What we cover: “Surf the cosmic wave.” – Nancy Johnston
Not long ago, I had an email from a good friend in London, Jennifer Cameron, letting me know that her good friend, Nancy Johnston, would be coming to Vancouver for Vancouver Fashion Week. And that not only did she have an incredible story – one that would shape her as someone who can rise time and again in the face of adversity – but that she is the creator of a brand that is literally knocking the fashion world on its socks. (Mixed metaphor?)
Before we get into the awe-inspiring brand, Tengri, we get into what makes Nancy – Nancy. With a past straight out of an Oscar winning movie, she is the personification of self-made. Her family fled Vietnam in the mid-1970s, taking up in a Malaysian Refugee Camp for a full year just before she was born in Los Angeles when the family first arrived in the United States.
Her life in LA wasn’t easy – she and her siblings didn’t have toys, violence was right outside the front door, high school stabbings weren’t unusual. And in her early years, when her parents couldn’t secure childcare but still had to earn a living, Nancy was brought to the sweatshop where her mom was employed and she too was put to work on the factory line. But as she tells it, even at the age of 4, she was excited to be there – to earn her own money. This is a woman who gets the notion of owning her perspective. It’s this perspective, this taking life by the horns, this propensity for not looking back but for instead just focusing on moving forward, on being a do-er, that has bode her well. And, after initially pursuing an education in pre-med, landing instead in pharmacy, then ultimately in social work and in the charitable sector, and making her home in London with her British husband, she acknowledged a long-time pull to the vast and desolate terrain of Mongolia. She arrived as a traveller, and soon, the idea for Tengri was born.
So, what is Tengri?
Well, you’re going to love the concept. While staying with a nomadic yak herding family in Mongolia, she saw firsthand their struggles. She understood that combed yak fibre was a commodity that was simply not being utilized in the way it could be. She knew she had to do something so that these combings, these fibres, typically considered “waste” could be deemed of value in the fashion and luxury goods supply chain.
So she got to work and created a brand. Launched in 2014, Tengri is a London-based globally-conscious company that creates sustainable luxury knitwear and yarns from the Mongolian yak fibres. It’s as soft as cashmere, it’s breathable and hypoallergenic. Yet it just wasn’t being used to the degree it could've been.
Today, Nancy and her team work directly with more than 4,500 nomadic herder families in Mongolia, and with the best designers back in the UK, and the result is a 100% transparent supply-chain process.
Tengri has been listed as one of the Top 100 businesses in the Sustainai100 guide. Tengri fashion pieces are now carried in Selfridges. The brand has a presence on Saville Row, which is pretty much as big as it gets. And Nancy herself was listed as one of 20 Women in Luxury to watch as well, as presented with the Asian Women of Achievement Award in the category of entrepreneur.
When I ask her which of her pinch me moments feels most surreal – having a window in Selfridges? Designing luxury bedding for The Savoy Hotel? – no, it’s none of that. It’s seeing the lives of these 4,500 yak herding families in Mongolian improve dramatically.
That’s the kind of person Nancy is. She’s self-made, and she’s bringing thousands of others along on her rise. And she’s not even 40-years-old.