After quitting his job, taking a last-minute trip to Mongolia and getting stranded in the Gobi Desert with a group of strangers for three weeks, Matt Scanlan, along with Diederik Rijsemus, came up with the idea for a new clothing brand.
During their three-week stay with several local herders, Scanlan and Rijsemus decided to create Naadam, a luxury cashmere company that's sustainable and helps support their new Mongolian friends.
We recently chatted with Scanlan, co-founder and CEO of Naadam, about the brand's mission, his frequent adventures in the Gobi Desert and more. Keep reading for the full interview.
1. What inspired you to launch Naadam? How did the idea for the brand come about?
"It started with a trip to Mongolia's outer Gobi Desert. We accidentally got roped into a 20-hour car ride and a three week trip living with Nomadic herders. Long story short, once we realized where cashmere came from, we knew that there was a better, more thoughtful way to do it. We felt that there should be a way to blend doing good with making good product; that wasn't just a marketing gimmick. When we looked at the fashion business model more closely, we realized that the two places that you could save money for the customer were in the direct retailing model and the material harvesting/sourcing paradigm. What people don't see are the traders and agents that buy and sell material all over the world. These middle men take massive margins while forcing prices down to inflate sales prices. It just didn't seem fair to us. So we launched Naadam to sell the highest quality luxury cashmere at astonishingly low prices. It is all done sustainably by sharing profits and supporting our nomadic friends back in Mongolia."
2. Can you walk us through the process of creating a sweater from start to finish?
"We buy raw cashmere right off the goat from nomadic herders. We then ship the material to Ulaanbaatar for dehairing and washing. The processed material is then shipped by water to Biella, Italy where a cradle-to-cradle certified, 140-year-old spinning mill twists, spins and dyes our cashmere yarn. All chemicals are non-toxic to the environment, and the facility only uses clean water and solar energy. We then send the spun cashmere back to Mongolia where we knit the sweater into luxury garments."
3. Tell us more about the actual process of how you purchase your materials... We read that you once took $3 million cash to the middle of the Gobi desert to buy cashmere. Can you tell us more about that story?
"First I wire millions of dollars to a bank account in Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar. I take the 17-hour plane ride to Mongolia where I then take the money out in cash. Generally, one bank can't provide me with the cash, so I have to visit approximately five to six banks to get the cash. I put the money in plastic shopping bags (whatever is available, really) and fill the back seat of a Toyota Land cruiser with the money. I then start the 20-hour car ride, off-roading into the Gobi Desert where we will hold local auctions to set prices for raw cashmere. Our strategy is simple: buy the most cashmere, set the price 50 percent higher than the competition, effectively outbidding the market and raising the cost of cashmere. We are not agents or resellers so we never have to increase the price to make a margin, we cut that margin out. The process of then buying cashmere takes two weeks. From 6 a.m. until midnight, we are making deals with herders, purchasing cashmere, sorting the cashmere by quality and loading it into tractor trailers. Once we have spent all the money, we start the trip back to Ulaanbaatar. It will take 36 hours to drive back with 60 tons of cashmere being hauled in 20 full tractor trailers."
4. Tell us more about your brand's nonprofit organization and how it works. What's the purpose of this aspect of your business?
"Naadam's non-profit arm, The Gobi Revival Fund, focuses on programs that have a direct impact on the health and value of the nomadic herders' most valuable commodity, the cashmere goat. By investing in breeding programs and veterinary programs, we can improve the health of the animals. A healthier animal grows more valuable fibers, which we then buy at a higher price. The focus of the Gobi Revival Fund is influencing micro economic development. It is the principal of giving a fishing rod versus a fish. We want to see sustainable economic growth. That is what sustainability means to us!"
5. How you would describe your brand's design aesthetic?
"Our design aesthetic is elevated luxury essentials for blended use. Our clothing is meant to worn at the office or at the beach. We call it 'ocean-to-office style.' Simple yet modern and chic."
6. What type of customer do you design for?
"We design for both the guy and girl who want luxury quality in essential fabrications. Our customer is intelligent and adventurous. Our clothing is luxury fashion that is meant to be worn. These are not precious items, they are essential elements of an elevated wardrobe."
7. What's the biggest lesson you've learned since launching Naadam?
"A brand is built by people who feel compelled to tell their friends about what they just heard or bought and not by big advertisements or fancy photography."
8. If our readers wanted to travel to Mongolia, what are three things you think they should bring with them?
"A lot of Snickers, a pair of sneakers you don't care about, a camera."
9. What other socially conscious brands do you look up to/admire?
"Reformation, Patagonia, Eileen Fisher."
10. Where do you see Naadam in five years?
"Expanding our business model into alpaca, wool and cotton — supply chains that desperately need to be changed. And followers around the world!"