Slow Fashion on the Plateau
Interview with April, Co-founder of Shangdrok | Taipei
In an era of excessive consume, is it necessary to manufacture more products?
“In order to get to know the market, initially we would go shopping. But after a while we were totally frustrated and shocked by how many bags, clothes, and accessories had already been produced… It was then we started to feel a dilemma: why should we become another manufacturer when there are already millions of them?’” said April, the founder of Shangdrok, a brand that collaborates with Tibetan nomads to produce yak-wool artisan products.
Sitting by a long hardwood table at her home in Taipei, Taiwan, April grabbed one of the Yak-down fiber-felt hat sent from her team fellows in Tibet and carefully examined its details, consulting her notes on a laptop. She recalled that the first time she visited Tibet was to teach at an English camp at the invitation of a British friend.
During her interactions with the locals, April found the younger generation in their 30s has already deviated from the traditional nomadic lifestyle. “Some think that being a nomad is exhausting. During the winter, even when the temperature is minus-20 or -30 degrees, you still have to live in a tent on the mountain. You are separated from your kids at boarding schools.
You have to get up at 5 a.m. in the morning to milk with your hands being almost frozen. When it’s time to gather the cows, you need to mount your horse and lead them back, no matter storm or hail. Some people have sold their cows and moved to the city, yet lack relevant skills to make a living. Some want to live on cash, but don’t have any knowledge on managing finance. Some would regret, and others simply get lost in drinking and gambling”
On the grassland, traditional black tents are gradually replaced by lightweight plastic tents with the introduction of modern culture and technology. There are various advantages of these plastic tents, including greater accessibility, durability, and mobility. In contrast, using a yak-wool tent feels much more inconvenient. The process of making it involves hand-weaving. Nomads need yaks to carry weaving materials when they travel because they are too heavy for men. In addition, the natural fiber of yak wool can be easily damaged by bugs, and they need constant maintenance. Although, these traditional tents have better insulation and are biodegradable.
Lamenting the loss of traditional craftsmanship and hoping to create more job opportunities on the Northern grassland, April partnered with Tibetan locals and founded Shangdrok in 2016. Among all the challenges they faced in the beginning stage, the biggest one was that the aunties who worked at the atelier were too talkative to focus. Endless chatters resulted in poorly grasped techniques, as well as errors and mistakes in hat-making. After rounds of serious negotiation, April came up with the solution to have lollipops for each aunties in their mouths while at work so that they wouldn’t be able to talk to each other. “I suppose this is the real village life: They never needed to be so focused on something and so never had to restrain themselves from talking.” April took a deep breath and continued: “But the process of acquiring a new skill requires dedication and focus for a long period of time. Given the situation of the village however, it takes even longer.”
Because of their differences in culture, value, and education level, April found it especially challenging to communicate with the aunties. For example, it took her quite a while to get them to make accurate measurement or to write tags. “They didn’t even really understand what “crooked” meant when I tried to explain to them that the felt they made was not straight enough.” As light and funny as it might sound now, back then, April felt so frustrated that she couldn’t see a future. Everytime she came back to Tibet, she would remind herself to slow down and to not take anything for granted.
Today, Shangdrok has already developed a much more comprehensive product line and has even ventured into markets of the US and Japan. With an outstanding quality -- lightweight, breathable, and warmth keeping -- Yak wool has started to drawn attention internationally. In the past, April has experimented with plant-dyeing and indigo dye but found that these techniques, which are commonly used on vegetal fibers, could cause color fastness difficulty and felt hardening issue when applied to animal fiber. However, if proceed the dyeing process with chemical ingredients, the polluted water could not be properly dealt with in the undeveloped Tibetan area. As a result, she fixed the theme colors of the collections in accordance to the natural colors of yak wools -- black, grey, brown, and white -- which not only maintain a consistency instyle, but also establish an uniqueness of the brand.
“After three years, what do you think Shangdrok has brings to the aunties’(locals’) life?”, I asked.
April shared the story of a 55-year-old auntie, a single mom who lives in the village alone and suffers occasional chest pains from heart problem. When her cousin visited her at the atelier, the former said that she seemed much happier than ever by making many more friends. “After she saved enough money, she once asked me for a long vacation to pay a pilgrimage to Lhasa.” There is another auntie who couldn’t get divorced but saved enough money to buy a separate house. “We might not be able to offer a salary that changes their life overnight, but we’re helping them to build confidence on their way to a higher level of independence. ”
Back to the dilemma mentioned in the beginning of the article , April reflected: “After these years, I started to understand the meaning of ‘Less is More’.” To her, it means that a brand doesn’t have to be pressured by mass production, and can instead focus on materials, employees, and environmental impacts. “When everyone else lives in high-rise buildings in the cities, there are still people who aspire for a life closer to the nature.What is the meaning in that? I always believe that our lives can be much more fulfilling and meaningful if we start to care about and connect with people who live in different corners of the world. That’s why besides selling products, we also share articles and photos on social media about Tibetan life: to open people’s eyes to another kind of lifestyle without judging and to remind them how big a world there is. I guess this way, we can be fuller human beings. .”