The 1993 movie, Cool Runnings featured the true – if unlikely – story of a Jamaican bobsleigh team that participated in the 1988 Winter Olympics. Will Kwame Nkrumah Achaempong’s story also make it to the big screen? Kwame – nicknamed the snow leopard – offers an equally improbable script. He is Ghana’s first ever representative at the Winter Olympics.
The African is representing his (snowless) country in both the slalom and giant slalom, and as he himself put it: “Ghana was about as likely to have a man on the moon as an Olympic ski racer.”
His China-based sponsor thinks the story meshes well with its own. “Kwame’s story is about achieving the seemingly impossible – something we can certainly identify with,” says Julian Wilson, the co-founder of apparel firm, Khunu.
Khunu is a maker of yak’s wool outdoor wear, and the Ghanaian will stay warm in its products in Vancouver. It was founded last year by Wilson and Aaron Pattillo, two friends who met in Beijing in 2006.
Khunu’s story begins with a trip the pair made to the Tibetan plateau during a bitterly cold December a couple of years ago. Pattillo – who was running the Clinton Foundation in China – and Wilson – a former British army officer and PR executive – were staying with a family of Tibetan nomads. There was a lot of discussion about yaks, and they eventually brought a sack full of the wool back to Beijing – where they came up with the radical idea of a yak-based ‘Made in China’ fashion brand.
They became convinced that if they could make a stylish and trendy top, it would trump its sheep wool equivalent. According to Khunu, independent lab tests show that yaks’ wool is 10-15% warmer than merino wool. They say this is not that surprising given the hostile climate that yaks face on the Tibetan plateau (as well as in Mongolia). Perhaps more surprising is that yak wool products are so soft that they are often confused with cashmere – and are very comfortable to wear, since the wool is very breathable. In fact because it is good at absorbing and evaporating sweat, it is odour-free too.
Wilson says the brand – whose name is derived from an ancient Mongolian dynasty – is targeted at affluent Western consumers who seek not just a high quality product but also a socially responsible one. Khunu (www.khunu.com) will boost local yak herders income by not only buying their wool but also through donating 2% of sales to herding communities. The plan is to fund projects that will raise local living standards.
But persuading American and European consumers – long accustomed to sheep wool – to switch to Himalayan yak will be a marketing challenge. So apart from Kwame, the entrepreneurs have recruited other brand ambassadors to spread the word such as explorer Jeff Fuchs and walker Ripley Davenport. Khunu has designated them its ‘Men in Yak’. And women in yak? Wilson says that ladies wear will be launched in September.
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