It’s not often that clothing manufacturing can achieve a social purpose. Clothing and footwear companies somehow find a way to draw activists’ ire, due to everything from labor violations to questionable sourcing of raw materials. One company, however, brings together social entrepreneurship and luxury adventure-wear.
Khunu, with offices in Hong Kong and Colorado, uses yak wool for its line of men’s knitwear. Its product wins on several counts: yak wool is warmer than sheep wool; chemical dyes are avoided most of its products; yak wool is gently brushed off rather than cruelly sheared (placating animal rights activists); and the Himalayan people benefit economically.
Yak wool also offers other advantages over similar fiber from sheep. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has run tests stating that yak wool is stronger, yet at the same time, is as thin and fine as the merino wool that you find in sweaters at just about every department store and clothing chain. And best of all? It does not retain body odor. Do I smell a Project Runway episode focusing on the material in the works?
All right, let’s stop talking about the Western consumer and focus on what really matters. If this trends catches on, Himalayans, who often have a nomadic lifestyle and struggle to make a living, could benefit from the harvesting of yak wool. While the Chinese government crows that GDP in Tibet has doubled since 2006, the truth probably lies closer to the situation in the Yushu region of Tibet, which is reeling from a huge earthquake: at US$340, annual income in Tibet is less than half of China’s national average. Yaks currently are part of the Himalayan people’s subsistence living, as the animals only provide milk and meat. By encouraging yak owners to keep their animals longer—yaks yield more hair as they age—Khunu and perhaps other companies can offer families economic opportunity from what they have been herding all along.
American Aaron Pattillo, formerly of the Clinton Foundation, and Julian Wilson, a former British Army officer, founded the company. Neither had a background in the clothing industry, but they found their idea serendipitously on a trip to Tibet. Freezing at 16,000 feet during a December trek, the pair learned about yaks from their Tibetan guides, and the seeds were planted with a sack full of yak wool that they took back to Beijing.
After countless meetings with fashion designers, textile manufacturers, financiers, and NGO leaders, production started last year. Khunu (named after an ancient Mongolian dynasty) came into its own during the 2010 Olympics, when the company outfitted Ghana’s ski team. Yes, Ghana had a ski team in Vancouver. So the pairing seems only fitting: both the ski team and Khunu emerged in less than a year. It’s worth following both!