Yaks for haute couture

Updated: 2013-11-19 07:50

By Lin Qi (China Daily USA)

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My China Dream | Dechen Yeshi

She is a social entrepreneur who wanted to do something to improve the lot of her father's people. The answer was always right under the noses of the nomadic Tibetans, as she tells Lin Qi.

For generations, the villagers of Zorge Ritoma on the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau had depended on raising yaks as their major source of income. Overgrazing, however, had gradually desiccated their livelihood as nomads.

Many of the able-bodied among them are abandoning the harsh realities of herding for a more tempting urban life. The village, filled with old people unwilling to leave and their grandchildren, seem doomed to face a bleak future.

 Yaks for haute couture

Dechen Yeshi and her daughter at the Zorge Ritoma village in Gansu province. Photos provided to China Daily

 Yaks for haute couture

Tibetan children with shawls and scarves of the yak wool produced by Norlha.

 Yaks for haute couture

A woman works on a loom at the Norlha workshop.

That is, until they were told one day that the fine fibers from their young yak's may be the answer to a brighter outlook. Eight years later, the luxurious yak wool they are producing is keeping them warm and fed and linked, surprisingly, to the haute couture realm half a world away.

The woman who brought about these changes is Dechen Yeshi, 30, who manages a social enterprise called Norlha in Zorge Ritoma which hand-processes yak wool and sell it to fashion houses in Paris.

"We want to make sure that people who collect fibers and turn them into luxury products are local Tibetans," Yeshi says, "and that the profit would go solely to the villagers - a big challenge for the workshop, but that's also what sets us apart from other producers."

Born to a Tibetan father and an American mother, Yeshi majored in Asian studies and film at Connecticut College. Upon graduation, she decided to make a documentary about the land her father came from, with a "very romantic idea" of filming Tibetan lifestyles against a scenic background and promoting Tibetan culture to the world.

Her mother, Kim Yeshi, bought her a camera and entrusted Dechen with a more practical mission - collecting khullu, the dense fibers that were naturally shed by two-year-old yaks and had never been used by nomads.

Kim Yeshi had studied anthropology and Buddhism at university and spent 30 years in Asia researching local culture, with particular interests in textiles and handicrafts.

"People always talk about the cashmere as the precious wool, and camel wool. Although the yak also has wool, it had never been tested," the mother says.

"I thought it would be compelling to turn the yak wool into a new vision of life for the nomads."

When Dechen first arrived in Zorge Ritoma in 2004. She spoke to many young nomads, and they all wanted to be a part of the world outside, and "that fitted in with my mother's idea".

She decided that it made more sense to help that way.

"Making documentaries meant a lot to me but not as much to them."

She returned the next year with her brother Genam and they collected and shipped two tons of khullu to a textile factory in Kathmandu owned by her mother's friend. The end product was soft and warm and had a very good feel.

Inspired, the Yeshis founded Norlha, a social enterprise for yak wool production, and they started to look for villagers willing to participate in the project. "Norlha" means "wealth of the God" and is also what Tibetan nomads call the yak.

Although Dechen is half-Tibetan, she still had difficulty convincing villagers that the fibers they had always neglected would be valuable. She also had to fight the concept the Tibetans had that being migrant workers was the only way out of poverty.

The first person she targeted was Sangye Dhundup, a well-established nomad with a substantial number of yaks and sheep. Half convinced, Sangye and his wife Dzomkyid went with Dechen to Cambodia in 2006.

"We saw people weaving camel hair from Inner Mongolia into very beautiful cloth. We thought it would be possible to process the yak wool in the same way and that will be a rare opportunity for us to change our future," Sangye says.

They learned silk and wool weaving in Cambodia and Nepal and returned to the village with looms and started training people.

Yaks for haute couture

In the spring of 2008, Dechen brought Norlha's first products - a suitcase of shawls - to Paris, and promoted them to four to five brands. She was confronted by indifference toward yak wool, until bespoke boutique Arnys first recognized the potential.

Arny's orders were followed by those from other fashion brands and photos of Zorge Ritoma's nomads modeling the fabrics appeared in fashion magazines and helped raised awareness.

Kim Yeshi, Norlha's president and head designer, believes handicrafts can only survive on the luxury market. She says when people work at home, their sources of income are irregular and there is no quality control.

"You have to go to the high end to ensure young workers will get decent and regular wages and win respect for their good workmanship," she says. In a good year, a household of four could earn 150,000 yuan ($24,612) working full time with their animals, but the income is still unstable. For instance, animals may get sick in summer.

The workshop now employs about 110 workers, mostly aged between 30 and 40 and who have been with them since it started. They are paid between 2,000 and 4,000 yuan a month, with two free meals a day at the canteen.

Most workers have little schooling or are illiterate, but Dechen trained them into department managers and accountants. "That's what is great about Norlha," says David Lai, a director with Tianjin Satellite Television who documented the Yeshis' adventure in yak wool.

The workshop produces 200 meters of yak felt and 400 meters of woven fabrics a month, with wholesale prices ranging from 600 to 2,500 yuan a piece.

While Norlha regularly sells to five to six fashion houses abroad, it also launches two collections a year under its own brand, showing shawls, scarves, felt bags and hats. It hopes to turn profitable within the next two years.

"For me and my mother, it has always been about the beauty of nature and the spirituality of the place and the culture. We are weaving them together into a sustainable social enterprise, which we can not only present to the outside world but also benefit the local people.

"That has been the mission and vision for me and my family."

Contact the writer at linqi@chinadaily.com.cn.

(China Daily USA 11/19/2013 page8)