”We don’t like the status quo. Year-on-year, we always like to challenge ourselves,” says Gosia Piatek, founder and director of sustainable and ethical clothing label Kowtow.
With Kowtow, Gosia is challenging the notion that a brand has to cut corners and do things on the cheap in order to be profitable. Since 2007, the label has kept ethical values at the core of its philosophy, and is now stocked in over 250 locations worldwide with a flagship store in Wellington and international expansion on the cards.
I first met Gosia in Wellington about 10 years ago. She had booked me to be the model for one of her earliest Kowtow lookbooks. Even back then, only a couple of years in, Kowtow had a clear vision. Clean lines, premium organic cotton, no superfluous details. Gosia herself has remained a force to be reckoned with, and Kowtow’s clothing is a reflection of her personality: intelligent and forthright with far more to it than meets the eye.
These days, Gosia is constantly travelling between London, where her partner and young son live, to the company's offices and store in New Zealand, their manufacturers in India and press events in the USA, Australia and Europe.
“This year has gone fast,” she says. “But I can confidently say it’s always been exciting.”
It has been a big year for Kowtow. The flagship store opened in Wellington, designed by Rufus Knight. The space was built to reflect the brand's ethics, using locally sourced, recycled and sustainably harvested materials. It's an award-winning store, having picked up a gold pin at the 2018 Best Design Awards, and is also bucking the trend of bricks-and-mortar retail spaces closing with its success.
Attending the eco fashion-focused Copenhagen Fashion Summit recently inspired Gosia to look into other fabrics aside from organic cotton, Kowtow's original foundation, like Tencel (regenerated wood cellulose), regenerated nylon and ZQ-certified merino. "There's an interesting future with fabric technology that maybe hasn't been invented yet I think this is just the beginning of it," she says. "I'd rather be a trailblazer than someone who's catching up."
Sustainability has become an important goal for clothing brands, and even luxury houses like Gucci, Versace and Michael Kors are pledging to halt the use of fur and exotic animals in their designs. It's a start, says Gosia, but is it good enough?
“Any change toward sustainability is great and people should be commended for that,” she says. “It’s just frustrating that it’s taking such a long time when there are options out there for sourcing sustainable fabrics and trims, and ethical manufacturing.”
Designers in all fields need to be responsible for their products, says Gosia, and ask more in-depth questions about supply chains and visiting manufacturers, “because if anyone actually saw an unjust place they just wouldn’t go with it”.
She’s also passionate about taking responsibility for clothing waste. “We need to be accountable for the end-life of a product as technology improves we should be working toward circularity and take-back programmes, not just passing it off to the customer.” This year, she was able to find a commercial composter for Kowtow’s Biobag packaging, allowing them to kickstart these circularity ideals.
Gosia isn’t one to rest on her laurels. She is constantly pushing for innovation in a way that doesn’t come across as preachy, more pragmatic. Why, I ask her, is a company like Kowtow important in 2018?
“The reason is the same as when I started it 12 years ago: we can’t keep going the way we’re going as humans on this planet,” she says. “We live in a natural environment but act very unnaturally towards it. We need to have some compassion towards it, it’s our only home.”
It’s thoughtfulness, really, that sits at the heart of Kowtow, and Gosia is proving that thoughtful design and manufacturing can go hand-in-hand.