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Yaks for haute couture

Updated: 2013-11-19 02:00
By Lin Qi ( China Daily)

Yaks for haute couture

 A woman works on a loom at the Norlha workshop.

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."

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