Made in Mongolia: Empowering fashion brand Tengri

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Meet Nancy Johnston: CEO and founder of eco-friendly, luxury fashion label Tengri. Tengri specialises in natural, undyed, hand-combed Mongolian yak fibre, “as soft as cashmere and warmer than merino wool”. Her work provides sustainable alternative income for nomadic herders to support their livelihoods. Nancy is a social entrepreneur on a mission to redefine the textile and fashion industry and spoke exclusively to Salt about yaks, yurts and yarns.

Nancy, tell us about Tengri…

Tengri is more than just a luxury label. We are a brand built by people unwilling to settle for the status quo.

Tengri is a specialist in noble yarns sourced from Mongolia’s mountainous Khangai region. We produce exclusive clothing and lifestyle products for the discerning and conscientious with transparent supply-chain provenance.

All our products are designed in London and made in the UK with an award-winning design team and small scale, family owned British manufacturers using machines dating back to the early 1900s. All our fibres are purchased directly from 1,500 families with whom we have set up Tengri as a joint venture. The families hand comb yak fibres that are only available once a year.

Yak fibre is naturally as soft as cashmere, 5-10 degrees warmer than Merino wool, odour and water- resistant. It is hypoallergenic and breathable.

There are not many textiles that can help preserve and protect people, wild animals and the environment – yak is a sustainable and eco- friendly fibre. We work as a collective movement: bringing together design, fashion, ethics, technology, business, environmental activism and individual consumer choice to do good.

We aspire to bring Mongolian noble fibres to the forefront of the fashion and textile industries, helping to preserve the Mongolian landscape, protect wildlife and support the nomadic herders’ way of life, which is threatened by rapid industrialisation and land degradation.

How did your story start?

I travelled to Mongolia in 2013, a dream I had carried for 20 years. The vast landscapes, the nomadic herders’ way of life, the strength and self- reliance of the Mongolian people, young and old, living off the land and animals in such a remote and isolated place all captivated me.

I first saw a yak while I was living with a herder family – I immediately fell in love with the animal and Mongolian way of life. It was beautiful to experience the delicate existence living off the land. These experiences are distilled into the core of the Tengri brand.

What I also discovered – accidentally – was that Mongolian yak fibre, the nomadic way of life and the future of wild animals there are threatened by rapid industrialisation and desertification of the land, largely because of intensive grazing of cashmere goats.

The wool and textile industries in Mongolia depend on government subsidies, but yak fibre is a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to cashmere. Because the world doesn’t know much about the amazing qualities of yak wool, there isn’t a significant demand for it.

The word ‘Tengri’ means a pantheon of sky gods that govern human existence and natural phenomenon on earth. When you travel through Mongolia, you’re always under endless blue skies and you see blue ribbons around trees, rocks and other spiritual places honouring Tengri. As a name, it just felt right. Tengri was also thename of my friend’s cat in Mongolia and I liked the meaning so much that I borrowed it.

How has your concept benefitted people in Mongolia?

While staying with yak herder families in the Khangai mountains, I spent a week learning about the challenges facing the people and the land, and living in a yurt with a family. Their main challenge was earning enough money to educate their children. By the end of the trip, I had decided to set up a business that would hopefully help them preserve their way of life and also improve their children’s future.

Today, just over a year later, the collaboration which started with 298 families now involves more than 1,500. In a very short time, the collective action and cooperation from the families has been incredible and our economic activities and trade have enabled the herders to have their land rights recognised by the local government.

What kinds of products are available?

The Tengri fashion label currently comprises our Warrior collection. This includes hand-knitted jumpers, tailored Warrior trousers, coats, shorts, beanie hats, scarves and gloves.

We are launching our new collection in Winter 2015 – The Rider. The Rider collection is designed by co- founder and in-house designer Carlo Volpi, as well as textile and fashion students from Heriot-Watt University. The garments are being made in Scotland and London, where quality craftsmanship and technological innovation add new value to Mongolian Khangai noble yarns.

Under our collective team we also work with inspiring creatives in the world of interiors including textile designers and design studios, creating unique, directional pieces for home living.

Does your company represent a wider improvement of ethics and sustainability in fashion and design?

Absolutely. Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth – people and animals should not be harmed in the making of it.

We believe being eco-friendly goes beyond minimising any adverse effects to the environment. It’s about working with suppliers to improve the entire ecosystem and educating customers so they can make better choices.

What if we could offer consumers a better alternative? What if we could simplify and offer products that are beautifully made and do no harm? Our aim is to inspire this movement in consumer thinking and behaviour.

Why is it important that fashion and apparel companies look to work with more sustainable supply chains?

In Mongolia as an example, the intensive grazing of cashmere goats has degraded much of the pastures, threatening the long-term livelihoods of nomadic herders as well as the landscape. We live in a world of choice. Sometimes, those choices are unknowingly responsible for human suffering, furthering poverty, decimating wildlife and our environment.

Research published in Conservation Biology has shown that the intensive grazing of cashmere goats and other environmentally damaging livestock has led to the consumption of up to 95 per cent of forage across the Tibetan plateau, Mongolia and northern India, leaving just five per cent for wild animals to graze.

Many consumers unknowingly purchase such unsustainable woollen fibres, resulting in wild animals becoming the ultimate ‘fashion victims’.

Our concept of eco-friendliness involves long-term thinking about the ecology, economy, and people of Mongolia.

We want to improve the wider ecosystem through a sustainable, virtuous and socially minded business model while also producing beautifully designed garments through quality British craftsmanship.

We want to make it as easy as possible for consumers to use their purchasing power to do good and show other businesses that eco fashion should be the norm, not an alternative option.

“FASHION SHOULDN’T COST THE EARTH – PEOPLE AND ANIMALS SHOULD NOT BE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF IT.”

Photo credit: Chelsea Marie Hicks on Flickr.

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