Eleven years ago, there was no Reformation or Everlane; no Instagrammers hashtagging #fashionrevolution; no celebrity like Emma Watson championing sustainability on the red carpet. Ethical fashion wasn't mainstream. But that didn't stop Gosia Piatek from pursuing an exhaustively responsible supply chain when she started her New Zealand-based line, Kowtow, in 2007.
Piatek had just come off a stint working for Peter Jackson, the filmmaker behind the "Lord of the Rings" movies, when she heard about a government program that was giving grants to help small business owners in New Zealand. Even though the grant was only for about 10,000 New Zealand dollars (equivalent to about $7,400 USD), a relative lack of funding was no excuse to cut corners when it came to ethics, in Piatek's point of view.
"I think I've always had an element of awareness for the environment," she says on the phone from Wellington, referencing the way her obsession with snowboarding helped her fall in love with nature. "I always wanted to do something that was better for the world."
To that end, Piatek began extensively researching farms and factories in India that would be willing to partner with her in her dream of making a company that used entirely Fair Trade-certified and organic cotton. With the small minimums she would need to order for her fledgling company, it wasn't easy to find what she was looking for. But somewhere between six and eight months later, she found partners about whom she felt confident.
"The people at the bottom, the farmers, are the ones that people bargain with the most and they're the ones that are left with nothing," Piatek says of her commitment to going the Fair Trade route. "And I wanted to make sure it was organic, because the two go hand-in-hand — making sure the people working the land weren't going to be affected by pesticides."
In its initial iteration, Kowtow was a side project that Piatek undertook with her then-partner while also working part-time at a more traditional job. The early aesthetic of the brand had more of a streetwear edge and featured lots of graphic tees with political slogans. As a Polish refugee who immigrated to New Zealand by way of Italy as a child, Piatek has never been unaware of the way that the political influences the personal.
But it was only after her partner left the business and Piatek took over creative direction completely that the brand began to evolve toward its current design-centric minimalism and off-the-body silhouettes. These days, Piatek channels her ideas about policy, human rights and environmental ethics more into how the clothing is made than what the clothing says explicitly.
Over time, Kowtow has grown from two people into a team of 26, with products that sell in New York, Stockholm, Tokyo, Paris, Dubai and a host of other stylish cities. And even though the aesthetic has changed significantly since the beginning, the one thing that has remained consistent from the get-go is Kowtow's commitment to ethical sourcing, manufacturing and production.
There have been challenges along the way, of course. Because Kowtow works with farmers who rely on rain rather than human-made irrigation to water their crops, bad weather can mean a price hike in raw materials. And where other companies may send the same style to six different factories to find which can make it for the lowest price, Piatek would rather maintain a relationship with the two factories she's been working with long-term and give them regular, reliable work, even if it means not getting the absolute cheapest rates.
Choosing boutique pricing that has a bit of wiggle room built in and designing in a way that feels elevated enough to deserve spending a bit more has helped Kowtow weather those cost fluctuations.
"I just think it's so ruthless how some brands go about it," she says. "That's one point of being an ethical company — we have a conversation with our factories, rather than just bailing on them."
An added reason to be in constant communication with her factories comes from the fact that Piatek and the Kowtow team develop all of their textiles exclusively for their own use. The fact that they're designing not just silhouettes, but also the color, texture, weight and knit of their fabrics adds a level of uniqueness to everything Kowtow produces.
The brand takes a similarly innovative approach to incorporating sustainability, even beyond its fabrics. Hardware used in the brand's recently launched denim line is nickel-free; buttons are made from recycled hemp. And Piatek is always questioning how Kowtow can be doing better. She mentions that the brand was using cornstarch-based bags for packaging as a greener alternative to plastic, but that research pointing to the fact that cornstarch bags still take hundreds of years to decompose outside specialized environments has her re-thinking the approach once again.
Her pursuit of an increasingly green brand recently landed Piatek at the environment-focused Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which got her excited about the possibility of using ethical fabrics that weren't available when she started Kowtow, like the ZQue-certified Merino wool that the brand will soon be incorporating into its offerings. And it also planted in her mind the desire to better participate in the circular economy, in which objects are cycled endlessly with new uses rather than ending up in landfills.
While she's not exactly sure what that participation might look like for Kowtow, she's convinced that caring about her brand's impact is a luxury and a privilege that she'd be a fool to waste.
"There's this powerful movement happening," she says. "Most of us in the West haven't grown up with extreme poverty; we're not in a war; our economy's doing well. So we can afford to think, 'What sort of impact do I want to have on the world?' We're lucky enough to be in that generation of people who can create some real change."