In Part 1 of our interview with Kora founder Michael Kleinwort, the business leader answered a key question about Kora’s approach to outdoor apparel: why yak wool? Rather than use the traditional sheep wool for its clothing, Kora has built a business using yak wool as a performance material. Building that business, as with any new venture, has proved challenging. That’s particularly true considering Kleinwort’s goal of balancing growth with sustainability. In this final interview in our two-part series, Kleinwort discusses that goal for Kora, his reasons for establishing it, and the potential impact that delivering on that vision might have for indigenous cultures on the other side of the globe.
Kora offers a only handful of clothing items rather than going in multiple directions. This laser-like focus is by design, yes?
We are the first company to make performance apparel using yak wool, so a big part of our role is educating the outdoor customer about its unique performance properties. There was a lot riding on our first product. If we had gotten it wrong, then yak wool as a performance fabric would have suffered a setback that it may never have recovered from. It was vital that our first product was exceptional. So we focused on achieving that.
Thankfully the response has been fantastic. This encouraged us to push on: we have this season extended our base layer range to include new styles (Crews and 3/4 Leggings for men and women, and a men’s Short) and we added an additional colour (Shale Black). Recently we launched the Azog Jacket, using our first mid-layer fabric: Hima-Layer Stratam 350. This is a blend fabric using yak wool for warmth and comfort on the inside and sustainable Dupont Sorona on the outside for durability and protection. [Editor’s note: the Azog Jacket, shown above, won one of our Outdoor Retailer – Winter Market 2016 Hot Shot Awards.]
People are only just starting to appreciate yak wool and its unique performance properties. By offering fabrics and products that can be used across a range of sports and activities we hope to encourage a broad range of outdoor adventurers to try it.
Do you anticipate there being a point when Kora might venture into new products?
We are actively developing new products. In fact, we’re excited to be launching a couple of new products made from entirely new fabrics over the next few months.
Kora has a stated dedication to fair trade, ethical sourcing and empowerment of small entrepreneurs. How, why and when did that dedication coalesce?
These days it takes a lot for us to trust companies, let alone be inspired by them. We’ve become very cynical, and for good reason. Kora is the product of these cynical times. We just want to do things in a way that we can live with, so that we can sleep well at night – no green-washing, no cutting corners, no BS. It’s this goal that inspired us, and still does. This may be important for the customer or it may not. That is up to them: if a customer chooses to buy a kora base layer because he heard from a friend that it’s his go-to base layer, and that’s his only reason, then that’s fine with us. But it’s important to us that everything that went into making that base layer was done right – from herder to customer.
Our aim is to create phenomenal apparel that leaves our customers thrilled. If we can achieve that then we’ll be in a position to achieve our prime objective to help herders adapt to a changing world. In doing that we hope to protect the fragile eco-system of the Himalayas.
Has that dedication proved more of a challenge to commercial success than you’d expected?
Maybe. It’s lengthened lead-times and increased costs for sure. To be honest nothing about this venture has come easily. It’s been a long journey already with many hard lessons along the way. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Kora seems to have a reputation in more “extreme” circles. Do you have a strategy for maintaining your fair-trade and sustainability ethics if/when Kora goes more “mainstream”?
It’s not really a strategy. Some things are not negotiable. We will always maintain and grow our ties to herder communities, and we will always look for ways to support them. The more we grow, the more we will be able to help. It is that simple. This is the purpose of kora.
Thanks to Michael for taking the time to participate in this interview series, and to the Kora team for helping to make it happen.