Sustainable Luxury in Tibet

by Rona Berg

Yaks are placid, lumbering creatures that inhabit the Tibetan Plateau, providing a source of milk, butter, meat and warmth for the nomadic people who live there. Every year, in the spring, yaks naturally shed the plush downy hair (“khullu”) that keeps them snug and warm in the harsh climate, where the altitude reaches up to 14,000 feet above sea level.

For centuries, Tibetan nomads have used khullu to build their tents. But no one had thought about spinning it into fine luxury fibers until Kim Yeshi—a French-American woman married to a Tibetan—and their American-Tibetan daughter, Dechen, opened an atelier there called Norlha (“wealth of the gods,” in Tibetan).

Armed with the knowledge that khullu is stronger, softer, warmer and even more buttery than cashmere, Kim researched textile traditions from Cambodia, India, Mongolia, Nepal and Tibet, and figured out how to create extraordinary scarves, shawls, throws, clothing and hats, with an otherworldly beauty and craftsmanship that is unlike anything the Western fashion world has ever seen. Some are made with pure khullu, others feature silk, wool and cashmere blends. But they are all wearable, durable, luxurious works of art, made to last and be passed down for generations.

“Yak is a beautiful fiber but the world doesn’t know it,” says Marcella Echavarria, strategic brand consultant for Norlha, in New York City. “Kim brought together knowledge from different areas around the world, in order to do something innovative in a sustainable way.” Echavarria, an influencer and visionary in the world of sustainable fashion, says that her contribution to Norlha has been “to take their beautiful work, help them build a global brand and tell their stories.”

Norlha now employs 120 people who make everything by hand, with azo-free dyes, on the Plateau. They built a nomadic camp and a guesthouse near the atelier, and they help provide education for the employees’ children, and employment for the adults, whose traditional work was herding yak and selling yak milk and khullu to manufacturers outside the area. “The intention behind the Norlha project is to capitalize on these raw materials by transforming them in their place of origin, generating employment and bringing life back to dwindling village communities,” says Kim.

She and her husband, Kalsang, live in India, and Dechen, now Norlha CEO, is based in Tibet, with her husband and young children, 10 months out of the year. They close for winter, when the weather is freezing cold, and reopen in May. Norlha is now available at Bergdorf Goodman and Urban Zen in New York City. norlhatextiles.com

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