“Listen to your mother” might well be the subtext of this especially fashionable tale from my travels. In May 2005, American anthropologist Kim Sciaky-Yeshi – married to a Tibetan academic – sent her daughter Dechen, a recent college graduate, to the Tibetan Plateau. Ostensibly the mother was encouraging her daughter’s fledgling documentary film-making career, but in truth, Sciaky-Yeshi sought to investigate the possibility of launching a workshop to weave the insulating fibre khullu, harvested from two-year-old yaks and among the world’s finest. Think pure cashmere without the pilling.
Sciaky-Yeshi’s idea was to create a sustainable, year-round business model to buy directly from Tibetan grassland farmers who previously had to wait for annual visits from middlemen, often pushed to near starvation in the intervening months. So fascinated and eager to help this Tibetan diaspora community was Dechen that she put down her camera and got to work right alongside the nomads, even marrying an especially handsome one.
Following a four-month training course in Siem Reap, Cambodia and another six weeks at a European-run workshop in Kathmandu, these nomads soon began producing world-class, hand-spun 100 per cent yak wool under the brand name Norlha. Contacts from Sciaky-Yeshi’s Parisian childhood brought introductions to the world’s top fashion houses, including Lanvin, Céline, Balmain, Sonia Rykiel and Haider Ackermann, who eagerly added pure yak-wool, yak-silk and yak-wool-blend textiles to their catwalk collections.
My own encounter with Norlha happened when the Yeshis requested my help to “test drive” the guest experience at Norden Camp, this enterprising family’s soon-to-open encampment (from $300, second picture), also in the Tibetan Plateau. Comprised of four traditional hand-woven yak-hair tents and seven log cabins designed to further develop economic opportunities through luxury tourism, the place makes the most of these Norlha textiles, from thick ply-wraps and blankets (fourth picture) to travel socks, and all available to buy at wholesale prices. Sumptuous and eye-catching, they prompted me to bypass activities including horse riding and bird watching to head into Labrang town, home to Labrang Monastery, a collection of Tibetan Buddhist shrines and colleges founded in 1709, where Norlha also operates a sunlit wood-clad boutique (third picture).
Once inside, I ran my hands over luxurious shawls, wraps, blankets and scarves in a subdued spectrum of greys, beige and browns with pops of saffron, maroon and an electric-orange colour favoured by Labrang’s monks. There were also Norlha’s ladylike felted khullu dresses (from $172) and their super-chic black Nomad poncho ($276), a felted Tibetan nomad hat ($74) and a deeply indulgent Nomad wrap in navy blue ($305), plus smaller items including a cosy neck-warmer ($57) with traditional Tibetan symbols and felted knick-knack bags (from $10), for packing my tribal baubles and computer cords.
Made over in yak, I headed back to Hong Kong, where my new wardrobe inspired my most stylish friends to book pilgrimages of their own. I continue to meditate on my next Norlha investment while silently thanking Dechen for doing what her mother told her, even if I usually don’t.