Kowtow interview

We meet Wellington’s Gosia Piatek – self-described lunatic and the founder of sustainable fashion label Kowtow.


Kowtow Winter 2013 – Anywhere but Here

All photos © Kowtow 2012 

Tell us about Kowtow's beginnings.

It was about seven years ago. My partner and I, like cowboys with little experience and know-how, started an ethical and sustainable fashion business on a $5000 grant from the government that lasted us about two weeks.

Luckily, my parents believed in my vision and hooked me up with a bit more capital. We started off with printed tees and hoodies (as you do).

Things are a lot different now... better, easier, more fun.

Your desire to create an ethical business led you to fashion, although you had no previous fashion experience. Why choose this industry?

Ha! Because I'm a crazy lunatic. I think if I’d known how hard this industry is I wouldn't have stepped inside, so my naiveté almost worked to my advantage.

I'd always wanted to start my own business doing something ethical and sustainable. Over dinner one night a friend mentioned to me the idea of starting a fairtrade organic cotton clothing business, so the obsessive person that I am went off and researched this idea on the internet pretty extensively ’til I got totally fixated on it. I tossed it about with my partner, who came from a fashion graphic design background, and he was keen to jump on board.

"I think if I’d known how hard this industry is I wouldn't have stepped inside, so my naiveté almost worked to my advantage."

How difficult has it been to establish and run Kowtow? What are the challenges, and what are the rewards?

I'd say the first three to four years were pretty difficult. We were just feeling out who we were and where in the market we belonged, as well as sussing out our own style. Plus, we were doing all of this on a mega budget (I remember when we used to trace patterns onto newspaper, as I couldn't afford pattern making card).

In the last couple of years we have really found our groove and understand who and what Kowtow is. I have a small but awesome team that I employ, which makes Kowtow move forward.

This industry is seriously crazy, with mega lows and mega highs. The lows are from exhaustion and the highs usually come during collection launch time!

You visit your manufacturer in India regularly don't you?

I visit our factory in Kolkata every six months to monitor sampling and production. A few years back I visited the entire supply chain, from farm to factory. That was totally awesome and made me believe in fairtrade organics.

"I guess I learnt a lot from them about wanting a better life." 

How has your family background informed what you do now?

My parents, brother and I came to New Zealand in the mid ’80s from Poland as political asylum refugees. My father worked for Sealord as a captain on massive industrial fishing boats until he got made redundant, as there's no fish in the sea. I guess I learnt a lot from them about wanting a better life. 

Was fashion always your main creative outlet, even before you started designing?

Nope. I was really into snowboarding and music.

Along with its clear ethical focus, Kowtow also has a distinctive minimalist aesthetic. What inspires you design-wise?

Architecture, street style, interior design and typography.

You incorporate video in the marketing of your clothes. Is it an important part of how you visualise your designs?

It's a really awesome tool to be able to communicate your ideas further than just stills photography – you can really expand and build on the collection themes.

"This collection has a sense of rebellion – nostalgia for a time when we had nothing better to do than to wander aimlessly."

My partner is a videographer and runs his own business called Hippy Parent Productions, so I'm lucky enough to have him by my side to create our videos (he also does all of our look book and PR photography).

Tell us about your latest collection, 'Anywhere but Here'.

The feeling we wanted to portray is one that is discussed daily at Kowtow, which is about ‘growing up’ – what that means in this age, and the restrictions that are imposed on us daily as adults.

This collection has a sense of rebellion – nostalgia for a time when we had nothing better to do than to wander aimlessly. It’s a theme that resonates strongly within me.

I like the idea of rebellion from the structures of adult life, and nostalgia for a simpler, looser way of existing. How is this explored in the clothes?

We don't use any buttons and zips and only use cotton/elastane in our briefs and leggings – the rest is purely made from certified fairtrade organic cotton. I feel like we don't need to add clutter in our design. I love a loose, over-sized and masculine silhouette, and we can simply play with drape and volume to create interesting shapes.

Your team seems relatively small, and I imagine that keeps you all busy. What's an average day like?

We usually start work at 9am and make flat whites.

Yoan does all of our graphic design, so he is busy preparing newsletters, designing prints and look books, processing photos, as well as the million-and-one other bits that I've probably forgotten to mention. Sarah is our sales and PR manager and is also currently working dispatch, so as you can imagine her work life is kinda mental. Adrienne is our newest team member and she is pattern making and designing all day long. I switch between departments and take care of all of our marketing... I'm a social media nerd.

Oh and we rarely work overtime, which I guess is unusual in this industry.

What's stopping other fashion businesses from supporting fairtrade, organic practices?

I guess many of them will already have very well established supply chains, and moving towards organic and fairtrade practices would mean change and adaptation, which would initially cost them extra money and their bottom line profits would suffer.

However, consumers are now becoming super savvy and actively wanting to purchase sustainable and ethical products, which is forcing stuck-in-their-ways fashion houses to change their ways. I defiantly believe that each individual’s spending power makes a difference.