Tengri: In Conversation with Nancy Johnston


One might not immediately associate high-end fashion with sustainability, but when Nancy Johnston conceived an idea for a new knitwear brand, scribbled on the back of a chocolate wrapper out on the Mongolian steppes, her starting point was not her market, but her manufacturer.

The market soon caught up, and caught on, and in just four short years Tengri has established itself not just as a leading brand of fine knitwear but as a game-changer in the textiles industry drawing interest in partnerships with the likes of Selfridges, Huntsman, Nile & York and Savoir Beds, and all this while setting an enviable example towards sustainability. We caught up with Nancy over coffee and an overpowering Frank Sinatra soundtrack in a Piccadilly café to hear about the business of yak herding…

What inspired you to start Tengri?

It was when I was a kid. I saw a picture of Mongolia when I was about nine and thought, ‘When I grow up I’m going to travel the world and I’m going to help people’. I was born and raised in LA, a city girl in the concrete jungle, and in the brochure I was looking at there were pictures of Africa, Russia, China, all these faraway places, it was an NGO appeal seeking doctors, teachers, social workers to travel – largely as the old communist states were devolving – and I just thought, ‘that’s what I want to do!’.

And was the natural world part of that appeal?

That’s what stood out about Mongolia specifically. It was nomadic, wild…and hostile. It was so vast and remote, and you literally had to survive on your own. It was the whole adventure side of nomadicism, and living off the animals in such a harsh landscape. I thought, ‘wow, people can do that?’.

Did that also inspire the social worker inside you?

Yes. It inspired me to become a doctor, although I failed epically and ended up in pharmacology, which then led to social work. That got me travelling, I met my husband up a mountain in Central America, we then moved to the UK where I entered the charity sector and international development. In 2013, I was made redundant-

Ah, often the catalyst…

Yes, exactly. And I remembered that picture from my childhood. I’d travelled the world, done all these things – and never been to Mongolia. So, on my last day at work, I packed my bags and the next day I was on a flight to Mongolia.

Wow. So, how long did you go for? What did you do?

I was there about two and half weeks. I was visiting a friend who was working to help the nomadic herders improve their productivity. I landed at 7am, and by 9am we were on horses on the Mongolian plains. We spent a week living with yak herder families, and that’s where I found out about the problems in the range lands where the cashmere industry was causing land desertification. I thought, ‘how can a goat create a desert?’ It was, simply, a case of numbers – too many animals living off fragile terrain and it was unsustainable. Of course, it’s their livelihood but it’s also causing the detriment of that livelihood.

For the past 10 years, the government has been trying to take the yak to market but to the rest of the world there was no market, and no reason for yak herders to comb their yaks, so they reared goats. It was a lightbulb moment out in the steppes. I said to my friend, ‘We just need a London-based fashion brand to take the yak to market.’ I had with me the pen from my Swiss-army knife and that evening, we wrote the business plan on the back of a chocolate wrapper.

So, how do you turn an idea on the back of a chocolate wrapper into a high-end fashion brand?

I had to figure out everything from scratch. But the more people I talked to, the more referrals I got, and it literally became a collective movement, and that became one of the principles of the company. But when I set up Tengri, the starting point wasn’t on this side of the world, it was on the Mongolia side of the world, because I needed the buy-in and the relationship with the herders.

So, I met with one of the nomadic leaders – this was a time when Mongolia was in the early stages of co-operative trading, so I said to the leaders, ‘Why don’t I buy the fibres off you and we set this up as a joint venture’. I had been inspired by cocoa growers in Africa, so there was more to the chocolate than just the wrapper!

How did the herders know about business?

That’s the funny thing. I didn’t realise but I’d tapped into their heritage. In nomadic culture you have an open-door policy and you have this requirement to share what you have to survive. So, the concept of a fair share business and a joint venture was met with, ‘Of course!’. Whereas most people who go into a developing country to do business come from a policy of ‘I’m going to buy from you and make all the profit’ and it’s exploitative. I hadn’t realised I’d tapped into part of their philosophy.

And I assume they were delighted to sustain their traditional practices, knowing it wasn’t just a subsistence thing from their perspective…

Yes, and the interesting thing for me, particularly from a social worker perspective, was it was trade not charity. It was more about empowerment. Unlike the goals of most commercial ventures, I had no reason to invest my life savings, but I was putting my money where my mouth was. And that earned their respect, too. I basically said to my husband, ‘let’s go buy a ton of yak hair’.

So how do you go from owning a ton of yak hair to a highly desirable item of clothing?

Fortunately, there was a lot of research done that compared the qualities of yak. There were other brands out there but none that refined it to a high level. When I decided to create Tengri as a fashion brand, I asked myself a lot of questions; ‘how can I create a brand that produces the highest level of quality, that doesn’t harm the environment, that preserves heritage, that supports people, that is fair…and not compromise on any aspect of running the business or the product’. So, I looked at where woollen fibres have the highest level of production and heritage…and it was Italy or the UK.

So, being in London it made sense for me to focus on British heritage and I found that like Mongolia there are many parallels in terms of the heritage and skills being lost, attitudes to animal husbandry, and their use of and manufacture of wool, so in supporting one it transpired I would also be supporting the other.

From a sustainable element, you also know your supply chain from source…

Yes. Everyone keeps asking, ‘Who’s your agent?’ And I say, ‘err, the herders?’ Even in Mongolia there wasn’t the supply chain set up, so we had to work together to navigate that and create one from scratch. Basically, nomadic herders live with four animals; horse, sheep, camel and yak. Goats were only introduced through the free market. And yaks were only used for milk and meat. Yak was never combed, when they shed their winter coats, it’s discarded. When I found this out I thought, ‘I can’t consciously not do anything about this.’ So, it led to more questions about how I evolve and develop the brand, and it became a luxury lifestyle brand.

So, I was this crazy lady who bought a ton of their yak hair, and came back and bought more, and what originally started with 200 families grew to 1500 families to now 4,500 in the co-operative.

What defines a noble yarn?

In the textiles industry, noble fibres are from rare and exotic animals. When you classify fibres, you start at the bottom end with sheep wool and noble fibres start with cashmere, alpaca, and at the very top end you have vicuna.

Unlike wool where you shear the whole fleece, with noble fibres, you hand comb, harvesting very few, which are then graded, of which we use only the top grade, the ultra down. It accounts for about 100g hair per animal.

The process involved, the net yield you’re dealing with, accounts for the price point. These are premium priced garments…

Yes, and if you account for every stage of the way, from fibre harvest to end product, it’s a two-year process with a lot of people in between, so if the price point is low, someone is being hurt; either the environment, wildlife or people, are being exploited.

So, how do you put a price on it, and how do you find your market?

Well, for starters, I had to understand markets! In a way I was forced to look at the luxury goods market, because there wasn’t another fit. Luxury means different things to different people and, for me, luxury is something that takes time and skill. You can’t rush it. The harvest comes once a year, the manufacturers are craftsmen, for example. When I was looking for similar models, I came across Vicuna, and Loro Piana. That’s how the yak was positioned, and how Tengri came to be.

So, what are the properties of yak as a luxury, or noble, fibre?

Okay, so, it’s as soft as cashmere, warmer than merino, it’s water resistant, odour resistant, moth resistant, fire resistant, machine washable, hypoallergenic and it’s like that untreated, in its natural state. And you’re going to ask, ‘how come the world doesn’t know about this?’ And that, for me, is luxury, inherent within the properties. But it’s rare, so it makes it part of the luxury goods market as we know it.

If sustainability is one of Tengri’s guiding principles, what are your sustainability credentials?

The concept of sustainability means so many different things; it’s not holistic. So many people say, ‘I’m recycling’ or ‘I’m reducing’ or people are ticking boxes, it’s a compromise. But, for me, sustainability is not a compromise, but having a full, circular end-to-end way of being, so is it ethically produced and, if the product comes to the end of its lifecycle, is it harming the environment? For Tengri it had to be traded fairly, it had to be eco-friendly, it can’t harm any animals – after all, you can be ethical and sustainable but there are some husbandry practices which are harmful-

I understand Mongolians have a strong relationship with their animals…

They sing to them. If you’re never seen the movie, The Story of the Weeping Camel, grab your tissues. The herders will put the life of the animal before themselves. The herder family I just stayed with this January has a thousand animals; they know every one of their names, their personalities, and they remembered which animals were born when I visited three years ago and showed them off to me.

There’s a fourth principle to sustainability, too. To be truly sustainable, it has to be circular. It has to be, literally, ‘sustained’. That’s how we view sustainability the Tengri way.

Nancy with the herder families

So, the name, Tengri, where does that come from?

It’s a Mongolian word. When I set up the company I wanted to have something that honoured Mongolia and the relationship with the herders. When you travel to Mongolia, it’s also known as the Land of the Endless Blue Skies and you’ll see spiritual places with blue ribbons wrapped around trees to honour their sky god. And the sky god is called Tengri. I was blessed and given permission to use the name of their god, but also instructed that if I were to do this, I should do the utmost to give their god the highest honour.

So, investors, stakeholders and staff aside, you’re really doing this for the Mongolian nomads themselves…

Yeah. And their god. So, no pressure!

For more information about Tengri, including insights into their sustainability and details of their collaborations, visit www.tengri.co.uk.