Kowtow is one of the brands working towards creating more ethical, sustainable clothes for people. With such high standards for materials, Kowtow remains seemingly uncompromised when it comes to design, creating minimal, aesthetic pieces that are sourced from renewable and sustainable fibres. The brand creates a range of different garments, ranging from sleepwear, basics, knitwear and even swimsuits. All of which contribute to genuine positive change.
Behind the brand is Gosia Piatek, now based in London she’s from Poland, Italy and New Zealand. She founded the New Zealand brand Kowtow back in 2006. 13 years on, Kowtow has expanded from a one woman unit to a team of 32 people across the UK, America, New Zealand and Australia.
It hasn’t stopped gaining momentum either and considering its philosophy of sustainable and ethical practices I can only see it gaining even more popularity in the future. With that said, I was beyond excited to chat over the phone with Gosia about Kowtow as an ethical fashion brand and its sustainable approach to fashion. Right off the bat I asked her how to pronounce her brand. She laughed and told me everyone pronounces it differently. She says “ko-toe” but it was originally meant to be pronounced “kow-tow”. We discuss where clothes are made and where they go afterwards, and she describes practical alternatives that don’t compromise on aesthetics. We also talk plastic covered avocados, learning to be compassionate and caring for the planet.
In 4 words try and describe the ethos behind Kowtow.
Modern, Sustainable, Ethical Womenswear. But I don’t think that sums it up anymore. People are using the words sustainable and ethical so much that it stops having a meaning. You know, certain words end up being used so much they become fillers. And that really bothers me.
It’s become like a buzzword?
Yeah, we try educating people about where our cotton comes from, and why it takes so long to source. We actually work with the cotton farmers directly, we get the raw cotton 18 months in advance of the range being delivered. It’s the opposite of fast fashion, and the reason it takes so long is that we purchase the cotton from the farmers, and then we make the yarn, and then the wool and we dye the colour, we think about the texture and finishes up to our specifications. So, we work with a production chain that we understand and know. And to summarise it into four words, it’s impossible. For some people it becomes too much information. But what I’ve realised is that people want that kind of information, they want it to be explained because now people are interested in finding out where something is from for the first time ever. People never used to think about the country it was manufactured in unless it was something like Italy, with a bit of prestige. No one wants to know anything about India, or China or Indonesia. They are known as the places you can get things made cheaply. But now there’s a whole other system you can work with, which is our organic farmers that we pay a Fairtrade premium to. It’s just such an interesting and complicated process that it can’t be summarised into 4 words. But that’s also part of the message, it’s an amazing story which we try as a company to be genuine and empathetic and the opposite of what people see fashion as; which is throwaway, and ego driven where you run your company with long hours. And that’s the opposite of what we try to do.
I think it’s also difficult to summarise because the whole point of ethical fashion is that you’re trying to give people the whole picture. So, to summarise it down into ‘this was produced here and made there’, I can see why it’s difficult.
Yeah because for a lot of people the concept is short. They do basics, or they do couture, or they do ready to wear for a certain type of woman. We definitely have elements of what we do that are aesthetic, but behind aesthetic there’s so much more.
So why do you think it’s important for consumers to get the whole picture? Because on your website you’re very transparent about the production process of your garments, from the material origins to the dyeing process.
We always think we aren’t making it clear enough! I think it’s important for consumers to get the whole picture because its 2019 and we realise the world is a very small place and that we’re all really interconnected. And if you saw someone suffering right in front of you, you would care. It’s part of your DNA, as a human to have compassion and I think we’re just realising that. The world’s population has doubled since the 60s and now we’re at 7 billion people. Resources are becoming so tight, and it makes you feel like you should hide out in a bunker. I think we’re all interconnected and it’s time to care, time to know and make the right choices when you’re shopping to support sustainability and small businesses.
What usually influences consumers is convenience, cheapness and whether it’s pretty or aesthetic. If it fills out that criteria, people don’t usually worry about a 4th box which is ‘is it ethical? Is it sustainable, do I really need it?’
About convenience, it can be quite the bane at times because you’re never satisfied. This comes simply from not having awareness around how things are made. But when you buy something consciously you experience an emotional response and that’s really quite special.
How did you enter into the field of ethical fashion? I read somewhere that you haven’t studied it but you’re very passionate about it.
I always liked making clothes with my mum, and I always wanted something different to what my friends had in New Zealand. My points of reference for fashion were the shopping mall, which I loved but it still had the same stuff everybody else had. I’ve always liked design, but the thing I always thought about was ‘how things were made and where does it go afterwards’. I had that in me for a really long time, when I was a kid I’d pick up rubbish on bushwalks – which my mum would not always approve off. I still do it, even in London I pick up rubbish on the street.
And it’s because I have a very practical approach to life, its like if no one else is going to do it, I’m going to do it. I’m not very precious, which I think is the key to fashion. It’s an incredibly practical job, where you need to care about the planet and people. It kind of ticks off so many boxes. I started with just a government grant, so it came from the opposite space of investors and came from a very genuine place of creating positive change rather than jumping on a trend.
Do you think more people will get on the slow, ethical and sustainable fashion train? Do you think it’ll be able to compete with big fast fashion brands?
I’m not sure. I think it’s interesting that brands have started doing a line with a lot more natural fibres in the range. But not all of them are sourced sustainably and none of them are made under Fairtrade labelling practices. But we can’t presume that everything that isn’t fair trade is from slave labour. But I don’t know; there are some ‘slow’ movements happening like fashion houses banning fur. There seems to be more of a drive with the younger audience for buying products with positive change or stories attached to them. In the 80s you’d just buy stuff and throw them out the window, but I really don’t know if this will all go away or if we’re on the tip of something. Sometimes I think I’m a bit of a fatalist, I just don’t see how humans will be able to organise themselves to fix things, because the situation is so bad.
Everything is wrapped in plastic in the UK. Everything! If you want to buy an avocado, it comes with 3 different types of plastic, and none of it is actually recyclable. When you see things like that, it gets so overwhelming that you just have to continue with your own journey. I made a pledge to myself, it’s been nearly 2 weeks with no food wrapped in plastic. I’ve stuck to it but it gets very boring because I can’t buy any treats!
It really comes down to the convenience, cost thing because if you do want something that’s either organic, sustainable or biodegradable, the price goes up a lot and you’ve really got to go out of your way to find it. Which is usually very inconvenient, which I think makes it difficult to make positive changes in your lifestyle.
It’s an interesting experiment I’ve been doing for 2 weeks now and my grocery store has cut down on plastic. I can usually buy only fresh fruit and veg and apple juice in a glass. Now I go to the cheese shop and other local shops. Which means I’m spending my money with independents. Which is not that hard, you just have to wrap your head around it. Kind of like when you’re planning to go vegetarian. I hope I can keep it up!
I think it’s a good thing to try. The trying part is the most important because a lot of people give up before they even start.
The thing is, a lot of people think too deep into it. Because you could go with your refillable containers, but then you see it’s all coming out of a plastic bag! This year, for World Environment Day, we campaigned against single-use plastic and raised money for non-profit charities in Australia and New Zealand. The campaign was fronted by two environmental activists who are leading the youth movement against climate change in New Zealand. We also held a conversation in our flagship store for our local community. The support was amazing, and it was so nice to do something outside of making clothes and do something that integrated the community.
Something I really love is that Kowtow’s swimsuits are made from recycled fishing nets.
Yeah, they’re from the Mediterranean! A company called ECONYL® in Italy is going out on boats and literally just diving for these nets. Because they are made from 100% nylon, they are the perfect material to melt down and remake. It’s interesting because for the fisherman, it’s cheaper if the nets get old to dispose of them in the sea than taking them to the rubbish dump. So I think it’s really nice to have these initiatives.
I think it’s also very poetic, because you’re turning something that was harming the sea into something people can wear to enjoy the sea. I really like that cycle.
Exactly, we have a circularity and take back program for all our clothing which includes free repairs. Sometimes the hole may be a little too big, so we do a traditional and decorative Japanese mending technique which strengthens a garments while keeping it beautiful. Right now we’re in the process of taking back all our garments, so when we have a big enough volume, we can explore options for recycling and repurposing in the most sustainable way. There will be a different approach to every type of material and colour. Whether we shred it and remake it into a yarn or denim. It’s just all about taking responsibility as a designer for the product you create. It should not be the responsibility of the consumer
This idea of being responsible for the product throughout the entire process, why do you think that’s so important?
You’re keeping it away from the landfill. Our product is natural, so at least it can biodegrade, but there’s nothing better than constantly reusing what has already been made. If we are able to do that as a human race we probably wouldn’t be where we are now. Lots of plastic waste doesn’t even get recycled, it gets sent to other locations. Most of the countries in the first world are not taking responsibility for the waste they produce. Sending clothes to charity for example, only 20% gets sold.
It’s also about functionality. Different people have different needs when it comes to clothes, and sometimes the clothes getting sent from Europe don’t really make sense.
Yeah, I think circularity is the only solution. I think people could do it with everything, from cars to appliances to architecture. I think you can apply this model to everything, where you think about the processes as a designer beyond assembly. It’s not very hard to do, because there’s a lot of clever people in this world. So it’s not impossible.
So, is there anything you find most rewarding about working in this field? And are there any challenges?
All the new ideas, I’m so excited about it. We are talking about it everyday with my team on how we can do design, how we can improve it, how we can be genuine with it and deliver the information with our customers. It’s so beyond the clothing, for me the innovation is the real thing that gets me out of bed. And I love design, that’s a big part of it. I love talking in colour and shapes. My team are all clever thinkers, very passionate and believe in what we’re doing.
Our main challenge is also our standards. Not able to use a lot of trim or certain textures, like sparkle and fluidity. We always have constraints because we work with a constricted palette of materials because we believe in their sourcing and environmental credentials. So, 13 years on the product has taken on its own personality because of the restrictions. At the moment, I think the challenges are actually resolvable. It’s all about how to communicate this huge undertaking in a way that is clear and exciting and on brand. There’s always a challenge but then again there’s always a way to fix it
Where do you see Kowtow in the future then?
I think definitely growth. The reason I say that is because we had a discussion asking ourselves is growth sustainable and what does it mean. Does making more products fit within our values, and we all decided as a team that, yes we need to replace all the synthetics out of the world. So we need to be there and be louder and grow more in our own stores as well as share this more globally. I am a global person, I’ve been raised that way and I don’t see the world as a very big place. I think there’s a space for us, since we make a product that’s quite understandable too. Some of the styles are oversized and a certain aesthetic but there are also a lot of shapes that are pretty.
It’s about giving more people choices. Because if more people have access to it, more people will make the more ethical choice, which is usually the better choice.