above KOWTOW’S FLAGSHIP MELBOURNE STORE, PHOTO BY LIZ SUNSHINE
At the risk of stating the obvious, the clothes we wear matter. And not just in the sense of sartorial splendour and self-expression, but for those across the supply chain and beyond working towards a more sustainable fashion future. To celebrate these creatives putting people and planet first, we’ve introduced a digital series called Nice Rack! (…get it) so we can go behind the seams with some of our favourite sustainable brands, together.
If the Peppermint team had to epitomise dressing with style, sustainability and substance, we’d look to Kowtow. Launched in 2006 – long before sustainable fashion was fashionable – the New Zealand brand not only offers elevated, high-quality pieces, but also a thoughtful and wholehearted commitment to natural, mono-fibre materials, low-impact design and ethical production.
Championed by founder Gosia Piatek, this approach means every aspect of the business is considered – from a “no zips” policy for garments to the choice of building materials for their beautifully minimalist stores in Wellington and Auckland – and now in their very first international boutique situated in Melbourne. To celebrate the opening of the flagship store on the iconic Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, we caught up with Gosia to hear more about the world of Kowtow.
above KOWTOW’S FLAGSHIP MELBOURNE STORE, PHOTOS BY LIZ SUNSHINE
Tell us about yourself…
Hi, I’m Gosia and I’m the founder of Kowtow – a certified Fairtrade organic cotton clothing brand from Wellington, Aotearoa. I founded the brand 17 years ago with a curiosity to discover how clothing is made and how far I could trace it back. I settled on cotton, as our certifiers are able to provide us with a transparent, fair and sustainable production chain from seed to garment.
In the most recent years, we’ve been working hard to close the loop from seed to garment with a vision to return our clothing back to the earth without any harm. As you can imagine, this is a very difficult task and we have put a lot of research and development into creating trims that are plastic-free.
We want to walk the walk and it’s imperative we have a reason beyond money for existing. We see ourselves as solution providers in fashion.
We can now proudly say all of our elastic is made from natural rubber, we only use cotton fusing and all of our buttons are made from nuts, shells or recyclable metal. We consider everything in our design process as we design for a circular economy. We feel that this is the only ethical and sustainable way to exist in a natural world that is struggling. Clothing is a basic human need and we want to dress people in garments that have longevity, which is why we provide a free repair program. We want to walk the walk and it’s imperative we have a reason beyond money for existing. We see ourselves as solution providers in fashion.
above KOWTOW SS 2023 COLLECTION, PHOTOS COURTESY OF KOWTOW
What does sustainable fashion mean to you?
Fashion that doesn’t pollute, takes care of everyone in the production chain, that is truly circular and for us at Kowtow, that is totally natural from the fabric to the trims.
When did you know you wanted to get into fashion?
I didn’t really. I didn’t study fashion design but always loved clothing and used to make my own clothes in high school with my mum and best friend. The way Kowtow came about was from a desire to do good, to change an industry. My partner at the time was a graphic designer and owned a t-shirt brand in London, so with my passion for sustainability and ethics, and his design skills, Kowtow was born.
Why were you inspired to start Kowtow and what continues to inspire you as a designer?
When I realised that much of the clothing in the world was made under slave conditions and from synthetic materials and trims that never break down, I was very inspired to create something (not necessarily fashion) where I fully understood the entire production journey that empowered workers and was healthy for the planet.
We have now almost eliminated plastic in our entire range. We use nut and shell buttons, cotton fusing and natural rubber elastic.
What inspires me at Kowtow is the thought that as we learn more about the natural world and its needs, we can adjust the business to respond in a way that is meaningful and with speed. There are no excuses anymore for doing the right thing “later on” – the time is now.
How do you incorporate sustainability/ethical practices within your brand?
In so many ways, it actually bursts me with pride. Firstly, we work with organic and Fairtrade farming techniques from the cotton seed right through to garment making. We understand and control our entire production chain to ensure fair work conditions and a non-toxic farming approach. This is so rare in the fashion industry.
We have now almost eliminated plastic in our entire range. We use nut and shell buttons, cotton fusing and natural rubber elastic. Our swing tags are made from recycled cotton offcuts from our production. In this current collection, all of our garments are stitched together with cotton thread instead of industry-standard polyester. From February 2024, every new garment will be 0% plastic – it’s a real feat.
We are also a certified B Corp business, we offer a free repair program, we do regular community volunteer days and our staff work a nine-day fortnight but get paid for 10 days. We also go down to a very micro level and work very hard on the elimination of plastics in our workroom. We use pencils instead of plastic pens and it’s the cutest thing in the world when we have a queue in the morning for the old-school pencil sharpener on the wall. Oh, and our compost is picked up by bicycle and used for a community garden. I could seriously go on and on because Kowtow is the product of this micro-care and thought.
Tell us about any standout moments in your career…
We were super brave during the pandemic and we said goodbye to a bunch of fabrics that inevitably compromised our values towards a fully plastic-free fashion future. It was a tough decision as our swimwear was incredible; it was made from recycled fishing nets pulled from the ocean, however, it was mixed with lycra and at the end of its life there was no way to separate the lycra and nylon so that it could be recycled again. At Kowtow our aim is a fully circular future, so this didn’t align with our vision.
We were super brave during the pandemic and we said goodbye to a bunch of fabrics that inevitably compromised our values towards a fully plastic-free fashion future.
I also loved opening our flagship store in Wellington. It just feels like home and working with Rufus Knight on the project and actualising his vision for our physical home was very special. I also have to mention that actually pulling away from Kowtow in the past year has been massive for me. I live between London and Wellington, as my partner is from the UK and all the travelling and late nights were so bad for my health. Realising this and hiring a few extra hands to help in the business means I no longer have a very active role day to day, and when I am in London I don’t have to stress myself out with insane working hours into the night and lonely days. So weirdly, stepping down and trusting my team has been a career highlight.
above KOWTOW’S FLAGSHIP MELBOURNE STORE, PHOTOS BY LIZ SUNSHINE
Why were you compelled to open your new Melbourne store?
We have been operating in Melbourne for over a decade now with a showroom and regular pop-ups, so we felt like we have built a community, especially in the Fitzroy area where we are opening. We were extremely lucky to find our store lease; it’s such an amazing area filled with boutiques, eateries and galleries. Also, I feel like the Melbourne crowd is similar to the Wellington crowd – individual and thoughtful.
I feel like the Melbourne crowd is similar to the Wellington crowd – individual and thoughtful.
How would you describe it?
It’s so beautiful! It feels calm, elevated and timeless. The store is designed by Rufus Knight and the joinery is made by Chelsey and Daniel Mitchener from West Wood. Rufus and his team have designed our other two stores in New Zealand and really understand our aesthetic and sustainability stance. He restricts the palette, like we restrict our clothing from the unnecessary, and can translate our world into a physical space. Chelsey and Daniel are old friends of mine and it’s amazing to be working with them on this. Their craftsmanship is impeccable and they are working with a local spotted gum for our racking which is so chic. It’s wonderful to work with people who are design-orientated as well as sustainable thinkers. It means the final result has been so well thought through.
What are your favourite Kowtow pieces to wear?
I love all of our knitwear, they’re so easy to care for and elevated. I also love that it’s zero waste. I also love our Oversized Boy Tee. I’m a bit of a tomboy and love a white oversized shirt and jeans.
What do you think needs to change in the broader fashion landscape?
We need to not make clothing from virgin plastic, nylon or polyester, or clothing that isn’t circular, as it will eventually end up in the landfill and never ever break down. It will either be burned creating a carbon disaster, or seep microplastics into the ocean.
We need more clothing from natural fibres, clothing made without slavery and designers to take responsibility for what they have made with things like free repair and meaningful take-back programs that keep clothing out of landfill. Ideally in the near future, there will be way more government regulations for what companies can produce and how they recycle it. At Kowtow, we believe as designers we are responsible for the garments we produce and it’s up to us to take them back at the end of their usable life and recycle them properly – this shouldn’t be up to the customer to figure out.