Yaks have been an essential resource for Tibetan nomads for thousands of years, not only serving as beasts of burden but providing milk, cheese, butter, meat and even fuel in the form of odorless dung that’s burned to heat tents woven of, yes, yak wool.
Enter expeditioner and adventurer Michael Kleinwort, who, in his travels through the Himalaya with explorer Jeff Fuchs, imagined yet another use for the hairy, one-ton creatures, one with a decidedly 21st-century slant: performance base layers. The result: kora, a new outdoor clothing brand dedicated to innovative products as well as innovative production, procuring wool directly from nomadic communities of the Tibetan Plateau.
R&D proved what Kleinwort suspected: yak wool is very warm and very durable, with great wicking properties. It’s also extremely light, highly breathable and naturally odor-resistant. Pound for pound, it beats the popular competition, merino wool, in every category, which makes sense, given that merino sheep live at about 1000 meters while yaks live at 5000 meters. Kora’s first products—zip-tops and leggings for men and women—launch this Spring, available through kora’s website, and soon, Kleinwort hopes, through other retailers.
TrekWorld caught up with Kleinwort on the eve of kora’s debut to talk about balancing success and sustainability, trekking with Fuchs (with whom he won the 2011 Wild China Explorer of the Year award) and the challenge of entering the highly competitive outdoor gear market. “The mountain,” he wrote on his blog, “looms large in front of us.”
What was the inspiration for kora?
A lot of different things have inspired kora. Ultimately it is the mountains and people of the Himalayan plateau and its surrounding areas. Each trip back only reinforces this feeling.
What’s the significance of the name?
I had been looking for a suitable name for months, and at the time I was heading out with Jeff on koras of remote mountains in the region—a kora is the Tibetan word for a circumambulation of a sacred mountain or place. It can involve weeks of trekking over treacherous terrain at altitude; for pilgrims the journey is made to pay homage to a mountain god and to nature. In hindsight it makes perfect sense to call the company this name, but it wasn’t until a friend asked me what a “kora” was, and told me I should use it for the brand that the penny dropped. It’s a great word that captures our roots, our philosophy and the activities we love.
Why yak wool? Did you look at a yak and think, “He looks pretty warm…”?
No fabric I had been wearing had kept me comfortable across a whole journey: from the planes and buses to get there, to the low-lying temperate valleys where it is even hot in the sun, and on the 5000-meter passes which can drop to minus-30 degrees Celsius. This is an issue when you are keeping your pack weight to a minimum and conditions are prone to change at any moment.
The yak is remarkable. They make great pack animals: capable of traveling great distances with heavy loads at high altitude, and they are also nimble and resilient—two qualities essential in the high mountains. During the kora of Amye Maqen in Qinghai I was often cold, but it was clear that the yaks were oblivious to the conditions we were in—even a blizzard. One morning I approached one: he was lying down, a fresh layer of snow across his shoulders and back, but he wasn’t fussed. Approaching him, with my hand I could feel this incredible heat in his coat. It made sense then that this animal had adapted to such extreme conditions and could thrive in them, that the yak had to have evolved a protective layer of wool that was finer and warmer and more breathable than any other—simply out of necessity. There is no doubt they are no-nonsense animals, with a bit wildness still in them; this is a requirement to cope with the altitude, the weather extremes and the predators in these parts. But how they coped got me thinking they might be onto something.
The question then was: could these characteristics be harnessed into a fabric for our use… It has taken some time to answer that question, but I am hopeful and confident that people will agree that we have.
Where does kora acquire its yak wool?
We buy our wool directly from the highest altitude communities on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, in Yushu Prefecture in the southwest of Qinghai Province in China. We have chosen to buy here because the quality of their wool is exceptional and because we had the opportunity to work directly with these remote communities. Through my friend Qingmi Rabden and the organization he has founded, the KeGaWa Herders Cooperative, we are able to establish relationships with several communities. The intention is to build lasting relationships to secure our access to the wool and contribute directly to these communities and the environment in which they live.
Why does the world need another adventure clothing brand?
Yes, it is a very competitive market, but we are different in pretty much every way:
- We have developed an entirely new natural fabric from a rare, special fiber, which has unique performance properties.
- We are a social enterprise—our environmental and social objectives are in our DNA, it’s why we do what we do. And I am not just saying that: we have written that into our mission statement. We want to help local communities move forward by helping them earn revenues, and we want to protect the wilderness they live in. As a sign of intent, we have already taken steps to fulfill social objectives even though we aren’t even selling garments yet.
- Given how we are structured, and how we control our product supply chain from raw wool to final garment, we offer customers the chance to connect directly with the people and region we source from. This is full transparency.
- We all need something to believe in. I do and this is it—all in one. To me this is more than a clothing brand: it’s a chance to show that anything is possible, even a crazy idea to make performance base layers from yak wool bought straight from nomads. It’s a chance to show that not only can you follow your dream, but that you can do that by sticking to your principles: do the right thing. And you don’t have to be a big company to do that: anyone can, even a guy with no experience in startups, in textiles, in the outdoor apparel industry or retail. If we can inspire and motivate a few to get up and do what they believe in, then I think we will already have achieved a big part of what we are about.
Who wears kora products? Are they only for extreme outdoor adventurers?
The great thing about this fabric and our designs is that once you have tried them on, you don’t want to take them off. Whatever you are doing they are just the most comfortable things to be in. That could be at 5000 meters on a freezing mountain pass, five hours into a 24-hour mountain trail run, in a refuge waiting out a blizzard ski touring in the Alps, or walking about town in the autumn. It’s warm, it’s breathable and it’s super soft. I wear mine being active and just milling about: trekking, skiing, trail running, on marathon bus rides across the plateau, at home, in the pub, whenever I travel long haul, in case they jack up the air-con (British Airways) or turn it off (Cathay)… but that’s me.
Kora is launching with four products: top and bottom base layers for men and women. Are there any plans for expansion?
Lots. It’s exciting and it’s going to be pretty awesome.
One of kora’s goals is to support positive change among the nomadic communities where kora’s wool is sourced. What sort of support does kora provide?
Our primary goal is to support positive change among the communities who supply our wool. We buy at a fair rate directly from herder families, and we pay this same rate throughout the buying season. This gives herders security, as the price they earn is often dependent on the whim of the agent in town that day. We also pay a stipend, which this year was about 10 percent on top of the purchase price. We buy the wool and pay the stipend via a herders’ cooperative called KeGaWa.
In time we will look for opportunities to employ locals and we will work with an NGO that has long-term hands-on developmental and environmental experience in this area: Plateau Perspectives. They are really well-placed to support us so we are lucky.
How did explorer, mountaineer and writer Jeff Fuchs get involved?
Jeff is a good friend of mine. I’d say there are few people each of us can trek with—it’s an intense experience and you need a good understanding with that person because you are going to be in each others’ pockets—you need trust and laughter in equal measure. We got each other quickly. We met in Shangri-La, in Yunnan. Since then we have traveled and trekked in Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan and Qinghai together.
Given where he lives and what he does, I have been sending him garment prototypes since the start, and he has been giving me regular feedback from his treks. He has also accompanied me on a trip to one of the sourcing areas to act as translator (he speaks Tibetan). Jeff is now a kora ambassador, which means he gets free kit from me, and he will share stories with the kora community of his treks and time in the Himalayas. We have some exciting plans for some trekking together this year, too. He also sends me tea.
What inspired you to travel?
Travel can be so many different things. Ultimately it can be whatever you happen to need at any given moment. Sometime I need space, emptiness, and other times I want people and new faces. More and more I am drawn to mountains and the people there—I find both so fascinating and inspiring. The simplicity, the reality, the harsh truths of a mountain life are such a contrast from so much in the modern world. It is etched in the faces of the men and women, and yet there is this wisdom and nobility, this freedom in their laughs that is so infectious. Their lives are tough but they enjoy them and you see that in their eyes.
Most often for me I get perspective. I find these moments inspire and energise. They help me realize what’s most important and they give me the push to go and get it.
What is your most memorable trek and most memorable moment on a trek?
It has to be the kora of Amye Maqen. It didn’t take us long—only five days—but we were the first to do it that year. The mountains were empty of nomads, the passes were covered in snow—and it was cold. We trekked through a blizzard until our feet bled and once we got lost. But coming up a pass under a clear sky to see this never-ending plateau with an enormous mountain range plunging up from it peak after peak for miles was quite breathtaking. In that moment I knew that there was nowhere else I would rather be—and I knew that I had to push through with this crazy idea come what may.
Where would you like to trek that you haven’t?
So many: Mustang, Sikkim, Pakistan, Canada, Argentina…
Where is the coldest place you’ve ever been?
It got to minus-30 degrees Celsius in Canada heli-skiing once. I wasn’t complaining though, it was one of the best days of my life.
Are there any fellow entrepreneurs or adventurers you admire or draw inspiration from?
Entrepreneur: Paul Newman
Adventurers: Ranulph Fiennes, Michael Palin, Robert Falcon Scott, Ben Saunders, Jeff
Do you have a favorite travel book?
Mountains of the Mind, by Robert Macfarlane
What’s on your iPod?
Coldplay, RJD2, Mr Scruff, Bonobo, Nightmares on Wax, DJ Shadow, Alice Gold, Angus and Julia Stone and there always has to be some U2 and Michael Jackson.
What three things do you never leave home without—things that make life on the road easier, more comfortable, more efficient, more fun?
My kora ShoLa zip and leggings, my Canon 5D mk2, my double-hull thermos. I can get by pretty much anywhere with these three.
Favorite travel souvenir?
Some of my first memories are from a trip to Kenya. My parents were passionate conservationists. My mother still is. I picked up a wart-hog tusk that I found by a recent lion kill. It was old and worn but it was very precious to me. My father had it treated so I could keep it. I was very proud. For many years after, all I read about was Africa. I studied African history and my first jobs were there.
Do you use any travel apps?
No. You got any to recommend?