Italia Innovation '16 alumna launches a cashmere start-up

Caroline DeSantis – October 14, 2017

For most cashmere is synonymous with luxury, but while growing up in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Ariunaa Bayaraa did not see the buttery, soft fabric this way. To her it was the fabric of her everyday life, not only because it was her cashmere hat that kept her warm as she walked to school each cold winter day, but also because everyone around her had it. The ubiquity of cashmere in Mongolia is due to the fact the country produces 40% of the world’s fine cashmere. When Ariunaa, an alumna of the 2016 Italia Innovation Program, realized this discrepancy, she knew she had to do something to make cashmere accessible, so she founded Etugen Cashmere, her direct-to-consumer cashmere brand which pre-launched its first accessories collection in early October 2017.

Describing her inspiration for Etugen Cashmere, the young entrepreneur who earned her MBA at UCLA Anderson explains, “Not everyone gets to use cashmere because it is just so expensive. Of course, cashmere is more costly than cheap synthetic fabrics because it is a precious, natural fabric. But it should not cost you several hundred dollars to buy a cashmere scarf. That is not fair to you as a consumer. It is also not fair to the humble nomadic Mongolian herders who supply that cashmere. I had to do something to change that and I firmly believe that only a Mongolian company can do it well.”

Etugen makes 100% cashmere products affordable through their unique capability to source raw materials and build products entirely within Mongolia. Most of Mongolian cashmere is exported as raw fibers instead of finished products. In addition, Etugen reaches customers directly online, so they are not following the traditional industry supply chain, but a streamlined direct-to-consumer model. Right now, Etugen is accepting pre-orders for a cashmere wrap for $125 that would normally retail $185 and a cashmere scarf for $75 that would cost $95.

Ariunaa explains that the design approach to innovation that she learned during summer 2016 at the Italia Innovation Program was central to how Etugen creates value. After going through a Design Thinking workshop led by Stanford University faculty and the mentorship from IDEO designers, she knew her first step on her entrepreneurial journey had to take her directly to customers. She started user research that involved a six week design challenge where she interacted with cashmere lovers and average consumers to find her big insight. Through 200 inputs, she discovered that with cashmere fashion was not as important as versatility and simplicity for the wearer.

Regarding her product designs, she says, “It’s about owning something that you want to live in. You can tell when someone loves a good-quality clothing item or accessory. The item gets well-worn and yet builds character with use over time. Fine cashmere is exactly like that. It becomes softer and more beautiful with use.” Etugen’s Multipurpose Cashmere Wrap really represents what she discovered through her human-centered research because it is a product that tailors to her customers’ needs. Whether she wants to wrap it over her shoulders at the office, use it as a blanket while traveling, or just sport it over a leather jacket on a cold autumn day, this cashmere wrap blends effortlessly and elegantly into all lifestyles.

During her time at Italia Innovation, Ariunaa worked with Bonotto, a fourth-generation textile manufacturer who supplies to the top fashion houses. Her relationship with the brand, through visits to the “slow-factory” and conversations with the c-level executives, introduced Ariunaa to the unique Italian approach to design and production. Ariunaa explains, “I was really impressed by how much passion, artistry and dedication the Italian companies put into the creation of quality products. Quality to them does not stop at the incredible craftsmanship. They truly care about the well-being of their customers as well as their impact on society and the environment. This is exactly how Etugen Cashmere strives to think about quality.” In fact, the name, Etugen, which comes from an old Mongolian expression meaning mother nature, represents this commitment to nurturing life on earth. This insight has also spurred her to infuse Mongolian culture into the foundation of the company to create something authentic. She explains “Love, respect and awe of mother nature have been integral parts of nomadic Mongolian culture for thousands of years. As a Mongolian company, we live by those values.” Her words stand as a testament that an understanding between people, complexity, history, design, and aesthetic is crucial to creating innovative value.

Right now Etugen has pre-launched and offers two items worldwide, which you can preorder on their website. By mid-October it will start a crowdfunding campaign in order to scale the business and further disrupt the cashmere industry so more people can experience the beautiful and luxurious fabric.