New York-born designer makes yak-wool fashions popular
Born in New York to a Tibetan father and an American mother, Dechen Yeshi is the product of two cultures combined.
Over the past decade, she has worked tirelessly to build her family’s yak wool business into an internationally renowned textile brand, which also helps improve the lives of nomadic communities in Gannan Tibetan autonomous prefecture, Gansu province, where her workshops are based.
The brand, called Norlha, is available through e-commerce sites from New York to Paris and its products have also been featured in famous fashion houses such as Hermes.
Like most nomads on the Tibetan Plateau, the inhabitants of Zorge Rituoma village in Gansu province have depended on raising yaks as their main source of income for thousands of years.
“With fast-growing urbanization and an increase of job opportunities in modern times, many nomads — especially the younger generations — have been giving up their age-old nomadic life,” said Gonbokyab, a Tibetan nomad.
However, Yeshi’s enterprise has helped to keep some of these traditional communities together by providing them with a new means of making a living.
The Norlha workshop in Zorge Rituoma village employs more than 150 local nomads, providing them with training and a stable job.
“We provide both breakfast and lunch at the workshop and the workers are employed all year around,” said Yeshi, 34.
“It has grown to become a stable source of livelihood for them and we have over a hundred people waiting for job openings.”
Having a thriving central source of employment has boosted the economy of the village, which can now support additional restaurants and shops due to increased levels of disposable income, she said.
But the biggest affect has been in keeping the local community together.
“Younger people now have an opportunity to remain in their villages with their young children and elderly parents, thus allowing for a healthy family life,” Yeshi said.
“By providing a source of livelihood that is based on locally available raw materials, and by teaching a skill and opening a new market, Norlha has provided new job opportunities.”
Offering an alternative source of income has also led to a reduction in the number of actual nomads in the area — reducing overgrazing pressures on the grassland.
In addition to Zorge Rituoma, Norlha has workshops in Rentuoma village and Hezuo city as well as a smaller branch in Xiahe county, Gansu province.
“Scarves and shawls are the signature products we produce, and we are recognized as creating some of the world’s most beautiful yak wool scarves,” said Yeshi, adding that the company also produces yak felt clothes, bags, home furnishings, toys, and children’s accessories.
The benefits of a steady job with weekends and holidays are not lost on the nomads that the company employs, according to Yeshi.
“They no longer have to worry about working days, months and years on end with no holidays, early hours and hard labor, sometimes completely in vain in the face of animal diseases and low market prices for animals,” she said.
Many of the company’s female employees have also found a measure of independence thanks to their monthly salaries and are now able to contribute directly to their family’s savings, with Norlha seen as a vital part of the local community, Yeshi said.
Looking toward the future, Yeshi hopes to collaborate with more villages on the Tibetan Plateau, bringing employment opportunities to other areas where they are badly needed.
Tibetan workers works at the Norlha workshop in Gannan Tibetan autonomous prefecture, Gansu province.
Dechen Yeshi on the grassland in Gansu province.