Outdoor and adventure clothing is a multimillion pound industry, with consultancy firm Pragma putting 2013 sales at £889 million, with that figure rising to £1,433 million when equipment and footwear are factored in. The ‘Big Four’ of Regatta, North Face, Berghaus and Craghoppers rub shoulders with the outdoor brands owned by the major multinational retailers – Decathlon sells its Quechua range and Sports Direct sells Karrimor after buying the company in 2013.
Beyond the racks of identikit outdoor gear, though, there are much smaller brands making appropriately adventurous steps and doing something a little different. Cycling brand Rapha recently expanded its brand to include skinsuits, while up-and-coming ashmei aims to “outperform the best” with its boutique, high-end approach to sportswear. Joining those ranks is Kora, whose range centres on the use of yak wool farmed in the Himalayas.
Kora’s founder, Michael Kleinwort, long held dreams of working on development in Sub-Saharan Africa, but after finding success with a private-sector tourism project in Mozambique that used a high-end lodge to help fund the local community, he saw that embracing enterprise was key to achieving his conservation goals. In 2005, while working at a consultancy firm in China, he spent much of his free time trekking in the Himalayas, spending time with nomadic communities at high altitude and in freezing conditions.
“I saw the locals with these incredible animals – yaks – that lived from 5,000 metres upwards and seemed completely impervious to the cold,” Kleinwort says, “and the main reason they could handle the cold was this wool they had.” After speaking with the nomadic yak herders, he realised that yak wool was a resource holding serious potential and one that was currently underused – visiting traders occasionally purchased the wool but with little frequency or regularity.
Going from woolly yaks to clothing for humans was not without its difficulties. “I had to find out if this wool could be developed into a product which would not only match what was on the market but actually improve it, because the wool is rare and it is expensive,” Kleinwort says. “It had to be better and it had to match the price, because without that it just wouldn’t work as a business.”
To avoid the potential environmental and ethical compromises involved in much of the garment industry, Kleinwort insisted on maintaining control from the genesis of the idea, through its development, manufacture and sale. That meant a gruelling three-year process of research and development, dialogue with factories, field testing of prototypes, fine-tuning and wash tests before the product could eventually launch.
“If I didn’t go through every step of the process with the raw wool then I’d have to pay a middleman a very high premium” Kleinwort says. “It would make the product impossible as it would become too expensive for the consumer. I was able to make it work because I collaborate directly with the factories to keep the costs as low as possible.”
To ensure fair trading, Kleinwort surveys the yak wool market each year and offers herders not the highest price, but a median amount. “We let them know the price from the very beginning,” he says. “We offer that throughout the buying period, so whenever they come into town, they can come to us and they know what price they’ll get. It’s a no hassle, guaranteed purchase, and if they can get a better price they are completely free to do that.” The nomads are based far away from the market towns and with their busy lives, they have only a small window in which they can collect and sell their wool, and this method means they are no longer at the mercy of the trader setting or changing the price without notice.
An additional 10% is paid at the end of the buying season as a bonus and encouragement to continue the partnership. “This isn’t a context where I can sign long term contracts with these herders like you can with sheep farmers,” Kleinwort explains. “There’s no way for me to lock a price and get a guarantee of delivery the next year, so this is one way to build a trusting relationship and make sure they are back the next year with the same wool.”
On the differences between yak and merino wool, the latter often being seen as the gold standard for outdoor wear, Kleinwort explains that yak wool is a hollow fibre, so it traps air inside the fibre as well as between the fibres, while merino is not hollow. Additionally, yak wool can feel softer than merino regardless of their relative micron levels because it has more flex in it, bending around rather than digging into your skin.
Without consumers being happy with the product, the efficiency or ethics of its production become irrelevant, and Kleinwort claims a 70% customer return rate. “Customers are usually already aware of how merino wool works in a performance context and they’re looking for the next big thing, something more versatile or warmer, and on that front, they are impressed – they really like it.”
As Kora grows and affects the market, it seems that there is a risk of it becoming a victim of its own success. By creating a demand for yak wool, it’s a very real possibility that other firms with less-ethical practices could either treat the herders less fairly, or run down the stocks of a limited natural resource, and Kleinwort admits to these concerns.
“There’s no forum to make sure others are working to the same standards,” he says. “At the moment there is no practising yak wool industry association as there is with merino wool. There are one or two imitators out there but I can’t be sure how they are doing things ethically, which is unfortunate. I’ve always hoped that setting a precedent would encourage others to do it the right way. If this becomes an issue it will be a case of who can prove they are working with the communities, and that’s where the argument will be.”