Fashion brand Tengri has its roots in Mongolia and is the result of an amazing journey taken by founder, Islington local Nancy Johnston. She tells Keegan Strandness how redundancy inspired her to follow a dream
Islington local Nancy Johnston is a well-versed world traveller. Be it scaling a Costa Rican volcano or backpacking the landscapes of Asia, she is imbued with the spirit of adventure. Amidst all the globetrotting, however, one destination had always stood out to her: Mongolia. Ever since she was a teenager, she carried a lifelong dream of visiting this country’s rolling nomadic plains. Little did she know this dream would later evolve into Tengri: a revolutionary and eco-friendly fashion brand with a conscience.
Rewinding 20 years, this dream began at the age of 16 when Nancy picked up a Peace Corps volunteer brochure that featured a stunning photograph of the Mongolian wilds. The paper promised adventure. Exploration. Freedom. ‘It struck me because of the vast landscape – the lifestyle of the people,’ Nancy says. ‘It’s inspiring to live off the land and be so self-sufficient in a hard and cut-off terrain.’
However appealing, becoming a Mongolian nomad was not realistic. She was too young to volunteer and had other things to worry about, such as family, friends and school. The dream would have to be put on hold.
Years later, Nancy completed school studying social work with a focus on systematic change, and moved to London in 2005 where she worked with a non-profit organization. It was fulfilling work, but the organization was eventually stricken with unavoidable budget cuts and began to sink. Forced to lay off employees, Nancy faced redundancy in 2013. Now 36, with her dream of nigh on 20 years still buzzing in her mind, she grabbed hold of a silver lining: she now the time to pursue her lifelong dream.
‘Immediately following the redundancy, I thought “well, I should go and ride horses and live on the nomadic plains”,’ Nancy jokes. ‘I even took some horse riding lessons in the months before I left.’ Skipping her own leaving party on her last day of work, Nancy boarded a flight in Mongolia without looking back.
Having explored much of Asia in her lifetime, Nancy was no stranger to travel. A woman of the world, getting to experience new cultures was much more exciting than it was daunting. Even so, the culture shock of nomadic Mongolia was something to rock even the most seasoned of travelers, especially one who spent the last nine years living in the heart of busy London. ‘Some countries have nomadic tribes and it’s a small population,’ Nancy says. ‘In Mongolia it’s 50% of the population and is still a strong part of the culture. A country that lives like that is really amazing.’
Upon landing in Mongolia, Nancy spent much of her time living with herder families. She became infatuated with the culture, and the symbiotic relationship the nomadic people share with the land and animals. She gained a respect and understanding for the herder families, and became intrigued with their yaks; specifically the wool, an ideal alternative for cashmere. ‘It’s warmer and softer than cashmere, breathable, static free and odour-resistant,’ Nancy says. ‘Being able to wear a fashionable garment as soft as cashmere and as technical as Marino wool really suits the kind of person I am.’
Sufficiently inspired, Nancy was driven to create something that encompassed this sustainable way of life that could financially empower the community through natural resources. Drafting a spur-of-the-moment business model on a nearby chocolate wrapper, Nancy knew she had to bring Tengri to life.
Returning home, she began to spread the word amongst her friends to recruit the necessary assistance. She registered her business in March 2014, and began working with her interested friends. After a few short weeks, Tengri was born.
The logo was created by Nancy’s friend Winnie Lee, who happened to be in branding at the time. So taken by the design, it was submitted to UnderConsideration and won the 2013 International Brand New award for its ingenuity. The debut clothing collection was created in just two weeks by award-winning Italian knitwear designer Carlo Volpi, who was a friend of Nancy’s rock-climbing buddy. Whether you call it serendipity or fate, Tengri has had an impressive foundation from the day one.
‘It’s not your typical fashion brand,’ Nancy says. ‘It is a collective movement powered by very passionate people who are concerned about the environment as well as supporting, enabling and empowering communities.’
Tengri works directly with two co-ops in Mongolia, which include 616 different families. The wool can be harvested only once a year through hand-combing, and only 20-25% of it is usable for clothing. Emphasizing recycling, Nancy works with both interior and accessory designers to create products from the remaining wool so nothing goes to waste. Because of the limited supply, all Tengri products are unique and limited edition. The first debut line is set to launch 18 September 2014.
Nancy is working with retail managing companies to establish a pop-up shop space, and is exploring partnerships with retailers interested in carrying the brand. She says she hopes to get to the point where the brand is internationally self-sustaining, with most of it being owned by the farmers who contribute their product and labour.
Looking back, Tengri has come a long way in a short time, and it shows no signs of slowing. The story of Tengri is one of success rooted in dreams, and Nancy says having the guts to fearlessly tackle your ambitions or follow that one silly dream from your childhood can snowball into truly great things. ‘The best experience is to not be afraid to follow your passions and to go into uncharted territory,’ Nancy says. ‘It takes you to new and exciting things, and opens doors you wouldn’t always imagine.’
Find out more about Nancy Johnston at tengri.co.uk