Ask any devotee of New Zealand’s Kowtow, a contemporary line of sustainable and ethical womenswear, the secret sauce is the fabric. Descriptions like “buttery” or “so soft” almost do it justice. Weather it’s a basic t-shirt from their line of closet staples, Building Block, or a pair of crisp culottes with a directional cut, as soon as you get your hands on one thing from their collection we swear you’ll be able to recognize the rest just by touching it. “She was like wow, that’s such lovely fabric,” founder and designer Gosia Piatek recalls of one fan’s reaction. “It’s so nice when you hear that because it is. You don’t realize that when you go into chain stores, their fabric doesn’t feel like our fabric. It’s cotton, and ours is cotton, but it has this lovely feel to it.” How you treat fabric, she says, breaking it down in pesticides or formaldehyde dyes or keeping things au natural, makes a difference. “It’s just a softer material.”
The kicker? They only use one type of fabric: 100% fair trade, ethical organic cotton. So not only is Kowtow committed to using sustainable fabrics and creating them ethically through their own production chain, but the line’s foundation and identity is literally defined by their values. Using one type of fabric puts certain limitations on the type of clothes you can design. But that hasn’t stopped them from building a thriving, global business. Creating apparel from seed to garment, while paying fair wages and increasing visibility on the imbalance of living standards around the world, means working at least a season ahead of other labels and going without traditional trend forecasting. But their original POV has only helped them build a mass cult following. (If you haven’t watched their video that details that process, we highly recommend it. Find it here.) They now have over two hundred retailers worldwide in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, a number of which include our own community of boutiques. So of course you don’t need another reason to fall in love with this New Zealand line, but we’re excited to give you one: their founder.
It’s a gray, windy day in Wellington when we wave at each other on either side of a Google hangout, but Gosia is immediately light and bright with her warm eyes and off-white linen blazer from Copenhagen and Kowtow separates. “I never find time to go shopping, apart from when I travel for work,” she says of her every day uniform. “Pants and t-shirts, quite boyish, relaxed, easy, a pair of sneakers. I don’t really dress up.” Today she reflects on a milestone: Kowtow’s 10 year anniversary.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR DESIGN PERSPECTIVE. DOES NEW ZEALAND HAVE AN INFLUENCE? We do play around with traditional design a bit like America. We take traditional fashion from Europe and give it our own take on it. We make loose, minimal, kind of a Japanese vibe to it. I think Wellington, well, we’re kind of at the edge of the world here. It’s not like every person on the street is super fashionable. I think here it’s a little bit more underground and people have less money so you do see some cool street style. We don’t have the big designer stores like Gucci, Prada, all of the big designers, so people do put their own take on how to put outfits together which is quite inspiring. A little bit fresher, maybe like some of the smaller periphery towns in America. I feel like there’s a parallel. Maybe because we’ve both been settled by the English in the last century.
HOW DO YOU KEEP YOUR DISTINCT VOICE IN MINIMALIST FASHION? We only work with cotton so we have quite a limited palette of textures. So we won’t have some of the things that other designers have with synthetic fabrics. Like a specific lace or a pleat in a fabric, but we can’t do that so straight away you can’t play with textures so much so you play with proportions and paneling.
It’s nice to sell a product that you know is going to last. And that it’s made with love and that we put so much care into every single garment our design and we do it from an original point of view we have our own thing a story we think about the girl that’s going to wear it. We don’t copy other people. I think that’s what has led to the success of the brand.
The other thing is that natural fabrics aren’t the norm any more so organic cotton is already makes for a unique product. So there really is something quite special about it. And with cotton we’re quite trans-seasonal. We have a store in Iceland that just loves it, can’t get enough of it. And we’re the opposite season from them. We don’t need to offer a boiled wool coat, we don’t need to offer everything to everyone that’s what I’ve realized. We do our own thing and it’s working.
TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR SEED TO GARMENT PRODUCTION. We work quite far in advance because we have an ethical production chain. We can’t push our employees to do crazy hours, which is another reason why we continually stay original because we can’t forecast what’s going to happen that far ahead, we just do what we love. Sometimes we’re like, oh, wow that’s actually on trend. (laughs)
We have to work so far in advance. We work a season ahead of most other designers. Because we have to source the cotton from the crops, from the farmers. The farms grow it and we secure the yarn from them and then we get the fabric made, so we don’t work with fabric merchants, so they’re all exclusive to us. So we design the weave, the color, the texture, the feeling, it’s all unique to our brand.
SEEMS LIKE A PRETTY WELL OILED MACHINE. We’re quite planned out. We’re quite methodical people as well as design driven. I feel like you can do both and that’s why I started the brand. You have these places where it’s acceptable to do 12 hours or you’re not working hard enough and it’s just like, there’s always going to be work to do. Sometimes it’s hard, but I just think people feel like if they’re falling behind they’ll work on a Saturday every three months and it isn’t that big of a deal. I think if people love their job they’ll do it and we don’t micromanage them to do it or make it feel like a chore. We have a really cool team, a really cool team. They’re so engaged. I feel like I’ve got an easy job, that’s my feeling anyways.
DID YOU HAVE A DRIVE TO DO THIS AT AN EARLY AGE? In terms of sustainability I think that began in my childhood. My parents weren’t eco warriors but they lived quite simple. Growing up with that mentality, that inspired something. My parents used to take me out every weekend. New Zealand is really, really beautiful so it was really exciting. We’d go on bush walks or by the sea. I think I just fell in love with nature. I knew I would just love to do something that means something one day in my life, that has an effect, I think, on the right foot forward. We need to look after the planet. It’s not going to survive unless we do something, that’s how I felt. Maybe that’s a bit naive, I don’t know. But I still think that.
Fashion wasn’t the original way I wanted to go down this path. I just found it as an outlet for all the things that meant something to me, that stood for something. Ten years ago it was pretty new to the market, pretty heavy. It wasn’t fresh or cosmopolitan but I think we made it look like that. People just loved it, they didn’t even know about all of that stuff. They would be intrigued with what ethical means, but I think people are more educated now. I think with younger people now it’s cool to know about all that stuff. Where, you know, I wasn’t cool, that’s for sure. (laughs) You wouldn’t talk about sustainability, you would go and get drunk. Now it’s a different mindset. And we’re quite a young crew, they’re pretty awesome, but they’re young and they’re so interested in the details. This is the next generation. It’s great.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.