“Shokay Yak Down” is the name of today’s game. Whenever a brand description goes on to include “world’s first”, “premium yak wool brand” and “socially responsible”, one must pause, pour a cup of Earl Grey and light up the damsel pipe. What deems social responsibility these days — can we track your Qinghai Province yak? Sustainable Supreme Alina Raetsep tackles the topic in tried and true Temper style: Overgrown limbs, decked out in checked Holmes patterns, flailing about.
Yours truly back in 2010 already wrote about the then “world’s first socially responsible premium yak wool brand” — heads up, Khunu. Admittedly, said brand website currently no longer states “world’s first”, but rather “one of the first” at this point. Either way, circling back to Shokay, when speaking of ethical yak down produce…
Can we look your yaks in the mouth? Do you donate a part of the proceeds back to the farmers and can we track these donations via a QR code? In true Temper style, this non-negative Nancy Drew is digging it all up and sorting, analyzing, categorizing the only way an imitator investigator knows how — with a hefty dose of healthy skepticism and an upsetting amount of inappropriate effort to make “funny”.
The brain gets spinning and the question becomes… Man or yak down? The pipe is lit.
Herding The Business Hub
Shokay’s founder, Taiwan native Carol Chyau, and her business partner Marie So (big ups, Hong Kong), who she met while paying attention to a blackboard at Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy and Administration — insert possible power nap. One can only envisage – Drunk History style — how these two shared a light bulb moment, when one of them went “Hey, how about we do something Socially Responsible in China, like?” — possibly over a bowl of clam chowder (big ups, Boston). This scenario is obviously one sprouting from the author’s imagination, as, alas, Chyau was unavailable to confirm — or deny — said lightbulb moment.
While the aforementioned Khunu led with the yaks, which they encountered on a Tibetan plateau and in that moment of absolute awe decided that their wool must make for a really nice sweater, Shokay led with the idea of starting up a socially responsible venture in western China and putting into practice all those tried and true theories learned at Harvard.
[Now would be the appropriate time to suggest starting a drinking game called “Harvard! Shot.”]
Two Women Of Harvard Gain Victory?
First things first. These two women of Harvard had to scan the landscape and feel out the turf. Tickets were booked, backpacks packed and off to South China’s Yunnan Province, the gals went. There, they were presented with yak milk and cheese. The overall reaction to this produce – largely one off “hm, yak, perhaps a little yuk” — must have felt the same way for our Harvard (remember, shot) women because neither yak milk nor cheese made it onto the draft of their “possible socially responsible ventures to set up in China” list.
Above is, in fact, a complete lie on the part of yours truly. The gals did, in fact, have in place an entire cheese operation called Meixiang Yak Cheese, before turning their attention to the animal’s fiber — thanks to a rare find that landed in their laps called “A United Nations Handbook On Yaks”. For real. The stars aligned — the description of yak wool in the handbook being one of the softest Lit That Light — and one can only imagine the audible sigh of relief, “Thank Cheesus, there are other options”. Bear in mind, these girls did go to great lengths to make their cheese plate partner in crime appealing to the Western palette and all.
With the yak fiber idea firmly in place and gaining pace, Chyau and So devoted their last semester at Harvard (yep) Kennedy School to studying yak fiber and armed with some crucial knowledge “parachuted” into the office of Professor Jeffrey Silberman, Assistant Chair of the Department of Textile Development and Marketing at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
[Raetsep at this point is starting to feel pretty down about her own Bachelor’s from a little known local. Remedy? Shot.]
Poor? Tick. Yaks? Tick. SWOT? Tick.
Following that encounter, many others happened. I mean, if I start listing everyone these ladies chased down and bothered the living hell out of it would make your head spin. Here’s a taster: They set sail to Hebei, Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, where they poked their heads through the doors of universities, research institutes, textile manufacturers, development organizations, government agencies, Tibetan communities and yak experts — all of the yak experts. Analyzed locations across the Tibetan plateau, conducted studies of regional and local demographics, studied economic and social variables to find a site to set up their first cooperative.
[Note from the editor: One can only imagine the perfect conditions they were looking for that required such studies: “Poor? Tick. Yaks? Tick. Watson, SWOT analysis? Tick.”]
The lucky township on which Chyau and So landed, was that of Heimahe (黑马河 in Chinese) Township in Qinghai Province, with a total population of 14,000 yak herders living in clay houses by winter and yak tents by summer, earning some RMB 3,400 per year per person (i.e. approximately €437 or US$490) with, according to Chyau, “no structures to govern trade or markets”. [Tick, tick, tick, Watson.]
Chyau and So organized the villages into cooperatives and set up training [speaking of bootcamping it] for the herders, teaching them how to best extract fiber by combining specific body parts. You can only imagine the push back from the locals. And push back, they did. Lack of trust and former bad experiences with fiber traders made for a formidable barrier, but hats off to the ladies, who put no less enthusiasm into descending on each household in their cooperatives to get to know each family and herder as they did poking their heads through the aforesaid doors of universities, research institutes, textile manufacturers, development organizations, government agencies, Tibetan communities and yak experts.
The Victorious Glory Of A Yes We Cardi-Can!
With herders on lockdown, Chayu and So had to find a few pairs of skilled hands to knit the yarn they obtained from Heimahe villagers. 40 women on Chong Ming Island (崇明岛 in Chinese, one landmass looming in the backyard of Shanghai City) were the next batch of people to experience Chyau and So’s determination to change their lives for the better. Unfortunately, the annals of history don’t reveal the explanation to “Why Chong Ming island?”, but if you paid attention to the above you’d probably guess that a hefty amount of research, studies and analyzing was involved. Harvard style.
One last fence remained in place — knowing jack about textile and fashion production. Oh well, just hold Chyau’s beer and watch her leap. Three years in and Shokay has products stocked in more than 100 stores across 10 countries. 13 years in… And we’re talking fashiun, hun. Long cardigans, shawls, dresses, skirts, sweaters, and even pants. Your credit card will feel it, with designs retailing at US$185 for a skirt and US$365 for one absolutely, all joking aside, glorious long cardigan. Think about the herders, though. Think about the knitters. Think about those long Tibetan winters. Think about those shy yaks with their big sad eyes. Yes we cardi-can!
[The Raetsep| Santana (shoutout to and shot for dad) household better prepare for a long winter filled with a tumultuous feast of turnip(-inspired) meals. How very artisanal of mommy.]
Shokay sounds like a hell of a formidable effort, with a path strewn with all sort of thorns and stubborn yak herders. Hats off to Chyau and So, hats off to their perseverance. Shokay’s success is a piece of glaring proof that every now and then, all you need in life is high altitude mammals and government failure to provide market structures. As well as out of control determination and a pair of balls of steel. Also, a degree from Harvard. Last shot.
At this very moment, we have no way of finding out (or even confirming) what happened to the yak herders since getting organized into cooperatives and what the knitters on Chong Ming Island really think about that Taiwanese lass waltzing in. We want to believe everyone is exceptionally better off.
And so we shall. No man or yak down just yet.
Written by Alina Raetsep (of former and soon to be rebooted sustainable fashion haven SIX Magazine) for Temper Magazine
Edited by Elsbeth van Paridon
Featured Image: Baby Yaks via Yaks Matter, 2019. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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