Silk & Silver: Kathmandu's Yak & Yeti Enterprises

Features Issue 21 Aug, 2010
Text by Selena Malla / Photo: ECS Media

The closing of the Mandala store on Durbar Marg, followed by the simultaneous closings of Nalanda, Tara and Studio Hollywood two years ago, left many fervent fans wondering if they would ever again find such distinctive and high quality Nepal-made goods as these stores had provided.  Recollections of the elegant silk garments and the gleaming silver jewelry now seemed like a distant memory. Recently though, hope was restored to one devotee (me!) when she came across the Yak & Yeti Enterprises’ office and showroom in Lazimpat.

Slick Silk
Mandala silks are truly works of art.  Produced and exported by Square One Fashion (the sister company of Yak & Yeti Enterprises), the silks, widely known as Mandala silks, take many forms: scarves, blouses, dresses, sarees, neckties, and items for the home. Carefully chosen colors and striking patterns, artistically rendered onto high quality silk, lend bold assertions of originality and subtle innuendos of style. If your biggest fear is to see someone wearing the same outfit as you, rest at ease; with Mandala silks, this rude shock would be unlikely. Each piece is virtually one of a kind because the silks are hand-painted – which is hard to believe because the patterns are so consistent and intricate. Anu Shrestha, Designer at Square One Fashion, explains, “since [the silk] is [so] perfect, people think it’s printed.” This level of perfection has much to do with the company’s experienced artists, many of whom have trained and worked at the company for more than twenty years.  The company employs over eighty people: sixteen painters, fourteen tailors, and the rest administrative, design, and quality control staff.

The patterns on Mandala silks are their distinguishing feature. Some are stripes of coordinating colors. Others are flower or other motif designs. Still others are wild abstract patterns that achieve unity through colour selection and placement. All designs are made especially to fit the garment in question, which means that the same print may not work as well for a scarf as it does for a dress. Half of the older designs were made by designers from various countries and copyright protected for a time period, after which they could be legally used by others and sold in the shop.  Most of the new designs are created by Ms. Shrestha, sometimes with the collaboration of the artists themselves, whose “painting makes all the difference,” as she says, to a design.  The painters make the designs come alive.  Designs and colour choices are not random: the company receives fashion-forecasted color combinations a year in advance of each fashion season, and bases most designs on these. Colors within the fashion forecast are more likely to be selected by the international fashion houses that Mandala silks are exported to.

All of the silk products, other than those with patterns designed by the fashion houses themselves, are sent with a ‘Don Marcelo’ label affixed.  This is the name under which the Mandala silks are known internationally. And here is a little secret: the label will say to dry-clean the silks, but they are in fact hand washable. Another of the silks’ features is that they look the same on both sides.  This means that scarves do not have a good side and a bad side; and it also means that if you accidentally wear your silk blouse inside out, not many people will notice.

Needless to say, huge international design houses use Mandala silks in their collections. (For proprietary legal reasons, the names of these design houses cannot be published.) The most popular items are the blouses; especially the short wrap style ones with three-quarter length sleeves. Layered chiffon blouses are also in high demand, as are the dresses. In the United States, “grandma pouches,” or what we call “Nepali thailis” here, have caught customers’ fancy. Interestingly, these grandma pouches provide employment to thirty women who work at home for Square One Fashion. Catching on in terms of international interest are the luxurious silk items for the home: bed sheets, cushion covers and pillowcases, throws, and lampshades.  Though there is not a wide selection of these items in the Lazimpat showroom (the particular items in the showroom represent only ten percent of the exported selection), local customers can place special orders for them. The company can make custom-made and even custom-designed garments for individual customers. As the showroom is just meters away from the factory, customers can speak directly with designers and tailors.

In addition to the silks, Square One Fashion is hand-painting pashmina.  These novelties may make you change your mind if you think you have seen every exciting idea in this pashmina-kingdom. Silk or pashmina, the combined effect of design, artwork, and workmanship makes the end result very special. Ms. Shrestha sums up the products by saying they create “a soft statement of elegance and beauty.”

Silver Slivers
Handmade and traditionally crafted, Yak & Yeti Enterprises’ silver jewelry is as famous as its silk. The company exports more than 5000 designs that are made in Nepal specifically for the European and American markets. Their biggest importer is Italy, followed by Germany, the Netherlands, England, Belgium and Switzerland. As international market demands for silver jewelry designs are ever changing – with some companies keeping a design for only six months before branding it obsolete – Yak & Yeti Enterprises updates its collection on an almost daily basis to keep up with customer demands. However, some designs are long lasting. Traditional Tibetan style jewelry, for instance, has had staying power in the international jewelry market. Mana Mohan Singh Malla, who is the company’s Export and Production Manager, explains that there are two types of silver jewelry: the fancy and the traditional. The Tibetan style jewelry fits in the second category, which also features traditional Nepali jewelry.  Originating with the Patan Newars, traditional jewelry is very typical of Nepal as it involves detailed carving craftsmanship. In contrast, the “fancy” jewelry is made by casting.  Both the fancy and the traditional are popular abroad.

Whether rings, earrings, pendants, hairclips or bracelets, one characteristic is key to the jewelry’s success: quality.  The silver is not less than the Hallmark “925” standard, meaning that 925 parts out of 1000 are pure silver; this is also known as ‘sterling’ silver. (The only exception to this standard is filigree work, which, due to its intricate nature, requires more alloy to be mixed into the silver.) The design collection is – simply stated – enormous. A large sampling of the products can be seen at the Lazimpat showroom, which is divided into retail and wholesale sections.  Sales Manager Gopal Krishna Maharjan says that customers, most of who come to know about the showroom by word of mouth, are pleased to find such a large selection in one place. For example, there are one thousand pendant designs for a customer to choose from.

Some of the company’s export clients order jewelry that is custom-made for them. These designs are kept “exclusive” to that customer, a practice that Yak & Yeti Enterprises prides itself on.

Other designs are created and produced by the craftspeople themselves.  The company selects and purchases distinctive jewelry from these affiliated craftspeople, most of who reside in the Kathmandu valley. Yak and Yeti Enterprises currently internationally promotes the work of over one hundred Nepalese craftspeople and their families, of which more than fifteen run businesses that are solely dependent on the company for orders. Swoyambhu Tuladhar, Managing Director of Yak & Yeti Enterprises, states that over the years since the company was founded in the late 70’s, 1200 to 1500 craftspeople have directly or indirectly benefited from the company. Started at a time when Nepal’s main handicraft businesses were thangkas, statues and wool carpets, Yak & Yeti Enterprises ventured into the unknown: silver jewelry. Mr. Tuladhar says he is sure his company is among Nepal’s first five silver exporters. In the early days, when silver jewelry was classified by the government as a “restricted item” – which meant it could not be exported – the company sent its items through people traveling to Hong Kong and Bangkok, from where the goods would be shipped to customers in the United States and Europe. Since then, the government has legalized the export of silver items from Nepal.

The government does not, however, have legislation in place for a company’s direct importing of semi-precious stones. Some of Yak & Yeti Enterprises’ jewelry is inset with stones such as amethysts, garnets, topazes, lapis, and corals. Originating from Jaipur, India, these stones must be purchased from the local market due to the lack of legislation. As a result, the Nepalese government is not currently making any money from the stones, which Mr. Malla terms “re-exportable goods”. Raw materials for the jewelry are not generally available here as local resources. “But what is available,” says Mr. Tuladhar, “is not exploited very well for the betterment of the country.”  An example of this is the very same semi-precious stones.  Most of these stones are also found in Nepal, but are not readily available as the local semi-precious stone industry has yet to be developed. The silver that Yak & Yeti Enterprises uses comes mainly from Switzerland. The Nepalese government has been helpful in selling the silver to the company at a subsidized rate.

Yak & Yeti Enterprises has contributed much to the development of Nepal’s silver business in terms of quality, tapping the market, and the growth of the industry. Mr. Tuladhar believes that to realize the country’s economic potential, next in importance to the industries of agriculture and tourism, the handicrafts industry is “certainly one area that Nepal can really take advantage of.” The industry can “sustain and create job opportunities for the people” and would lessen the need to send people out of the country. He stresses the importance of the country’s ability to “retain our own people” to counter the brain and labor drain currently afflicting the nation.

Business as Usual
Business has remained steady throughout the years that Yak & Yeti Enterprises has been in operation.  Besides the silks and silver, the company exports most other Nepalese handicrafts with the exception of statues, cotton garments, carpets, and thangkas. The manufacture and export of incense has proved to be a successful trade for the past fifteen years. Cookie shaped or stick shaped, with cow dung as a component, the incense contains no chemical or artificial ingredients. The cow dung, or “gobar,” (an abundant local resource – who would ever have thought to export it?)  acts as a purifier, is not malodorous, and burns exceptionally well. Perfectly partnering the incense are ceramic or wooden holders that the company exports in a variety of dynamic shapes. Yak & Yeti Enterprises is also becoming increasingly well known for its base metal jewelry (mainly copper), and seven-metal singing bowls.

Not every exporter has a showroom open for local perusal and purchase of their goods; after all, it would hardly seem worthwhile when the bulk of business is export. But oftentimes, people living in Nepal would like to see and buy export quality products – without having to leave the country to do so! Yak & Yeti Enterprises offers consumers exactly this opportunity.  Visitors to the showroom are pleasantly surprised and inspired by these silks and silver in which quality is uncompromised and designs are innovative. 

For more information:
Yak & Yeti Enterprises, Pvt. Ltd.,
Tel: 4 428 599 / 4 413 552
Square One Fashion, Pvt. Ltd.
Tel: 4 413 552 / 4 413 760,