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From seed to garment: Kowtow’s latest collection continues its sustainability journey

Wellington-based fashion label Kowtow is known for its high-design values alongside minimal, every-day basics. Gosia Piatek, founder, creative director and designer of Kowtow, talks about its sustainable flagship store, the new fabrics in its latest collection, and being inspired by art and design. 

Ethical and sustainable values are at the core of Wellington-based fashion label Kowtow, from its fabrics to its processes. The Spring 2018 collection, which launched at the beginning of the month, features five ethically and sustainably made fabrics – corduroy, fine knit, ecru denim, colour blocked knitwear and seersucker – all of which are new to its shelves. 

Gosia Piatek, founder, creative director and designer, says Kowtow uses certified ethical organic cotton every season as the core of its collection.

“While we are limited to some extent but also find these parameters exciting creatively. This season, we have explored texture and colour, creating fabrics that are unique to us from seed to garment.”

This is the first time it has created corduroy, which has been dyed a peach colour for summer, says Piatek.

 “Another new development is the striped seersucker which really captures a summer holiday vibe. Our fine knitwear has the luxurious feel of a cashmere or silk blend, and colours are so amazing in organic cotton so we've colour blocked our knitwear and added a super cool ecru to our denim range."

“We design all our fabrics from scratch – colour, weave, prints, stripes and checks  – nothing is off the roll. The process takes over 16 months, from design concept, through development to final fabric for production.”

From the design studio in Wellington, Piatek and the team work hand-in-hand with its manufacturing partners in India where the fabrics are made. 

“We design all fabric specifications: weave, weight, colour, print, wash & finish. We have an amazing in-house design team who create Kowtow prints that are a unique and exclusive element of every collection.” 

She says Kowtow have always worked with Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) approved inks and dyes, which are free from chlorine bleach, toxic heavy metals, formaldehyde and aromatic solvents.

“We use GOTS approved washes for all our ethical organic cotton garments from lightweight jersey to denim. GOTS ensure sustainable use and treatment of water used in these processes.”

The merino wool used is processed and dyed using the Bluesign system, says Piatek. The Bluesign certification oversees occupational health and safety, water usage and air emissions to create a sustainable product.

This season, the collection draws its inspiration from the colours and shapes of 70s industrial design and modernist architecture.

Piatek says Kowtow's design is art-driven, and this time bonded with the visions of two key inspirations: Mexican architect, Luis Barragán, and Italian industrial designer, Joe Colombo.

“We have borrowed Colombo's talent of making simple objects more than they seem, appealing to view but also more practical. The curved details on collars, cuffs and pockets mimic the shapes of Colombo's furniture.”

And As for Barragán, Kowtow have taken the idea of structure & applied it with pleats and panels.

“The collection has a lot of colour and bold prints that pay homage to Barragán. Whether it be inspiration drawn from the shadows of structures at Cuadra San Cristøbal or a water reflection from the Casa Gilardi indoor swimming pool.”

Piatek says the most exciting part of the journey was when new season samples arrive, as the team has often never seen the garments made up in the new fabrics they have developed.

“Most of the time they are so much better than we could have imagined, occasionally they aren't...but that's part of a creative process and we get to problem solve.”

In April, Kowtow received an A in the 2018 Ethical Fashion Report by Tearfund, which followed on from an A in 2017.

Piatek says to ensure continued commitment to successful ethical practices and workers’ rights, Kowtow has long-standing relationships with its manufacturers, visiting them at least twice a year and seeing their ethical practices in action. 

“All our Fairtrade organic cotton is FLO certified which not only ensures fair practices and payments for cotton farmers it audits the supply chain too. Our factories are SA8000 certified, a standard which encourages manufacturers to develop, maintain, and apply socially acceptable practices in the workplace.”

On Kowtow's website, there are videos showing the process of the cotton as it becomes a Kowtow piece. The videos were shot in 2016 when its senior creative and production manager visited the cotton farms, weavers & our factories. 

"Since we started in 2007, we have only used organic cotton fabrics. Last winter, we introduced certified ZQ merino wool into our knitwear, blended with our cotton. We haven't had the opportunity to film the processing of our merino wool yarn yet but it's something we're keen to look into."

A sustainable space

The Kowtow flagship store, on College St in Wellington, was a collaboration between Kowtow, interior designer Rufus Knight and Wellington-based Makers of Architecture. Every aspect of the store was selected with sustainability in mind, with the choice to use natural and sustainable materials throughout. 

This includes sustainably grown, harvested and milled eucalyptus slats, finished by hand with non-toxic, eco-friendly Osmo hardwax oil, point of sale and display units designed with valchromat, a FSC certified product made with post-industrial recycled wood chips, edged in brass, and packaging is made from FSC certified paper and designed to be entirely recyclable. Customers are also encouraged to bring in their own reusable bags too.

Piatek says the space is sunken below street level with large north facing windows. This means cool in summer and warm in winter, eliminating the need for lots of heating.

“…spaces are defined and softened with rugs made from salvaged and recycled synthetics, including fishing nets recovered from the ocean, and linen curtain drops that have been sustainably grown, harvested and processed using the environmentally friendly dew-retting method.”

The store has also become an anchor of conversation around sustainability, says Piatek, where customers can ask questions and learn.

She says the company have also launched an in-store repairs programme, where customers may bring their Kowtow garments in to be mended. 

Looking into the future

A couple of years ago Kowtow opened a Melbourne office, and now have over 60 retailers worldwide stocking Kowtow.

“We also have PR and sales in New York, and now that I live in London about half the year, we have set up an office here with a European sales manager to help us understand this varied market,” says Piatek.

The German, Swiss, Danish and Icelandic markets already 'get' the brand, she says, and with the awareness of sustainable fashion increasing she is excited about growing Kowtow's presence in Europe.

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