Girl Bosses Of Great Britain: From Yurts to Yaks – how Nancy Johnston has become one of the UK’s hottest eco-entrepeneurs

Here at House of Coco Magazine, we follow #GirlBosses who touch every corner of the globe. With a huge focus now on sustainable fashion and innovative materials, we’re always looking to find UK entrepreneurs who champion this industry. Nancy Johnston is the UK based founder of London lifestyle brand and social business, Tengri. The outcome of a realisation of her childhood dream to travel and explore the remotest parts of Mongolia, Tengri has led her to lead the sustainable manufacture of ‘noble yarns’. Protecting and preserving some of the world’s most remote indigenous communities, with emphasis on conservation and environmental progression, Nancy has become a formidable force in sustainability. Operating in the luxury goods sector, she is responsible for a powerful and disruptive business model making positive change for good in the consumer supply chain process. Our #TeamCoco girl Jenna grabbed ten minutes with this trail blazing social entrepreneur to talk dream collaborations and being at the forefront of eco-luxury…

“JC: Nancy, I  just love how your branding links back to the Mongolian roots with the word ‘Tengri’ meaning a pantheon of sky gods that govern human existence and natural phenomenon on earth. Other than the country of origin, what inspiration helped you decide on a final brand name?

NJ: When you travel through Mongolia, you’re always under the endless blue skies and you see blue ribbons around trees, rocks and other spiritual places honouring Tengri. As a name, it just felt right. Tengri was also the name of my friend’s cat in Mongolia and I liked the meaning so much that I borrowed it! When I wanted to use the name, I asked the nomadic families for their thoughts, they gave me their blessing and they asked me to ensure that everything I do is done in the highest honour.

Khangai Mountains of Mongolia. Credit: Tengri and Josh Exell.

JC: Other than the herder families’ livelihoods, their yaks, and the Mongolian landscape – what else made you fall in love with Mongolia? 

NJ: I travelled to Mongolia in 2013, a lifelong dream I had carried for 20 years. The vast landscapes, the nomadic herders’ way of life, the strength and self-reliance of the Mongolian people (young and old) living off the land and animals in such a remote and isolated place all captivated me.

I love how the people really respect and honour their past while forging a new modern cultural identity. It’s one of the few places in the world where a third of the population is still living the traditional nomadic way of life that’s been around for thousands of years. This unique way of living is the highest form of sustainable living and I find it baffling to see that it is also what makes it possible to supply natural fibres into the global luxury goods sector. Mongolia is the second biggest supplier of luxury fibres to the world market and this dynamic and their relationship with the land, animals and global market is also what intrigues me.

JC: As Fashion is a large element of the Tengri brand, who is a dream designer that you’d like to partner with?

NJ: Under our collective team we work with many inspiring creatives, revolutionary and visionary figure heads, creating unique, directional pieces for modern life and we’ve been approached by a number of luxury fashion brands keen to work with our noble yarns as a prestige fibre with a transparent supply chain, but Issey Miyake and the late Alexander McQueen are two designers who I would love to partner with. They both have mastery of fabrics and demonstrate amazing artistic vision in their collections.

The natural colours of the Khangai Noble Yaks: cocoa, tan, and the rare, extremely valuable silver and platinum. Credit: Tengri and Josh Exell.

JC: At House of Coco, we’re all about finding new uses for Luxury products – what is the most unique product you’ve seen Yak fibre used for? 

NJ: I’m proud to say that in terms of yak fibres we are truly at the forefront of innovative use. Tengri’s yak fibres are from a rare species of yak found in the Khangai region of Mongolia. These precious Yak grow hair with unique textures and colourings, found only in animals native to this region where they graze on mineral-rich grasslands. The fibre, which is as soft as cashmere, has incredible natural properties: it is warmer than merino wool and naturally resistant to odours and water. Naturally thermo-regulating, the fibres withstand temperatures from -40 to +40 degrees in the wild; they also regulate moisture, aiding optimum conditions for sleep. With this in mind we have facilitated one of the world’s most luxurious sleep systems together with prestige bed maker Savoir Beds. With only 50 produced, the Savoir No1 Khangai transcends all levels of comfort currently available, implementing sustainable noble yarns with incredible natural properties for a guilt-free slumber. This is just the start of even more innovative uses of yak fibre!

JC: As consumer’s impact on the environment is at the heart of what you do, how do you feel about the Vegan movement and their thoughts on animal products? Has there been any conflict between being an eco activist and owning an animal-based brand?

There is a lot of miseducation with those who are trying to do well for animals but in fact are actually harming them by selecting synthetic alternative materials which cause negative impact to the environment and in turn the animals. Tengri is actually operating in-line with nature and many Vegan movement values. Our work does no harm to either the environment or animals and for nomadic families living near the Tundra in Tiaga zone where it is impossible to have vegetables, living with animals is the only way to survive. It’s important to educate consumers that mass farming and agricultural practice is harmful, painful shearing practices and killing an animal for its fur is horrific and I am fiercely against all of those. Mongolian herder families and the nomadic way of living and doing business with Tengri hasn’t been much of a conflict and in fact, I have been able to gain support and alliance with many vegans. Our philosophy and values are the same and what works in one part of the world does not necessarily work in another.

Hand-combing the yak individually, once a year, when the animals shed their winter coats. Credit: Tengri and Josh Exell.

JC: Speaking of challenging situations, what was the biggest obstacle you encountered whilst introducing Yak Noble Fibre to the UK market?

NJ: Every batch of fibres from our beautiful Khangai Yak will always be different and developing these fibres into yarns, fabric and finished product is an intensely scientific and technical process. It’s where my knowledge of chemistry, biology and physics from studying to be a doctor comes in handy! This is slow fashion in its most beautiful form which overturns the traditional fashion calendar – we’re learning from nature.

JC: With the rise of female entrepreneurs and female led empowerment, who are your favourite #GirlBosses? Who inspires you?

NJ: Karren Brady because she’s redefined social norms as the first female boss of a football club, a phenomenal business leader and inspiration.

Tengri founder Nancy Johnston with a herder family in the Khangai region of Mongolia. Credit: Tengri and Josh Exell.

JC: What advice do you have for women who would like to become a #GirlBoss like yourself?

NJ: Go into it with conviction and just do it, no matter how big or small that first step. It’s okay to think and be different. Starting a business takes a lot of hard work, sheer grit and long hours. Just to take that first step and keep going.. Where there is a will, there is a way and in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “If you know the why, you can live any how”.

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Find out more about Nancy Johnston and her journey at tengri.co.uk.

 

 

 

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