The southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu is home to a substantial Tibetan population, 60,000 according to government estimates.
Many of them live in a neighborhood called Little Lhasa, where Tibetans in traditional robes, or chuba, peddle Buddhist paraphernalia to a mix of monks, nuns, and tourists.
But across town, about 3 miles north, a small boutique in Chengdu’s glitzy Chunxi Road shopping district offers a different vision of Tibetan culture.
The shop, called Hima Ālaya Studio, offers an array of youthful Tibetan-inspired streetwear, including hoodies and sweatpants, as well as clothing that’s a contemporary twist on traditional chuba.
Hima Ālaya Studio is the brainchild of Chengdu-raised Tibetan fashion photographer and entrepreneur Nyema Droma. Since its first store opened in 2017, the studio has gained an international following, with pop-up stores in the United States and United Kingdom. This fall, it will be participating in London Fashion Week.
“We want to let more people understand modern Tibet,” says Droma, while sitting at a low Yeti-shaped table at the front of the shop. Behind her, a wall of punchy graphic posters advertises events for techno parties, rap battles, and photography festivals.
Hima Ālaya Studio is one of more than half a dozen contemporary Tibetan fashion brands—1376 and SUPER MI are other popular labels—that have sprung up in recent years, offering designs that reflect the aesthetics of a new generation of young, urban Tibetans.
Many young Tibetans do not necessarily fit the stereotype of the herder-nomad still held by many Han Chinese, the country’s ethnic majority, and Westerners, says the 24-year-old Droma.
Droma herself is a quintessential cosmopolitan, having grown up in Chengdu and studied at the London College of the Arts, where her senior thesis explored Tibetan identity. She hopes the sporty, streetwear-inspired designs of Hima Ālaya Studio will “give a new impression” to Han visitors.
“We want to let more people understand modern Tibet.”
At the same time, Droma worries that the new generation of cosmopolitan Tibetans is losing the tradition of Tibetan clothing altogether.
Many young Tibetans, including Droma, only wear chuba once or twice a year—for weddings or for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. Droma hopes that Hima Ālaya Studio’s fresh designs can encourage young Tibetans to get in touch with their heritage and maintain this style of clothing.
“We want them to be able to accept these traditions,” Droma says. “Otherwise, this tradition might die out.”
Modernizing an old style
In order to make her clothing more amenable to young people, Droma drew on research conducted for her senior thesis.
In interviews with several dozen young Tibetans, Droma found that the main reason respondents avoid the clothing is because it’s simply too hard to put on.
Normally, a chuba is fashioned out of a single piece of cloth that’s then folded and tied into a full-body garment.
Especially complicated is the folding of the back, which follows a distinctive pattern depending on what part of Tibet the wearer is from (Lhasa, Chamdo and Khampa all have different styles).
Typically, this process requires a second person to help the wearer into the garment.
“It’s quite impossible to do by yourself,” Droma says, laughing.
To eliminate this difficulty, Droma designed a two-piece chuba that can be easily put on. The bottom piece already comes pre-folded, so the wearer doesn’t have to worry about achieving a complicated pattern.
The clothing is also lined with artificial sheep fur rather than traditional yak wool, making it lighter and more appropriate for those not living in the harsh climate of the Tibetan Plateau.
So far, Droma has been pleased with the reception of her clothing. Abroad, the brand has gained no shortage of attention from overseas Tibetans and those who follow Tibetan issues, as well those in the high-end fashion world. Sales have more than quadrupled since she opened the first store in Lhasa in 2017.
The hardest market for Hima Ālaya Studio to crack might actually be the domestic one. Droma notes that most Han Chinese who happen to come into the Chengdu shop are initially a little confused and still hold traditional notions about Tibetan clothing.
“But once I explain the clothes to them, they go, ‘Ahh, so Tibet also has this type of clothing,’” she says.