The buzz in today’s fashion world is all about redesigning unfair and polluting fashion industry practices. Swedish giant H&M pledged to use 100% recycled or sustainable materials by 2030. It’s impossible to deny today’s consumer interest in where their clothing originates, who made it and how sustainable it is for the environment.
A global search for meaning
People are in search for meaning in what they do and who they support. From a branding perspective, this means each label must declare driving values for a possible future. These trends shed light on the renewed interest in natural fibers—fibers that come from plants like cotton or animals like sheep or goats. Mongolia has around 70M of animals and not a single cotton or hemp stem, so let’s focus on what’s around: animal fibers.
The knitwear state of the art in Mongolia
As soon as you leave Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, you’ll find countless seminomadic herders producing wool naturally and authentically, just as they did centuries ago. These herders live with the strict necessities and spend all year with their livestock. The animals feed themselves with wild grass and don’t see a fence all day long. When the sun goes down, the herd is led to the closest enclosure to be protected from wandering hungry wolves.
The animals are combed once a year and provide an incredibly good yarn used by the top 10 luxury fashion brands. The potential is known, yet only a few Mongolian companies take advantage of it: Gobi (see article here), Goyo or Khanbogd Cashmere to name the big players. These brands manufacture beautiful products following rigorous quality standards, yet never appear in international fashion shows, fashion weeks or events like Pitti Uomo.
Simply put, the major Mongolian brands have an established business model not shaped for the world of high fashion. Their size and production line make it difficult and risky to change.
Over the years, Mongolia has increased its wool production but the value added (transforming the wool into a product) never stops decreasing. The country now processes only 10 percent of its cashmere into finished knitted and woven products, which means that the potential for infrastructure, manufacturing knowledge, thousands of jobs, and millions of dollars in income disappear from Mongolia every year. Simply because it’s easier to export raw wool material and make quick money instead of actually doing the job.
Mongolian promising fashion designers
But, there is another group of players that could reverse this trend: the young fashion designers. As I write these lines, the Instagram feed of Hypechase is overwhelmed with the work of creative fashion designers releasing modern collections on a regular basis. Even though the work is creative, most of their fabrics are imported from China or Korea.
Even though the designs could be attractive abroad, the international market is already saturated with synthetic and cotton fabrics with optimized logistic and export processes. Mongolia’s value added cannot compete with current stakeholders. Hence, these (hell yeah) good designers cannot scale up, stay on the sidelines, and hardly share a limited local market.
A few of the fashion SMEs have recently released pioneer projects using local fabrics to make clothes. The well-known fashion label Michel & Amazonka is releasing products made of Cashmere. Recently, an intriguing label called 7-694 co-created by the photographer Chayodu (article here) released outstanding design along with a very inclusive marketing campaign. These are the types of projects that have a chance to be recognized abroad.
What is the solution?
Let’s consider a few reasons Mongolia is well-positioned to capitalize on the new rules regulating the fashion design market:
The interest in knitted garments is growing worldwide and Mongolians have relevant experience in spinning and knitting activities. Some of the most famous Italian, French, Belgian and Japanese haute couture brands are sourcing and manufacturing their products in Mongolia despites the language barrier and remote location. The country still has access to heavy infrastructure and knowledge for producing luxury products.
The total count of wool-producing livestock in Mongolia is about 70 million. Some animals provide highly demanded and quality fabrics such as cashmere, while others produce rare fabrics such as baby camel or yak wool. The worldwide interest in natural fibers is undeniable and growing significantly. Using such fabrics instead of imported cotton or synthetic fabrics will drastically increase the product’s value and make exporting operations easier to afford.
Customers today are increasingly concerned about where fabrics come from and who made it. Mongolia is a relatively big country (3 times the area of France), but the supply chain and logistic processes remain very simple. This is an advantage because vertical supply chains and transparent sourcing will become the trend in the next fashion design model. Mongolia has the ability to put in place guarantees and regulations on sustainability practices. Moreover it does not put children to work and respects working conditions.
4. Creative designers
Unexpectedly, Mongolia (especially Ulaanbaatar) has a lot of young and creative people in the fashion industry. The young people are hard-working, clever, and interested in global trends. As long as it’s possible to operate a company, working in small studios in basements is not a problem. Equally, running a business in Mongolia is administratively much simpler compared to other countries. These factors enhance the entrepreneurial spirit and the opportunities to face the business world from a young age.
5. Supporting organisations
Mongolia is still considered a developing country. Many government organizations (TRAM, ADB, EBRD, EU, World Bank) and NGOs (AVSF, Green Gold) are established here to support the growth of the country through: exportation, trade facilitation, access to finance and expert advice.
Mastering the art of knitwear is not easy. The learning curve to handle such machines or deal with factories is certainly steeper than cutting fabrics from a ready-made roll. But it seems to be one of Mongolia’s best options for scaling up to the international market.