Fashion brands are under more scrutiny than ever when it comes to the sustainability of their operations. From where they source their materials and supply chain transparency, to how much energy and chemicals are used during production, consumers are wising up to what the true cost of their clothing is.
Thankfully, companies all over the world are taking steps to increase eco-friendly practices, and as a result, new and humane all-natural fibers are popping up on the market. In recent seasons, alpaca yarn has had a "moment," making more frequent appearances on the runway and in the collections of sustainable brands like Reformation. But one small Italian brand believes it's found the next frontier when it comes to environmentally friendly textiles, and that's baby yak fiber.
Paola Vanzo, the founder of Myak, spent half of her life working and living with nomadic herders of the Tibetan Plateau, where yaks roam free. She and her business partner, who's a veterinarian and a fiber expert, came up with the idea for the brand by watching the nomads tend to the yaks and gather their molted fur which falls as the babies grow. "We always admired the beautiful animals; their fiber sheds naturally every year and it's often sold cheaply to middlemen," Vanzo explains. "One of the nomad ladies suggested we touch the undercoat of the baby yaks — it's similar to a cashmere goat's. We took some samples to a fiber and textile lab in Italy, and they could not tell the difference between [the baby yak] and the best cashmere they had."
After creating a co-op with the nomads — 50 percent of their fee is paid up front at the beginning of the season to sustain them as they work — Myak was born, and works to create high-end yarns and accessories from the baby yak fiber that's collected in Tibet. While yak material has been on the market for a while, the quality isn't guaranteed: adult yak fiber is often coarse, and yarn made at subpar mills is lacking in softness. Myak's materials are all made in Italy, and most of its products come in natural colors — ones that can be achieved only without bleaching or chemicals.
At the moment, Myak is only offering small collections of accessories — designed by Creative Director Tom Scott in Brooklyn — as well as yarns that it sells to stores for hand-knitting. High-end tailors and brands are also beginning to seek them out to purchase textiles to make jackets and coats. Since the yaks' natural habitat on the plateau can fall to 40 degrees below zero, their fur has proven to be warmer than cashmere and alpaca, without sacrificing the soft feel. The price point of the baby yak fiber is less than that of cashmere — about a third of the cost — but Myak's "made in Italy" element isn't cheap, which is why a woven stole will sell for $360 on its e-commerce site.
Though Myak has a personal relationship with the nomads and a completely sustainable operation, Vanzo explained that more and more brands are becoming aware of (and seeking out) the luxurious baby yak fiber. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say 'baby yak is the new cashmere,' but I think it’s going to start to become more of a trend," Vanzo says. Myak plans to roll out a small collection of new items each year (it's currently working on gloves and hats), but will likely keep the product offering small. "We want people to understand and appreciate the brand and what we have," Vanzo says. "We won’t have tons of collections. It's the opposite of fast fashion — we want to have heirloom pieces that will last forever."