Sustainable fashion has become a need of the hour. Customers are self reflecting and switching up their buying habits, and many high-end designers are moving fast to embrace the movement and implement sustainability in their practice.
Among that crowd, Mongolian fashion designer Mandkhai Jargalsaikhan, owner and designer of the brand Mandkhai, is leading a charge.
Her label is driven by a deep appreciation of cashmere, a fiber obtained from cashmere goats. Sustainability runs through the blood of the brand, and its process is sustainable from the source to the finished garment.
Gigi Hadid, Hailey Bieber, Kate Hudson and more have all been seen wearing Mandkhai wares, and we were eager to learn more about the trend-setting brand. We spoke to Jargalsaikhan about her sustainability practices, manufacturing process, sources of inspiration, and views on the future of the fashion industry.
What made you want to be a fashion designer?
I come from a manufacturing background. My parents actually set up the first privately-owned cashmere factory in Mongolia. I grew up in the factory while it was being built, and that was my playground. That’s where I spent the most time in kindergarten and even before that, so I was always around knitwear.
I went to study fashion design with marketing in London and realized I didn't see anything exciting in cashmere knitwear. Everything I saw was pretty plain and very classic ... I thought “hold on a minute, I could do something better and more exciting.”
Tell us about the journey from design school to the launch of Mandkhai.
I finished university, then straight away set up my brand and learned everything on the job. There are so many things you learn when you just do it. No school or university really prepares you for the business side of things—or even the whole thing. I studied fashion design with marketing on purpose. It's fun to have your own collection, but if nobody buys it, you have no business, right? Slowly but surely, I learned everything on the job on a smaller scale and grew organically.
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How has your brand Mandkhai come to be what it is today?
It’s very difficult to find your brand DNA, because nowadays there are no rules when it comes to fashion. There are so many different ways you can do things: e-commerce, direct to consumer, etc.
The industry is changing and shifting so much—which is a good thing for new brands, because that gives you the opportunity to pave your own way, make up your own rules, and find out what works for you. Of course, that is going to take a lot of trial and error. Nothing is really wasted if you fail or if things don't work out, because that failure itself gives you so much information.
I just did what I thought was right. If it didn't work out, I pivoted and changed direction. You get enough feedback from your customers, and that really shapes what your brand DNA should be.
How would you describe your personal style?
I am a very practical person. I like anything with a bit of a twist. In a lot of my pieces, the shape is loose and comfortable. I have a lot of one sizes, so it fits a lot of people. The core shape of the product is very important. I like to add embroidery and other things to make it more than just a beautifully-classic garment. That adds a nice little touch to whatever you are wearing, but it still works with your core wardrobe.
Clothing should be wearable. It should be comfortable, but it still should excite you. For me, that tends to be through detail, like a pop color or craftsmanship. Because I am a designer, I look at fabrics and materials. Even if it looks simple, constructing a garment is complicated. If it is a beautifully-constructed garment, even if it's classic, I really appreciate that.
Cashmere is the softest natural fiber. Because it’s natural, it doesn't give you any reaction. It is non-allergenic. It is one of the lightest fibers, and it keeps you extremely warm but also cool; it breathes. If you take care of your garment, it’ll last you for decades. It is the most precious and incredible material we have as humans, and it is sustainable.
Where do you source the cashmere, and what is the process?
I am from Mongolia, and my factory is based here. Everything is sourced from and made in Mongolia in my factory, so I have complete control over my entire supply chain. The cashmere goats shed the fiber in the springtime. It just separates from the skin, so all you have to do is comb it out. If you leave the fiber on the animals, it isn't healthy for them, because they are going to feel hot and have ticks. It’s a really nice way of utilizing the fiber, and it is an extremely sustainable process.
We dye and spin our own yarns, process and de-hair the fiber ourselves. We have the latest machinery, generally German or Japanese which is very high tech. It literally comes out of the machine ready to wear. I still like to include human handwork. Most of our team in Mongolia is women, and we do a lot of hand embroidery, which I think is really nice. I make a point of introducing something new in every collection. We train anybody who wants to learn hand embroidery or beading in the factory, which builds a very nice community.
What is the importance of sustainability in today's fashion industry?
Sustainability has been thrown about for a while now, and I think it’s headed towards the direction where it is probably going to be a requirement and a foundation for every new brand. Sustainability is built into my core. I have always talked about it, because I think it is important to educate people [as to] where cashmere comes from and how it is produced. Not a lot of people know, and there is a lot of misinformation about cashmere, so I always do that whenever I do interviews or talk to people. I certainly hope the bigger brands start implementing sustainability too, and don’t just use it as a buzzword.
What are some sustainability practices you follow?
All our products are sourced and made in one place, which is really important. We have very little waste, because we work with natural fibers. Any waste we do have, we give to those who make felts or buy fabric from us.
A lot of our products are not dyed because of the natural color of cashmere (beige, brown), which is very popular nowadays. We do get a lot of orders for the natural color. For our products that are dyed, we use certified sustainable dyes from a company in Switzerland.
We look at our whole process and see where we can make changes, even though our core is sustainable. If you just leave cashmere out in the open, it disintegrates and eventually falls apart; becomes dust and is just gone. Essentially, we try to make things as compact as possible.
What inspired you to have a femme-dominant team?
Both my parents are entrepreneurs, and my mom is a fashion designer, so she has a very distinct eye for things. She will spot any little defect—her eye is ridiculous, but of course that is years and years of training.
Ever since I was little, she ran the factory, so she is my role model. That is what I grew up looking at, and everybody around her were women; her assistant, right hands, engineers. All of our programists are women, because it is all automatic machines. To actually make a jumper, you have to write the program on a computer. They are all women, and that is all I really know. I just continued that. All our programmers have been with us for decades now, so they have known me since I was three or four, and they are still working.
What’s the meaning behind your logo?
In Mongolia, we have a lot of eagles. We have a lot of land too, so when you go out in the city, when you really just see the animals roaming around, it gives you a strong sense of freedom. We have a lot of land and very little people, about 3 million. I like eagles, and my name Mandkhai means “to rise above.” I just combined all of that. In my logo, you see the wings going up, and that's the “rise above” part, and the middle is a knitting needle.
What advice would you give young entrepreneurs trying to start their own fashion label?
I know this is going to sound cliche, but practice is really important. There are so many people who are going to give you advice, and industry people who will tell you “this is how it is done,” but always remember that things are changing. You really have to listen to yourself and make it happen. What worked for another brand will not necessarily work for you, so always remember not to compare and really be at your own pace.
Have the belief to always try again, find a different route and not be discouraged by what people say. The fashion industry is not an easy industry. You really have to keep your passion and what you want to do close. Don’t let other people influence you as much. Take it, listen to it, see if it applies to you—but that's really it. Walk at your own pace.
Learn more about Mandkhai and shop the latest designs at mandkhai.com.
Photography by: Vasily Agrenenko; Buyankhishig Jargalsaikhan