Fast forward to late 2013 and, made redundant a few hours earlier, Johnston was on a plane to Mongolia.
Perhaps predictably for someone with her background, she eschewed the luxury hotel option and instead stayed with a family of yak herders.
She says: ‘I found out that there were major issues facing the local community. Desertification meant the herders’ animals were dying. I vividly remember one family who were utterly embarrassed because they had to serve us tea without milk. The national cuisine is based on milk in Mongolia so that was a big deal.’
Johnston was intrigued. ‘One question led to another and I found out that the cashmere industry was at unsustainable levels. There are more animals than the land could support and that was causing desertification. Mongolia is one of the few countries in the world that has more than half the population still living the life of nomadic herders. If the animals die, the people become impoverished. The capital, Ulaanbaatar, is built for 450,000 people, but now it’s home to 1.5 million, many of whom are former herders who are living in poverty.’
Johnston could appreciate the challenges people were facing. She could also see the business potential of their herds . ‘I thought yak could be a sustainable alternative. All that was needed was a brand that championed the fibre. It was at that point Tengri was born.’
Returning to London she arranged meetings with friends with design and agency backgrounds.
‘We came up with an idea and, within three weeks of designing the brand, we had won an international brand award. That was a great start. We then found a knitwear designer and the process went from there.’
Johnston returned to Mongolia with a new business card and her life savings, she recalls. ‘I met a cooperative of herders and soon I had bought a ton of yak. I wanted the producers really to be part of the company and that was a concept that they understood very well, because in a nomadic society you have to be able to share in order to survive.’
To begin with there were 298 families in the Tengri cooperative. Now because of the firm’s involvement that figure has grown to 4,500.
The growth is understandable, explains Johnston: ‘We’ve increased their income tenfold and we’ve raised the bar for yak values – the animals were worth almost nothing beforehand. It’s made a huge difference to people.
And there has also been a cultural impact, she adds. ‘We organised a fashion show that turned into a festival,’ says Johnston. ‘That one event, in a remote part of Mongolia, attracted 1,500 people and generated much-needed trade for the community.’
For a former social worker the learning curve to fashion entrepreneur has been steep, she adds: ‘I had to figure out how to take fibre, to yarn, to cloth and then fashion. That journey took me almost two years.’
The yak fibres are combed once a year in the spring and summer when the animals shed their winter coats. The herder families then arrange to transport the raw material across the country to the capital where it’s washed and then exported.
Johnston wanted Tengri’s cloth to be produced in the UK. ‘Yorkshire's rich heritage of spinning and weaving led us specifically to Gledhill, a family company tracing its origins back to the 18th century.
‘We were helping the Mongolian herders ensure their heritage and we were doing the same thing in the UK. Our business model is all about helping to preserve a way of life. There are a lot of parallels between Mongolia and Yorkshire in terms of hills and rivers. And the minerals in the Yorkshire water give the fabric a handle you don’t get anywhere else in the world. The water breaks up the fibres in a unique way.’
Tengri’s first fabric was delivered in early 2017. The company already has its own collection and is supplying upscale tailor Huntsman of Savile Row and luxury bed company Savoir Beds, among others. For Johnston, though, the highlight of her business journey so far has been seeing the difference the company has made to the nomadic herders of Mongolia.
‘People know all about Mongolian cashmere but not much is known about yak. Even the herders weren’t using it for their own clothes,’ she points out. Then there is the social side of breathing life into an endangered community. ‘Before communism, younger people met each other through animal festivals. When communism took over a lot of that tradition was lost. Our fashion show and festival is bringing people together again. To be there and to see it was fantastic.
And the company is still only in its infancy, she points out: ‘We started as a knitwear brand, then we became a yarn company, then a material innovator. Now we have a number of really exciting partnerships in a number of different areas to introduce really innovative materials.’
Tengri’s activities are built on the three principles of sustainability: environmental, social and financial.
This philosophy is reflected in its sourcing strategy, brand positioning, product and pricing strategy. The company hopes to provide a long-term stable source of income, preserve heritage, and provide positive social and environmental benefits to its Mongolian partners.