Sheep shopping
The emotions, drive and pride of being Ermenegildo Zegna's top sheep farmer and fine wool grower in Australia

Next time you see "Achill Farm" embroidered in an Ermenegildo Zegna jacket, you'll think of the man behind the fine wool they call Charles Coventry
There is a refreshing genteel humility to Charlie Coventry.

We're in Sydney for the Ermenegildo Zegna 2018 Wool Awards—the industry standard for excellence in wool production in Australia and New Zealand—and Charlie is sporting a smart Zegna blazer crafted from the same wool that is reared from his family farm in Achill, New South Wales.

Upon first glance, he looks like a regular Sydney sider. Handsome, gregarious, and beaming with a bright smile as he makes conversation about the event location ("The view of Sydney Harbour from here is just marvelous isn't it?") or effusively introduces his wife to guests ("Have you met Dorianne?"), he blends in seamlessly with the swanky city crowd. But look closer, dwell a little longer, and you'll notice his rough, well-worn skin as he shakes your hand; the deferential pride when he explains how the wool in his blazer is produced by his team back at his farm; and the unmistakable softness in his blue eyes when he looks at Dorianne. Every part the weather-worn farmer with his freckled skin and, yet, armed with a disarming politeness that separates this wool grower from the airs of the Sydney socialites.

Seated in a hotel meeting room located in The Rocks, his hands clasped and rested on his lap, boasting manners as well-bred as the merino sheep on his property, I speak to Charlie about being a sixth generation wool farmer, his joint venture with Ermenegildo Zegna to manage his Achill property, and the beauty of seeing wool being transformed from raw material to runway merchandise.

Paolo Zegna and Charlie Coventry
Tell me about your relationship with Ermenegildo Zegna's chairman, Paolo Zegna.
I have learned to respect the business culture of Zegna and of Paolo. It's very modern, fresh and efficient. I've learned many things from Paolo; to me, he is the mentor of my life. I may have never discussed that directly, but I respect him a lot. He has a very refreshing and decisive approach to business which stems from his objectivity.

He says the same thing about you.
Not just the respect between two businesses and two families, but also the respect between our personalities and the way we connected. I certainly respect his judgement, and that has allowed for the foundation between us to develop. Communication is important in establishing trust and foundations for a long, healthy business relationship. Apart from that comes making judgment calls, which we do together. Although we have different technical backgrounds, we rely on one another’s expertise to make the right decisions. He sees the helicopter perspective where I'm involved in the forests.

What do you remember of Paolo's first visit to Achill?
Back when we first met on the first day of our first visit, we connected. As part of my tour, I showed Paolo around and we eventually got to our annual planning calendar. I walked him through the processes and he looked at me and said, "So you plan your business like how I plan mine." [Laughs] And I thought, "On a different scale though."

As a sixth generation farmer, was there some apprehension coming into this joint venture, in terms of losing control of what you achieve, and how you want to achieve it?
I think that's the apprehension that would be of most found. However, we didn't look at it that way. For us, it was about getting to where we want to be faster; it is about a greater sense of purpose to what we can become through the joint venture. And it is more important than control. I mean, the opportunity to continue to develop and grow what we are passionate about, to better develop the demand for such a great product… it's such a great product. Those were my motivations. My involvement day to day is in some respects similar to what it was before, but comes with much more complements to what it was previously.
Is it true that this partnership has given you the ability to invest in some capital and technology to driving your farm forward quicker?
One of technologies we've invested in is a mobile app called Agworld. We've been using that for 18 months to record our livestock, all of our movements and our pasture length before and after grazing. It’s a handy tool that’s important for data recording. We also now have individual ID tags in most of the sheep; they allow us to record a lot more data about the individual sheep so that we can identify not just the sheep’s lineage but also which animals are producing the highest quality of wool. The third and probably the most important technology that we are using has been DNA tests. We believe that we are the first in Australia to have done a 5-way trial with different species, and that has chopped about three years out of our journey of discovery as to what type of rams are going to produce the best quality wool that we are looking for.

What was it like to see the Achill farm label on Ermenegildo Zegna clothing for the first time?
Paolo sent it to me as a photo and I showed a lot of people that photo. Now it is a really, really special photo. Talking to other farmers out there, it was great to share that this is where we are going and this is what we will be able to produce. It is the products from our farm that'll go on the inside of the suits. I actually saw it first on a fabric that I was given by Paolo as a present, which was very touching and special. It was a ream of fabric and it had "Achill Farm" on it. I suppose that the third point of the excitement was in the Zegna shop in Sydney where they displayed the Achill Farm suits. We looked at the row of Achill suits and pulled back the jacket and you could see "Achill Farm" written on the inside, which is fantastic. I took a photo and I showed it to the farm staff at our very next meeting. I said, "Look, this is our fabric. This is going to stay in the suits forever." They were all really excited and thought it was super cool.
What an emotional experience for everyone.
Yes, seeing our fabric on the suits that line the rack… it’s excitement and pride. [It shows] you've created a product of a standard and you're part of the story of a great product that consumers can touch and feel. It is a proud moment.

It makes everything worth it.
It gives all of us that sense of purpose and pride in what we do. There's monotony in everyone's task, whatever your career choice is, there's a degree of monotony in a day. When we know where we are going and why we are going there, it takes the mundane away. Not to suggest that the work of raising sheep is mundane, it's not in any way; it's actually very complex and challenging and we have to adjust all the time based on seasonal conditions. But it means that on the days where it blows out and you're working hard and into the dark, there's a reason why we are doing it.

Text: Norman Tan
Photography: Vanessa Caitlin
Additional landscape photography: Ermenegildo Zegna