designer Haider Ackermann, one of the panelists, said: “I love to be surprised by a collection, and with this one I was. There was a charming story shining out through the clothes that both impressed and inspired me, which is increasingly rare nowadays.
“Suket is a person with a dream to tell,” Mr. Ackermann continued. “And I thought that it was very beautiful. Fashion at this time is about a dream, and the rest — the business — will follow.”
Nick Sullivan, fashion director of the men’s magazine Esquire and another judge, noted the collection’s attention to detail as well as its innovative use of a new wool yarn to create a trans-seasonal fabric with commercial growth potential. It is the first fabric Mr. Dhir has developed.
“When you got up close to these clothes, you saw their true merit,” Mr. Sullivan said. “A quirky umbrella-print ikat jacket lining here, ombré pre-dyed fading there. He used traditional weavers who had never worked with wool before to produce something truly new and distinctive, which is what appeals to male consumers more than ever right now.”
“The major difference between men’s wear and women’s wear is that, for the former, the devil is in the detail,” he continued. “Fabric and finish really matter while increasingly, in this Instagram era, for women’s wear, the focus is on visual impact from 50 feet away. These were clothes that could really sell.”
The chief executive of Pitti Uomo, Raffaello Napoleone, noted the international scope of the finalists: Mr. Dhir, P. Johnson of Australia, Munsoo Kwon of South Korea, Jonathan Christopher of the Netherlands, Agi & Sam of Britain and Siki Im of the United States.
“We are a proudly Italian event, but we need to encompass displays of design and manufacturing from all over the world, and the show tonight was a fantastic example of that,” Mr. Napoleone said.
Mr. Dhir, who founded Suketdhir in 2009, is the second Indian designer to win a Woolmark prize in recent years. Rahul Mishra, a designer based in Mumbai and New Delhi, won the 2014 women’s wear prize.