Winter can be very cold and very long in the North of China! In its search for the perfect sweaters to keep warm, Nicely Made in China has come across Khunu, a young brand which deserves attention. Created by Julian Wilson, an ex-British army officer and Aaron Pattillo, who used to work as a manager for the Clinton Foundation, the company was created 18 months ago. Already, their sweaters are to be found on the shelves of fashionable stores in hip Swiss and Californian ski resorts. NMiC talked to Julian about finding the right wool and the challenges of living up to the expectations of nomads.
Julian, how did this adventure begin?
I have always been fascinated by Beijing and in 2005, I moved there from Hong Kong. At the beginning of 2008 I looked for a business idea with a social element to it, where returns could be evenly distributed and multiple layers added on to the value of a product sourced from communities with no access to the global market place. I think that with Khunu we have found the right model.
Your sweaters are made of yak wool – how do you source that?
For our first collection we worked with our yarn spinners to buy our fiber. Since then, Aaron and I travel extensively in Qinghai, Sichuan and Mongolia in search of nomads communities with the best wool, to see what and how much they can provide and also find the best ways to buy. Over the past 2 years, we have developed relationships with nomads communities in Western Sichuan and we are currently working on establishing a sustainable system of wool collection. But we try to be careful. We don’t want to raise false expectations by ordering yak wool for which we have no outlet. I think the most genuine way is to find a market first. So, at the same time we are working hard to find and establish a real market for it.
Who designs the Khunu sweaters and where are they made?
Our current collection of sweaters was designed by a New York-based designer, and are made in a factory near Beijing. We use a Western designer as currently our market is mainly the US and Europe. We believe it is important that the designer lives in, understands and knows our market. We are a very young company – Aaron and I still do all the groundwork ourselves. When it comes to quality control and the fair treatment of workers, it helps that the factory we use is already working with major Western brands.
What are the benefits of yak wool?
We tested and compared it with Merino wool and cashmere in two different laboratories – SGS in Hong Kong and the China Textile Testing Center in Beijing. We found that yak wool has the same thermal retention as cashmere and is more resistant to pilling. It is also 10-15% warmer than merino and has a softer feel. Actually the softness of the wool comes as the biggest surprise to customers.
How receptive is the market to yak wool? Where can our readers find your sweaters?
Yak wool remains quite rare and exclusive but initial response from customers is very positive. What we are doing at Khunu is first finding and establishing a market for it so as not to create false expectations in the nomads. So far we have focused on distributing our products through our website and to independent stores in mountain areas. Our sweaters are now sold in stores in Switzerland (St.Moritz, Zermatt) and in California (Sausalito, Lake Tahoe), among other places.