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Racing start for pioneers of yak-hair clothing

February 13, 2010

Financial Times
February 11, 2010

Next week, when Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, known
to his fans as the "Snow Leopard," becomes the
first Ghanaian skier to compete in the Winter
Olympics, he will be carrying not only the hopes
and dreams of his countrymen but also a wardrobe
of yak-hair clothing from China.

One of his sponsors is Khunu, a China-based
yak-hair clothing company set up by Julian
Wilson, a former captain in the British army’s
Royal Greenjackets, and Aaron Patillo, an
American who quit his job at the Clinton
Foundation to launch an experiment in "social entrepreneurship."

The company has timed the soft launch of its
goods to coincide with Mr Nkrumah-Acheampong’s
first run at the Vancouver Games next week and is
aligning its brand with his improbable journey
from learning to ski on an indoor slope in Milton
Keynes, in south-east England, to competing in the Olympics in only five years.

"We weren’t looking to just sponsor gold
medallists. We’re more interested in athletes
with a good story to tell like the Snow Leopard,"
explains Mr Wilson. "This is a seminal moment for
African skiing, and as a luxury adventure brand
pioneering the use of a largely unknown natural
fibre, we believe he’s a good fit. We are the
little guys challenging more dominant players in our respective fields."

Khunu approached Mr Nkrumah-Acheampong through
the Ghana ski team website and was surprised when he responded personally.

"I liked their philosophy of building a business
that also set out to have a positive social
impact," Mr Nkrumah-Acheampong explains.

It was on a skiing trip two years ago to the
Kashmiri outpost of Gulmarg that Mr Wilson and Mr
Patillo came up with the idea to start a
yak-fibre clothing line that would help rural
herders in Mongolia and the Tibet create
sustainable local economies and markets.

Within a few weeks both had resigned from their
jobs and were up on the Tibetan plateau combing
yaks, fighting off giant mastiffs and haggling with local traders for yak hair.

Nomadic herders use the coarsest yak hair for
tents and ropes but usually discard the softer
fibres, which are what get turned into yarn for
making garments in modern factories.

"Trying to convince Mongolian and Tibetan herders
to comb their yaks is a more challenging process
than say running a sheep farm," Mr Wilson admits.

But the result is a soft but heavy-duty material.
The company aims to be a "luxury adventure"
brand, with a sweatshirt, for example, retailing
for between $125 and $195 (‡92-‡143, £80-£125).
Products will be sold through Khunu’s website and
in Vancouver during the games. The clothing brand
is also in discussions with independent retailers in the US.

The use of yak hair follows a trend in the
outdoor clothing industry in recent years away
from synthetic fibres back to more natural
products. This shift has been pioneered by
companies such as New Zealand’s Icebreaker, which
uses only wool from Merino sheep for its
garments, and Khunu is convinced that yak hair is
going to be the next big thing.

"Global fashion brands are always on the lookout
for new fibres and they’re the ones most likely
to take yak hair into the mainstream," says Mr Wilson.

In Mongolia, Khunu has worked with Mercy Corp, a
non-governmental organisation that has
established auction systems to ensure herders are
paid market prices and are not squeezed by unscrupulous traders.

Khunu also plans to dedicate 2 per cent of sales
revenue to projects that support communities
where it sources the yak fibre for its garments.

Mr Wilson says these projects will probably take
the form of micro-finance, animal husbandry or
veterinary services that allow nomadic herders to
create economic opportunities for themselves.

As for the Snow Leopard, even if his dreams of
Olympic gold don’t materialise next week, at
least he will be warm in his yak-hair sweater.
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