Tengri is a British knitwear label designed and made in the UK using Mongolian yak wool. The designs are effortlessly cool and of beautiful quality, but Tengri is more than just a fashion label. Championing sustainability, respect for the natural environment and fairshare, Tengri aims to build a society where these are the norm: not the exception. We caught up with founder and CEO Nancy Johnston following Tengri’s success at London Design Festival 2015.
TCT: What inspired you to start Tengri?
I travelled to Mongolia in 2013, a lifelong dream I had carried for 20 years. The vast landscapes, the nomadic herders’ way of life, the strength and self-reliance of the Mongolian people (young and old) living off the land and animals in such a remote and isolated place all captivated me.
I first saw a yak while I was living with a herder family – I immediately fell in love with the animal and Mongolian way of life. It was beautiful to experience the delicate existence of living off the land. I was very much inspired by Mongolia and these experiences are distilled into the core of the Tengri brand.
What I also discovered – accidentally – was that Mongolian yak wool and the nomadic way of life and future of wild animals are threatened by rapid industrialisation and desertification of the land, largely because of intensive grazing of cashmere goats.
The wool and textile industries in Mongolia depend on government subsidies, but yak wool is a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to cashmere. Just because the world doesn’t know much about the amazing qualities of yak wool, there isn’t a significant demand for it. In fact, yak wool is as soft as cashmere, warmer than merino wool, breathable, odour-resistant and hypoallergenic, and less prone to balling and fluffing than other fibres.
The word ‘Tengri’ means a pantheon of sky gods that govern human existence and natural phenomenon on earth. When you travel through Mongolia, you’re always under the endless blue skies and you see blue ribbons around trees, rocks and other spiritual places honouring Tengri. As a name, it just felt right. Tengri was also the name of my friend’s cat in Mongolia and I liked the meaning so much that I borrowed it.
TCT: What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the fashion industry?
Go into it with conviction and just do it, no matter how big or small that first step. Starting a business takes a lot of hard work, sheer grit and long hours. You need to have the confidence and conviction that this is what you ‘need’ to do and ‘want’ to do – just to take that first step. Where there is a will, there is a way.
TCT: If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, dead or alive, who would it be?
I would love to have dinner and climb a mountain with Yvon Chouinard.
TCT: What advice would you give your younger self?
It’s okay to think and be different. You are uniquely you for a reason.
TCT: How would you describe Tengri?
More than just a label, Tengri is built by people unwilling to settle for the status quo.