Natural Strength: In Conversation with Kowtow Founder Gosia Piatek
Kowtow’s latest release sees the New Zealand-based pioneers of sustainable fashion present a range made entirely from organic cotton: the natural fibre is biodegradable and renewable, grown without harmful chemicals, and with less water than conventional cotton. While the choice to exclude other textile from the collection might seem restrictive to some designers, Kowtow finds freedom in limits. After close to two decades at the helm of the green fashion label, Double Double spoke to founder Gosia Piatek about lessons learned and the brand’s future direction.
How were your Summer holidays? What do you love most about being home in New Zealand?
Fantastic! Summer has been really awesome and my holidays were spent in the sun; at the beach, bush-walking, climbing. There’s an expression that the locals use here, “Nothing beats Wellington on a good day”, but I also think nothing beats New Zealand’s nature. Wellington is particularly special because we’re so close to beaches and walking tracks and ranges and vineyards. It’s a city that’s small but with great promise, and it’s not hard to have a change of scenery with a short drive or bike ride.
Now that you’ve returned to work, what’s your vision for the year ahead at Kowtow?
In the first few months of the year we’re redesigning our workroom. Our existing office is a generous size, but the company is growing so we’ve taken over an adjacent space. It’s a project that gives me mixed emotions. It’s super exciting but scary at the same time. Expansion is a sign of progress, of things going well, but the past couple of years have shown us you can’t count on the future! I have to place trust in instincts, and know that it’s going to give us a new energy.
We’re also working on bringing our values as a Fairtrade organic cotton brand to the front of our marketing material. In the past we’ve been kind of quiet about the path we’ve chosen. When I started 15 years ago, sustainability and ethics wasn’t worth talking about, so we lost our voice to follow a more traditional “fashion” path. But this is 2022, people are educated, people are demanding. I can’t think of a better time to amplify our ethics!
Can you tell me a little bit about the upcoming Winter range you’re launching?
We’re using this season to really celebrate the diversity that comes from working with a single fibre – Fairtrade organic cotton. It’s incredible to think of the depth of colour and texture you can create from using one material. To an outsider it may seem limiting, but for us, it’s quite the contrary, and creates a playground of possibilities.
Secondary to this, and it’s a perfect accompanying message for this single-fibre salute, is our interpretation of the Bauhaus movement and more specifically, the women behind the movement who were often overlooked. We’re constantly referring to nature with our work, and this was a principle subject for Bauhaus students.
A core belief of Kowtow is working to leave the world better than you found it. Why is this a value that resonates with you? How do you try to incorporate it into your everyday life?
It’s a value I hope would resonate with a lot of people. We have to take care of our world and sometimes it can feel like a mammoth task, especially if you get bogged down in the statistics of climate change, but everyone can participate in leaving this world better. In our office, we are trying to remove plastic. That’s not an easy feat because everything is made of plastic! But we are starting to substitute pens for pencils, we compost at work, we make sure we’re using food and packaging services that allow us to refill, rather than replace. We have a dedicated team in the office that continually try to find ways to improve and reduce and once you start with the small stuff, the bigger picture is easier to recognise.
You’ve maintained the integrity of the brand for over 15 years by balancing commercial viability with the demands of a strong ethical consciousness. Can you share one of the challenges you’ve recently come up against as a sustainable brand, and what your approach was to overcoming it?
Our mission and biggest challenge at the moment is achieving full circularity in our clothing. What most people don’t realise is you can work with an organic material, like we do, but it’s all the other elements of the garment, like interfacing, buttons, thread, that are also a contributing factor to the industry’s pollution problems. We are working hard to remove all the synthetic “additives” of a garment so that each piece of clothing, in its entirety, is completely devoid of plastic. The elastic we use in our waistbands is natural rubber. Our buttons are either tagua nut or agoya shell. We don’t use zippers because there are no sustainable options. Being a 100% plastic-free brand is what drives our business and I am sure, in a few years, we’ll achieve this goal.
Do you think consumers have become more discerning when it comes to green-washed messaging from brands? What’s your advice for shoppers trying to build wardrobes that are better for the planet?
The youth are definitely switched on and are big drivers in calling out incorrect information, but so are our loyal customers who cover a broad age and demographic. It’s our customers we respond to and try to do better for.
When you really want to buy “green”, if you research properly it’s not hard to shop sustainably. The most obvious way to better care for the environment through shopping is to buy less polyester, nylon and other detrimental synthetic materials. Swap out one polyester piece for a Kowtow Fairtrade organic cotton garment. That’s a small beginning that can create real, positive change. And the easiest way to do it, if you’re starting from the bottom in building a wardrobe, is to look at our Core collection. We created this range of basics with the mindset of wardrobe staples. Classic tees, sweaters, tank dresses, shirting. You can use these pieces to build a foundation that can incorporate other elements from your wardrobe, which makes it simple to start the process of substituting synthetic for natural.
How would you describe your relationship with nature? As a mum, what lessons about the environment are you hoping to pass onto your son?
Nature gives me a source of strength. When I returned to Wellington, after many years of crossing between NZ and the UK, I realised how lucky one is to be surrounded so easily by nature.
I’m taking on a challenge for myself: I want to learn to grow all of the food I need for my family and enough to provide for my friends. For me, teaching my son that the simple act of growing your own food is in fact working towards a climate resolution, is a really important lesson to instill at a young age, because “home-grown” doesn’t cost diesel, it doesn’t require pesticides or packaging. He needs to learn self-reliance too; he needs to learn to be an active participant to create positive change instead of expecting it to be the work of someone else. This means picking up trash at the beach is a daily task. Though we have a lot of fun doing it, knowing it’s helping, so I should probably substitute ‘task’ for ‘ritual’!