Despite having lived in Paris, New York and India, Kim Yeshi feels a profound connection to Tibet, a region she began studying in her young adulthood. The Franco-American became a Buddhist at age 17, obtained her masters in Buddhism from the University of Virginia and moved to India in 1979 with her Tibetan husband. In 2005, convinced that yak wool could be utilized on the luxury market, Yeshi sent two of her children to Tibet to collect wool for testing. Her hunch proved accurate; the wool was plush and warm, and two years later, Yeshi opened the Norlha workshop in Zorge Ritoma, a village in northwestern Tibet. The sustainable brand employs local nomads and villagers, creating jobs and developing the local economy, and producing supremely luxurious fabrics. Norlha debuted in Paris in 2008, and since then, has supplied major fashion houses like Balmain and Lanvin.
Zorge Ritoma is a rural Tibetan village in western China where the yak population outnumbers the inhabitants almost 10 to 1. Yeshi’s daughter Dechen lives there full-time, and Yeshi herself visits often. A Chinese visa is all travelers need to visit Zorge Ritoma, as it falls outside of central Tibet, the Tibet Autonomous Region, that is governed by China and is very difficult to access.
Norlha’s products are now available online, and Yeshi opened Norden Camp, a boutique tented hotel in rural Tibet. The minimalist but luxe accommodations offer the ideal base to explore the stunning Tibetan wilderness and partake in once-in-a-lifetime experiences like having lunch at a monk’s house. Guests can also visit the Norlha workshop and learn to work with yak wool.
What led you to study Buddhism and Tibet? I guess you could call it karma. I was very young when I became a Buddhist, and Tibetan Buddhism was particularly attractive. Meeting Buddhists, and then my husband, who is from central Tibet, enhanced this attraction for me. When we married, foreigners were prohibited from visiting Tibet, so we moved to a Tibetan community in India in 1979. I traveled to Tibet for the first time in 2006, and now hold a Chinese visa that allows me to travel back and forth.
What was your reaction upon seeing the country you’d studied for so long? Much of my insight came from refugees, so their retellings of the Tibetan way of life were based on memories that were sometimes years old. One of my most vivid memories was how shocked I was to travel by car and traverse long distances in such little time; all I’d heard leading up to my visit was of how traveling by horse would take days to get anywhere.
It’s not easy to come into a close-knit community, but we had the right introduction. Firstly, my daughter had established a life there, but more importantly, we came in with the purpose of building a workshop, and the locals were thankful for the employment opportunity that we provided.
I believe wholeheartedly in sustainability; I do not believe in handouts. The best way to help someone is give him or her stability through income. Our employees have a steady flow of money that gets recycled back into the community, and in turn, gives others opportunities.
One of the ways we foster a healthy work environment is by providing our workers with two meals a day, and we try to incorporate as many nutritious elements as possible. We cannot get brown rice or flour, so we make bread with barley flour and serve a lot of vegetables, fruits and proteins like tofu.
Have you developed relationships with any of the workers? Yes, we are like a family. There is one family in particular that we are very involved with because they sponsored us into the community when we first arrived. There is a community environment within the workshop, too; oftentimes, one person will begin at the factory and then get jobs for their siblings and children. There is a high demand for jobs at Norlha, because employment there ensures a salary every month, daily meals and a heated workshop.
What is the demographic of the workers? Everyone at the factory previously worked as herders. Some were forced to stop herding because they did not have enough animals or had too few family members to look after them. We employ a mix of men and women workers, most of whom tend to be on the younger side (with some as young as 17 for girls and 19 for boys; the age that locals usually marry. Most come to us with no skills, and some don’t even know how to read or write. We used to offer literacy classes, but it was very difficult because they had to stay late and they still had chores at home after.
How has Norlha grown since it was founded? We started with 30 workers and now have about 120. Our workers are experts at their craft, so we have been able to expand our product line. We also recently launched a photography section; my daughter and I always took the product shots, but when we opened our online store we needed professional imagery. A friend came from Hong Kong and set us up with the right lights and trained us how to properly use photography equipment.
We’d like to expand further, but first we want to perfect the model we have. Our workers are very proud of their work, and we’d like to be able to develop other areas and offer this opportunity for employment to others. That is how you can help a community the most.
Have you traveled to the other parts of Tibet? No, but we are thinking about opening a store in central Tibet. My husband comes from there, so I am familiar with it just from hearing stories and seeing pictures.
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