By Lee Havlicek.
Marcella Echavarria is one of our favorite Mavens and Storytellers. When she gets involved in a project, we know it’s something good, something that deserves attention. Norlha, a company that produces incredible and sustainable handmade, luxury textiles in Tibet, is one of the latest and most spectacular examples of this. (You can see an award-winning short film on Norlha here.)
We caught up with Marcella, who has been working with Norlha as a strategic branding consultant, to find out more about the company, why their work is so important and uniquely excellent, and how all of this fits into the alternative luxury conversation.
What is Norlha? How did it begin and how did you get involved? Norlha is a brand that manufactures yak wool textiles by hand. It is based on the Tibetan Plateau and it trains and employs local people. Norlha is a “vertical” enterprise, meaning that it sources its materials and is involved in the fabrication process up to the finished product. Norlha can live in harmony with the social, environmental and cultural values while offering products of excellent quality for the luxury market.
Norlha began in 2005 with Kim and Dechen Yeshi, a mother and daughter team, first sourcing yak wool and [conducting] trials [to turn it into] handmade textiles. For the last six years, I have been involved with Norlha in different capacities. First, in the creation of the brand, [which has had] a strong visual presence and consistency throughout its different manifestations. [Then,] establishing the brand in the US and developing its marketing, PR, and social media strategies globally.
On the website, it says that Norlha “is a new concept that links sustainability with luxury.” Why is creating this connection so important, especially now? Norlha makes beautifully crafted textiles out of the best raw materials. Craftsmen need to see their work valued, which means appreciation, respect ,and proper remuneration. For this to happen, demand for their products can only happen in the higher brackets of the market. Sustainability for craftsmen has to be based on a relationship with those willing to pay the price for something special: the luxury market.
We talk about the “new luxury” or “alternative luxury” on Handful of Salt a lot. How does Norlha fit into this discussion? For Norlha, “luxury” means a “real” product, both in terms of the quality of the raw material and in the care taken in the making. This product has a dimension that goes much deeper than mere looks. It has a feel, a way of aging, and emanates a level of comfort that only a special textile can.
Norlha textiles are about the very best in material, craftsmanship, and design. Norlha is about bringing back and rediscovering what quality once meant.
What does alternative luxury mean to you? A dimension that goes beyond look, that is expressed through feel and use and determined over time.
So what kinds of discussions and research happen before anyone actually gets to making products in the Norlha Workshop? Norlha products are the result of several years of technical research and trial. Once the technique is nailed and the result deemed appropriate, the product is ready to be included in a collection.
What goes into transforming these ideals into tangible products at the Norlha Workshop? You’re combining new technology with ancient maker techniques and keeping sustainability in mind all the while. How do all of these get balanced while maintaining focus on quality? There seems to be some very deep craftsmanship involved. Quality is the factor that needs to be ever-present, or the product will loose its meaning. Technology is what allows us to maintain quality while cutting down on cost, making the product sustainable on the market. This is where innovation comes in: finding a way to create an exceptional product, while retaining an edge in the market.
The quality of Norlha products—the gorgeous knits and woven fabrics—is self-evident, but in talking about alternative luxury, it’s sometimes hard for consumers to really grasp just how luxurious these products are and why they’re so luxurious, and therefore, expensive. The added aspects of social and environmental sustainability in Norlha’s case add a whole new aspect to products that so many other luxury goods don’t have to account for in production. Why do the benefits of alternative luxury products, like Norlha’s, outweigh the price increase when compared to regular luxury goods? Norlha is about more than ingenuity and design. It is a real product in the sense of those from earlier times, when luxury and beauty were equated with craftsmanship and precious materials. Norlha is about teaching the public to rediscover these qualities that changing markets have led us to forget. The environmental and social aspects are a byproduct of this process and this is where Norlha shows its win-win aspect: causing people to rediscover something nearly lost and helping those who make it recover their dignity.
What’s coming up for Norlha? Norlha will continue to unveil new ideals of true luxury through creativity and innovation. We feel that the public is ready to embrace these ideals, and that our responsibility is to help them discover them.
Do you have a favorite Norlha product? I have many favorites… We create 20 to 30 new products a year in scarves alone. The favorites among those usually make it into our Classic line. I am particularly fond of the nomad weave that uses 100% yak in the natural colors (brown, gray, and the occasional light tones). I also like the baby line because there is simply nothing warmer for a little baby.
Photos courtesy of Norlha.