Mountain felt fashion: the next big thing?

A Haitian-Italian fashion designer and Kyrgyz women work together to bring traditional designs to the international market

Mountain women in Kyrgyzstan are collaborating with Haitian-Italian fashion designer Stella Jean to bring their traditional felt designs to the international stage. ©FAO/Mirbek Kadraliev


In Kyrgyzstan, where winter temperatures can plunge to -40 degrees Celsius, felt is a vital source of warmth for the local people and has a central role in their culture. It is a traditional material used to decorate yurts and make blankets and clothing. The art of making felt has been passed from one generation to the other, from mother to daughter, for centuries.

“In ancient times, felt was considered a sacred material in our culture. We believed it would protect us from evil spirits and enemy forces, as well as from harsh temperatures,” says 65-year-old Zhamilya Mambetkulova, a teacher in a local school in Barskoon, located in Issyk-Kul, the most northeastern region of Kyrgyzstan. She is an expert in traditional embroidery and design and has been teaching local girls her craft for the last 40 years.

In 2017, she and a group of local women came together to form an artisans’ group called Topchu, working together to produce and sell silk and felt artefacts.  

“We use traditional Kyrgyz motifs to create textiles, carpets, clothes, silk scarves and wall hangings adorned with felt. These are then sold at shops and boutiques in the city of Bishkek and sometimes internationally. There are currently about 15 women involved in Topchu,” Zhamilya says.

Being a part of an artisans’ group is a way for the women to produce more and therefore make extra income, sometimes even doubling and tripling their typical monthly wages.

“With the extra money, we can pay for the children’s education and improve our families' food security,” says Zhamilya, smiling.

Zhamilya is a member of artisans’ group Topchu and has taught local girls the art of embroidery for the past 40 years. Left/top: ©FAO/Mirbek Kadraliev Right/bottom: ©FAO/Mirbek Kadraliev

Mountain Partnership Products

Over the past five years, the Mountain Partnership Products (MPP) initiative, a project funded by Italy and implemented by FAO, has collaborated with women producers’ groups in Kyrgyzstan. It has supported them in accessing wider markets through the MPP label, a narrative tag which tells the story of each product, enabling consumers to learn about a products' origins and role in local cultures. Scarves made by Topchu carry this label, which explains the history, tradition and uniqueness of each product and helps their sale around the world.

In 2020, the FAO Women’s Committee presented Topchu’s work to ethical fashion designer Stella Jean to explore her interest in partnering with the MPP initiative on a sustainable fashion collection. Stella’s designs are based on multiculturalism in fashion, merging classical Italian tailoring with stylistic features of varying cultures. She has also created a sustainable development platform to promote decent work opportunities for people around the world. In line with this vision, she embraced the idea of a collaboration with Topchu to boost global recognition of their unique designs.

A cultural collaboration

Stella Jean, the Mountain Partnership and FAO through its Women’s Committee are now joining forces with Topchu to design a sustainable fashion collection. Collaborating virtually with Ada Rasulova, a member of Topchu and MPP’s focal point in Kyrgyzstan, Stella transformed the traditional Shyrdak design, typically used for carpets, into a pattern for contemporary clothing. The felt designs are placed onto cotton to create everyday wear. The collaboration is an exchange of skills and knowledge, combining traditional craftsmanship from Kyrgyzstan with the experience of the clothes-makers in Italy.

“The Shyrdak technique is a lesson in sustainability that…transcends beauty and builds bridges across different lands. This collaboration will support women building their own economic autonomy, while…preserving their own traditions and gaining a place in the global market,” says Stella.

Working with Stella Jean’s designs, women from Topchu produced the felt decorations and added them onto cotton to create more contemporary, everyday wear. ©FAO/Mirbek Kadraliev

Stella created the initial design for the clothing collection, and it was sent to Ada, who coordinated with the Topchu women. They created the felt and added it onto the cotton. These were then shipped back to Italy where Stella’s team assembled the pieces into garments to be displayed and sold at Milan Fashion Week in February 2021. The clothing designs will be given back to the Topchu women so that they can reproduce and sell the garments themselves.

“This experience is an opportunity to produce items for a foreign market and showcase our crafts and traditions,” Zhamilya says. “Many of the women here finish their education after high school and migrate elsewhere. But earning better income by producing and selling these crafts means we do not have to leave our home and go to bigger cities for work.”

Zhamilya hopes that the initiative is the start of a new era for local women, giving them a chance to share with the world the beauty of their traditional art and the felt that has been such a huge part of their culture for centuries.

“Our hope for the future is that Topchu will continue to grow and expand to be able to include more women,” she says.

With the backing of FAO, the MPP initiative currently works across eight countries to strengthen the resilience of mountain peoples, their economies and their environments. It provides technical and financial support to smallholder mountain producers from developing countries to create enterprises, enhance their marketing skills and improve the value chains of their traditional mountain products.

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1. No poverty, 5. Gender equality, 8. Decent work and economic growth, 9. Industry innovation and infrastructure