Kora: The Spirit of AdventureGear
Stories Behind the Gear: Kora
Written by Harriet Osborne // Photography by Rachel Keenan & Kora
During a trek in the sacred mountain range of Kawa Karpo in Yunnan, China, Kora founder Michael Kleinwort tested a prototype that would become the world’s first yak wool performance base layer. A stubborn optimist, Michael hiked 5,000m mountain passes and through a ferocious blizzard to see if this new fabric could withstand all weathers.
The base layer kept him warm in the snow, cool in 28°C heat, and remained odour free after 10 days of intense trekking. Inspired by the mountains and the people who live there, Kora sources its yak wool directly from the herders, making a tangible difference to the Himalayan communities. It’s a high-performance fabric built on fair trade principles. We caught up with Michael to find out about his vision and the brand’s ethos, philosophy, and drive for positive change.
Michael first realised the unique qualities of yak wool on a hiking trip with a friend in the Himalayas. His fingers were so cold he was unable to operate his camera, but the yaks grazing nearby were unfazed. A family of nomadic yak herders explained to Michael that the yaks had a layer of soft wool under their outer coats that enabled them to regulate their body temperature. The herders would collect the soft wool by hand in spring and sell it to buy staples such as rice, barley, and salt. But many herders did not collect the wool at all, leaving the remarkable fibres to fall to the ground.
Michael, who worked for a consulting firm in Beijing at the time, bought his first batch of wool and spent three years developing the product. ‘It takes a lot of work to develop a completely new fabric using an unknown fibre,’ he says. Michael immersed himself in the entire supply chain from raw wool to final garment, testing every prototype on the plateau and in the laboratory. ‘Without doing it this way, we would never have been able to get the fabric made, let alone achieve the results we have,’ he says. In 2013, on a mountain range in China, Michael tested a prototype with a perfect combination of warmth, breathability, comfort, and durability. He named the brand Kora – the Tibetan word for a pilgrimage around a sacred mountain or place.
Yak wool has similarities to merino wool. It’s sustainable, all natural, and antimicrobial (destructive to bacteria). But unlike merino, yak wool is hollow, making it lighter and warmer. ‘Yak wool is typically used as an alternative to cashmere due to its softness. It has a luxurious quality to it,’ Michael says. ‘It’s soft and non-itchy. It has a cosy feel against the skin yet feels very light and airy.’
Kora uses different levels of yak wool depending on the objectives of the product. The Shola base layers are made from Kora’s Hima-Layer Original fabric, which is the world’s first and only 100 per cent yak wool performance fabric. Expanding into mid-layers, Kora created Hima-Layer Stratam: a fabric made by knitting yak wool with Dupont Sorona, a sustainable biopolymer made from corn starch. Yak wool is placed on the inside for warmth and softness, and the Sorona on the outside for a smooth finish and protection against weather. Heavier mid-layer pieces – including men’s and women’s Azog Hooded Jacket, men’s Azog Cycling Jersey, and the Holocene Vest – are made from Stratam.
Kora’s Hima-Layer Yardang fabric brings the benefits of yak wool to a merino interlock knit. The outcome is additional warmth and softness with a strong and durable knit construction. This blend is 70 per cent merino and 30 per cent yak wool, and is used on the outside of the men’s and women’s Xenolith Sweater. Polartec Alpha insulation is used on the inside because of its warmth-to-weight ratio. Alpha insulation is breathable, stays warm when wet – unlike down – and packs small – unlike fleece, which is bulky. The Xenolith is a lightweight, warm, and breathable mountain sweater that can just as easily double up as a top to wear inside a sleeping bag at 4,000m altitude.
Kora’s team of adventurers play a vital role in the development of fabrics. Explorers, athletes, and mountain leaders test out the gear to destruction, providing feedback to help fine-tune fabrics and designs. Renowned Himalayan explorer Jeff Fuchs put his trust in the brand when he became the first Westerner to travel the entire 6,000km length of the ancient Tea Horse Road from south-west China to the Himalayan Plateau. He credits Kora’s base layers, a good ice axe, and a substantial stash of raw pu’er tea for his success. Like Michael, Jeff is drawn to the communities in the Himalayas as much as the raw beauty of the mountains. ‘I haven’t found many other environments that can simultaneously welcome, sooth, stress, and stimulate me quite like the Himalayas,’ he says. ‘After chatting with locals I’ve found little paradises that were never on any map or within any book. “Staying open to the world” is my mantra.’
Kora sources yak wool from a herders’ cooperative of approximately 100 families who also make money selling butter, cheese, and yoghurt. The brand provides the communities with a reliable source of income once a year. They also employ cooperative members to manage the collection process. ‘We are looking at other ways we can increase their revenue generation,’ he says. ‘For instance, by setting up a workshop to clean and sort the wool before it is transported to the factory. It’s a work in progress.’
Each yak provides 500g to 1kg of wool, and each piece requires the wool of around three to five yaks. ‘At the last count there were 13 million yaks. That is a lot of yak wool,’ he says. ‘I hope one day that we will be working directly with communities all across the Tibetan Plateau. We regularly receive requests for partnerships from communities these days, so it’s great to know that word is getting out. The more we grow as a business, the more communities we can support.’
At the heart of Kora is the spirit of adventure. Inspired by the first explorers, the brand is dedicated to those who push boundaries in search of a better understanding of the world around them. Above all, Kora’s purpose is to protect the Himalayan Plateau, the communities in the mountains, and the changing environments in which they exist.