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Why is there a fashion boutique on the Tibetan Plateau?

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Why is there a fashion boutique on the Tibetan Plateau?

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When you’re in the business of £2,000 blankets, £300 scarves and £500 jumpers, launching a flagship store is all about the location. You want foot traffic and proximity to similarly ritzy neighbours in order to attract cash-flush punters.

So when Norlha, a purveyor of textile goods woven from the finest cashmere-soft yak down (called khullu), opened its flagship store in Ritoma, a rural village on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, last May, it was something of a surprise. Cattle herders and farmers are the main passersby: the nearest sizeable airport is Lanzhou, over a four-hour drive away. The trip from Chengdu, the closest significant city, takes up the better part of a day. Walk in either direction from the store’s massive wooden front doors and you can stroll the grassy, undulating steppes of north-west China’s Gansu province for miles.

Khullu blankets and bed covers in the atelier
Khullu blankets and bed covers in the atelier © Kin Chan Coedel
Tsering Dhundup, a local herder
Tsering Dhundup, a local herder © Kin Chan Coedel

For Dechen Yeshi, Norlha’s Tibetan-American co-founder, the far-flung location was eminently reasonable. “It’s never been about just putting a product out there,” she says. “We want our wares to convey the local culture, a look into the lives of the people behind it. And with the travel involved, there’s a discovery process for the customer. The product becomes a part of them.” 

Dechen and Kim Yeshi, founders of Norlha
Dechen and Kim Yeshi, founders of Norlha © Kin Chan Coedel
A selection of clothing inside the atelier
A selection of clothing inside the atelier © Kin Chan Coedel

Yeshi and her mother opened Norlha’s first khullu weaving workshop in Ritoma in 2007, thinking to help inject some cash into the local Tibetan nomad communities whose pastoral livelihoods had been upended as China urbanised. The initial plan was to source the khullu fibre that yaks shed every summer from local herders and then set up an atelier in a remote area from which to sell their creations, but it quickly emerged that only buying the raw material would barely make an impact. “Each yak only sheds a little bit,” Yeshi says, and the low value of the wool makes it hard for the herders to sustain a living all year round. “It would’ve been pocket money. What the nomads really needed was a stable source of income.” 

Today, almost two decades later, Norlha’s workshop employs around 130 people from the area and has provided vocational training in everything from tailoring to sales management. Wages have translated to better homes and education for the local community, while the gold-trimmed monastery that towers above the town now receives a steady flow of donations. 

Yak khullu products inside the atelier
Yak khullu products inside the atelier © Kin Chan Coedel
Dolma Tso, Nyingmo Kyi and Dugmo Kar, Norlha felters
Dolma Tso, Nyingmo Kyi and Dugmo Kar, Norlha felters © Kin Chan Coedel
A Dawn neck warmer, £162, is spun by hand
A Dawn neck warmer, £162, is spun by hand © Kin Chan Coedel

At the new flagship store, housed in a sun-drenched timber annexe on the first floor of a traditional Tibetan wooden building, the air is filled with the scent of sweet incense and the muffled clatter of the looms spinning in the workshop below. Norlha’s full collection, logo-less and largely earth-toned, is on display on the wooden racks along the walls: black felted khullu vests (from £234) and overcoats (£1,152); midnight-blue shirts with asymmetrical cuts and Mandarin collars made from a khullu-silk blend (£492). Scarves range from full-body wraps in fleece-like boiled khullu (£298) to skinny styles in the yak’s creamy natural white colour (£210). Larger pieces, such as felted bed covers in sunshine yellow and rainbow ombré (from £1,160) and one-of-a-kind patchwork blankets created from unused leftovers (£2,416) hide in the vertical drawers that seemingly disappear into the timber walls. 

Using Norlha’s small guesthouse as a base, customers can turn their shopping trip into a holiday. Within walking distance from the front door, there are temples and endless mountain trails to be explored and, of course, the wide expanse of the plateau, with its families of yaks. 

Norlha, Ritoma Village, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu, China. norlha.com

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