Gosia is the designer of womenswear label, Kowtow. The following conversation was had between Gosia and Intent Founder, Sigrid McCarthy.
Sigrid: What is unique about the fashion industry in New Zealand?
Gosia: There are a lot of designers in New Zealand, but the brands who are succeeding all talk to one another, which is really cool. I’ve called Juliette Hogan for something, then Twenty Seven Names for something else.. I don’t hang out with these people, but I can always reach out if I need advice. We all go through similar issues.
Sigrid: That’s so lovely, and reminds me somewhat of Melbourne. There’s a willingness here to share information, share struggles, and even share makers. Not across the board, but through my work at Ethical Clothing Australia I’m definitely starting to see a sense of solidarity and an openness to sharing contacts.
Gosia: Oh is that your day job?
Sigrid: Yeah, I work with Australian companies that manufacture locally. Given the outsourcing nature of the industry, it’s common for brands to lose track of who is making their clothing—the accreditation program essentially keeps track of workers and makes sure they’re being treated fairly. If nothing else, my time at Ethical Clothing Australia has really opened my eyes to the complexities of the current fashion system.
Gosia: Yeah.. I think we’ve gotten ourselves into a really difficult journey, because the more doors you open the more depressed you become. I can see so many flaws in what we do; sometimes I just feel tired.
Sigrid: (Laughs) I hear you. Intent’s message and tone can fluctuate—depending on my mood—so while I try to remain positive about the industry’s potential to change, there are times when I struggle not to spiral into a negative head space. I do believe, though, that we need to be careful we don’t shy away from the real talk. It’s important to point out and unpack the issues this industry is facing. There seems to be a real push in this space to keep things light and celebrate the journey, but sometimes I just feel like saying, ‘Let’s cut the crap guys, you can’t shine a shit.’
Gosia: (Laughs). Yeah I think it’s important to acknowledge too that we aren’t perfect. There is always room for improvement.
Sigrid: Brands like Patagonia are good in that sense. They are ticking many boxes—when it comes to lessening environmental and social impact—but see it as an ongoing process and are always looking for ways to improve.
Gosia: I was recently talking to the girls at Well Made Clothes about their ‘Five piece french wardrobe’, and it made me think about the irony of Kowtow, and other brands, pushing large volumes of clothing while also pushing sustainability. It just doesn’t sit right.
Sigrid: Yeah I consider that all the time, as I don’t want Intent to simply push ‘better’ products. That said, I’m also a realist and don’t believe people will ever stop buying clothes, so there needs to be alternatives available.
Gosia: My vision for Kowtow was always for it to be global and accessible to a wide range of people. I want Kowtow to be the ethical alternative to say, a COS.. It’s organic, it’s fairtrade certified and monitored. I am confident that I can go to the factory and not find any children working there; the workers have regulated hours and seem in good spirits.
Sigrid: Yeah, you are definitely providing an attainable and more ethical option.
Gosia: I think I just need to somehow reignite my passion. It has been ten years since I launched Kowtow, and I have been concentrating on developing the business and getting it off the ground, getting it to a place where I feel comfortable. I have definitely achieved that—I can work part-time now—but I am not satisfied by a life revolving around yoga, green smoothies and chilling out. I want to be a hardcore, environmentalist freedom fighter. I don’t want to be wearing activewear to the shops. I don’t feel inspired just going around spending money.
Sigrid: (Laughs). The incredible thing about this space is that you can be forever learning and evolving. Things are always changing and there are so many different facets to explore.
Gosia: I feel as though I need to go back to the farms, and hang out with the farmers. The Fairtrade organisation looks after the farmers and that’s where the benefits are. Everyone else in the supply chain is monitored, but not certified. If you’re not familiar with how it works, Kowtow is certified by the Fairtrade Labelling Association who looks after the producer groups—the most traditionally marginalised people, the people at the bottom of the value chain. They usually work with basic commodities, such as coffee, sugar, cocoa, all of the things that we consume.. Cotton, natural products etc.
Cotton is particularly complicated, because it goes through about seven processes before it ends up at the cut, make and trim stage. It’s a really hard process to monitor, which is why I value my certification with Fairtrade. I can be sure that while some of the costs do go into general administration, the farmers get a portion of the money and can spend it on projects that they decide on as a group. It could be a cow, or a school, or basic infrastructure for the community. They are all small scale producers, so families will often have 1-2 acres of land, a backyard of cotton. It’s not like a Monsanto farm; it’s very small scale. So, the Fairtrade program helps educate these workers and gather them together so that they have more bargaining power. As a buyer, there is a certain Fairtrade premium for their crop that they can’t sell under, which means they are protected. Our factory does the buying of the raw cotton, so Kowtow directly deals with the cut, make and trim. This is why I want to go and stay with the farmers, to really try and understand the process and the realities of these people’s lives.
“My vision for Kowtow was always for it to be global and accessible to a wide range of people.”
Sigrid: Managing a value chain is definitely an ongoing process for brands, how does it work with Fairtrade? Do you reapply for certification annually?
Gosia: The cut, make and trim factory gets audited once a year. They are the ones buying the cotton from the farms, which is then made into a yarn and dyed. We also have GOTS certification, and visit the factory every six months for 2-3 weeks. What we see when we go is positive and reassuring; we are able to engage with the makers and oversee the process in the factory. It’s an awesome opportunity to get to know the makers and I’ve noticed that there isn’t a high turnover of staff, which must be a good sign.. A sign that they are happy. I have a friend who runs a Fairtrade organic coffee company, and a while ago before visiting the factory I said to him, ‘What if I go over there and it’s just all a lie? What if they’re just giving me the good bits and hiding the bad bit on the side..?’ And he said, ‘Yeah but you can’t hide misery on people’s faces, you can feel that.’ As soon as I went over there, I knew it was legit. These are workers who have insanely amazing skills, where they can sew two metres with 5 mil off the edge and it’s perfectly straight. They know people like us are going to point details like that out (laughs). Our expectations are so ridiculous, we don’t realise that it’s all handmade; that there’s a person operating that machine, or tucking that seam under with his or her finger. It’s so manual.
Sigrid: It’s such a lovely, human story. It reinforces the need for people to value craftsmanship and the hands behind clothing.
Gosia: Yeah I think many people don’t realise it’s all handmade, because it looks factory made. It looks like a machine has done it.. A person, no different to me and you, is using an industrial machine, pressing the seam with an iron.. It’s old school, and that’s how all of our clothing is made. There is no modern technology that cuts out the human element. It’s crazy that these insanely amazing tailors often only get minimum wage. That’s just the value of the world though, isn’t it. We have strange ways of paying for things, strange ways of deciding where to place value..
Sigrid: Yeah it’s a warped psychology, isn’t it. Someone is more than happy to spend money on coffee or brunch, but then hesitates to spend what is fair on an item of clothing.
Gosia: It’s also maybe the lower price point, for food. It’s that instant gratification and you know it’s good for you.
Sigrid: Yeah.. I like to think there’s a growing awareness, which is leading to people asking more questions and demanding credible answers. People are wanting more from brands and the money exchange. Do you feel that more people are coming to Kowtow for the aesthetic, or for the story? Or perhaps both?
Gosia: I think the aesthetic. We don’t have our own retail stores, so it’s a hard thing to gauge. But I do think it’s the aesthetic. Maybe in Wellington and Melbourne it’s a bit of both, because they seem to be quite conscious cities. But then there are definitely places that are still not consciously involved in this world, and that seems to be most of the places we sell. You know how in some cities there is a particular vibe and you can’t help but feel, ‘I don’t belong here..I feel like a weird person, because I don’t have a manicure and a really fancy handbag.’ There are types of people in this world who look like they have their shit together (laughs). And regardless of their differences, we still try to sell to this demographic.
Sigrid: Well, I suppose they’re the ones with the money to buy new products.
Gosia: Exactly. We’re trying to appeal to a wide range of people, and have actually just removed the Fairtrade logo from our branding. It felt to me as though it was better suited to food products. It’s so associated with food, and not fashion. Kowtow is trying to project itself as being a high end boutique; a contemporary, sustainable, ethical fashion house. The logo is no longer on our swing tags, but we still write ‘ethical and sustainable cotton’ on them in the hope that people will still pick up that language and it will subtly lead to them thinking more about it.
Sigrid: I can really relate to that, as Intent has never actively marketed itself as an ethical fashion publication. I want our message to reach a wider audience, and for the ethos to complement the aesthetic. In my mind, there shouldn’t be a visible difference between ethical fashion and ‘other’, but I suppose in current context brands still need to push that side of their label in some way. We’re not at a stage yet where customers simply expect brands to be doing the right thing; it’s still a point of difference.
Gosia: Yeah. Speaking with you and Well Made Clothes has got me thinking.. How do you create a business where you don't encourage people to buy as much, but still want them to buy what you’re selling.. I know, on a personal level, that if we all just bought less stuff the world would be a hell of a lot better.
Sigrid: I was actually talking to Rick Ridgeway from Patagonia about this exact issue, and he told me about their ‘Don’t Buy this Jacket’ campaign, which encouraged people to care for and make do with what they already owned. Funnily enough, this campaign actually led to increased sales. I think we just need to accept that people will always buy, we just need to help them buy with greater awareness and intention.
The thing I keep coming back to is the psychology of buying, and why we’re bringing things into our lives that may not serve any purpose. While Intent is not saying, ‘Hey don’t buy anything’, we’re really encouraging people to take the time to understand their relationship with clothing and why they’re ‘consuming’. Will this new item bring value to their life etc. When I talk to designers or retailers who have a more mindful approach to business, they make similar comments to you about trying to walk this line between pushing both product and sustainability. Sometimes I do worry that without people tapping into the reasons behind their buying, we’re simply encouraging a different form of consumption. ‘Hey you can feel good about buying this tee-shirt you don't need because it’s made from organic cotton.'
Gosia: Yeah, the feel good factor.. I was in Target on the Gold Coast with my mum recently, and she started chatting to this woman who said, ‘Oh it’s great, because I can just buy these and when they get dirty I can just throw them away because they’re so cheap.’ I was so shocked, I honestly thought that this was just a quote used in magazines and people didn’t actually say that.. It’s so far removed from the way I treat clothing. I have a son, and he always wears immaculately clean clothes because I go to the effort of rubbing the stains out and soaking them overnight. I just love his clothes, and they all look brand new two years on.
Sigrid: If only more people showed that same level of respect. The thing is, the people who say warped things like that woman in Target, they’re not bad people.. They don’t wake up and set out to kill the planet by throwing out their dirty stuff. It comes down to this sheer lack of mindfulness.
Gosia: Yeah, my mum comes from the old school—not much money, and she’s environmentally aware without realising it. She put on solar panels because it meant she would pay less in bills over the years. She buys sourdough from the baker, without even realising she’s supporting local business. She just likes the bread.
Sigrid: Well this is it.. If it’s going to translate into fashion, people need to understand that maybe they’re not actually getting a bargain by buying the cheaper option and then replacing it soon after. Maybe if they just bought one, looked after it, treated it with respect, then the lifecycle of that garment would lead to a cheaper price per wear. They would end up saving money in the long run. There needs to be a real mindset shift when it comes to clothing and the false economy we seem to have fallen into.
Gosia: Kowtow’s clothes are sitting in a really interesting price point, where our dresses are around the $200-$250 mark. It’s boutique, it’s not fast fashion, but it’s not a really high price point either. We sit somewhere in-between.
Sigrid: Price is such an interesting aspect to this whole movement, because it is not always an indication of what’s going on throughout a value chain. There are many higher price point labels, for example, that have large markups but no evidence to suggest the money is being distributed to the people farming the cotton or making the clothing. People are spending a lot of money on unethical clothing; perhaps with the assumption that they're making the better choice. I feel Kowtow sits at a really attainable price point—I will invest in a Kowtow piece, knowing it is ethical and well made, but I don’t need to break the bank to do this.
Gosia: Great, because that’s what I wanted to offer to people. And to be honest, if I’m to spend $200-$300 on something, I’m more likely to care for it more and treasure it over a longer period. Purely because of the price point. It’s got nothing to do with the actual product, it’s totally the mentality of it.
Sigrid: Do you find that the Kowtow customer generally comes back every season to buy new pieces?
Gosia: Yeah, definitely. They must be high consumers (laughs). But you know what? I have to keep telling myself that this is a hell of a lot better than if they were to curb their hunger for consuming with, for example, H&M. I don’t know the ins and outs of H&M’s production, and we can’t assume that all clothing made in China or Bangladesh etc is bad, but let’s assume it’s not up to Fairtrade standards..
Sigrid: Yeah, we shouldn’t treat ‘Made in developing country’ as a dirty term.
Gosia: Often it is though, isn’t it.
Sigrid: Well yeah, often principal companies don’t take credible steps to ensuring the workers making their clothing in these countries are working in safe factories and receiving a living wage.. Again, given the outsourcing nature of the industry, it’s too easy for these companies to divorce themselves from any responsibility and claim that they aren’t accountable for the workers’ lives.
Gosia: Brands need to be putting in that extra bit of effort to understand who is making their clothing, what process it follows, and how complex the value chain is. Kowtow’s head creative and production manager just went to India and followed the whole production chain in January, and documented this journey. I’m hoping we can make something beautiful out of that; something that gives our customer an insight into the brand. I really want to concentrate on the craftsmanship, and show people how insane this entire process is. Cotton has to be grown in an acre of land, this family then picks it and puts it in their living room. It’s an intimate and amazing process. They actually grow lentils every second row to put nitrogen into the soil. When I was visiting their home I asked them, ‘Why do you choose to be organic?’ and they kind of looked at me as though I was stupid and said, ‘Because it’s better for us.’
"A person, no different to me and you, is using an industrial machine, and pressing the seam with an iron. There is no modern technology that cuts out the human element. It’s crazy that these insanely amazing tailors often only get minimum wage. That’s just the value of the world though, isn’t it. We have strange ways of paying for things, strange ways of deciding where to place value.. "
Sigrid: Well I suppose it comes down to the fact that these people are experiencing the process firsthand. These are the people who would be dealing with the chemicals involved in conventional cotton farming. For us, as the end user, it’s so much easier to be ignorant of the realities.
Gosia: Yeah. These crops are also rain fed, so they don’t actually need irrigation. I just heard about these extreme droughts they are experiencing in India at the moment, where it’s 50 degrees and many people are dying from heat exhaustion These kinds of changes in the weather have such significant impacts—not just on these poor people but also on the businesses who are working with them as part of the Fairtrade process. These farmers can’t afford irrigation so rely on the rain.
I actually think we’re getting to a point now where cotton is becoming a luxury commodity, because anything natural is luxury. When you go into stores, so many of the products now are made from polyester or synthetic fibres. This is a problem when people buy brands with the assumption that just because it’s a certain name, at a certain price point, it’s going to be good quality. The first thing I do—I can’t help it—is I touch the garment, turn it inside out, look at the label, and check both the fabric content and where it’s made. This must be a really unique or weird thing to do these days, because shop assistants almost always come up to me and ask what it is I do in fashion. As though only those in the industry are interested in this kind of information.. Day-to-day consumers don’t understand the different types of fabrics and how they feel, fit, wear. They don’t realise that polyester, for example, makes you sweat and feel disgusting (laughs). Maybe I’m just a fabric snob!
Sigrid: Yeah it’s the same kind of experience that I have at stores, because I always ask about production. I’m super pleasant, but the types of questions I ask must be so uncommon that they spark suspicion. It’s still not seen as a normal dialogue to have with brands, and I always have to endure these awkward exchanges that make me feel like an undercover detective.
Gosia: It’s tricky, when often the shop assistants haven’t had any training. They’re not told about these types of things; the focus is more on the importance of making sales etc. For me, it’s so important for the people selling my product to also understand the story behind the brand. They need to know, for example, that we design 1.5-2 years in advance and don’t follow trends. When I tell Kowtow staff and retailers our story, they then become so much more engaged in the brand and want to ask more questions. I don’t know whether it’s because many of them are young and from a generation of more conscious and aware people.. But it’s made me want to host more brand product evenings, where instead of saying something meaningless like, ‘This dress can be styled with this’, we can cover more substantial things—the production, the fabrics, the story. That way they can answer the more difficult questions from customers.
Sigrid: Exactly. I think it adds value to a customer’s experience, if the staff can answer these types of questions and weave the brand’s story into the purchase. Unfortunately, Kowtow is a rare gem and many principal companies don’t even have the information to then relay to their staff. They don’t know who is growing their cotton, or making their clothing.
Gosia: The problem I have is that I’ve held on to my story at times and forgotten to share it with my employees. I need to help them feel comfortable with the information, so that it cements into their brain and comes naturally in conversation with others outside of Kowtow. It can be easy to sound like a tape recorder, and that kind of regurgitation is never engaging. I also need to help them understand that they don’t need to know everything; they’re already going to know more than the average consumer. It’s quite complicated, when you think about it, because at the end of the day we’re talking about world trade and a really complex issue that people go to university to study.
Sigrid: The way you deliver your message needs to entice people, not alienate them with the technicalities. There’s such a fine line between diluting your message so far that it gets lost, and packaging it in a way that gets the main points across but in a digestible way.
Gosia: Yeah it’s important to strike that balance.
Sigrid: On a tangent here, but I was wondering whether you feel your attitude towards clothing or fashion has changed since launching Kowtow ten years ago?
Gosia: Yeah, back then I was incredibly naive. I was passionate about saving the world and was like, let’s just do this. Then for about eight years I felt as though I was in a tunnel of ‘doing’. Now I’m stepping away from that and taking the time to question everything. I don’t want to give up on what I’m doing, but I also want to be able to delve deeper. I don’t worry about everyone else—because I’m too busy to worry about their processes and what they’re up to—but I know what Kowtow is doing and what our mission is. I think the next step is for me to go to the farms to spend a decent amount of time there with the workers; to really try and understand what’s going on. And then if I feel confident in that, I suspect it will bring me back to the feelings of ten years ago where I was passionate and driven. The ‘Let’s make this happen’ mindset. Let’s open up a shop on Regent Street in London, let’s open up shops where there is foot traffic. Let’s not push things upstream. Sometimes we get so focused on tiny areas, and forget to consider the bigger kettles of fish. Now that I’m living a more global life, and spending much of my time in London, it really makes me realise just how many people are walking down major shopping strips and buying crap. What’s stopping us from opening up a shop on Regent Street? I bet we would do well, because we provide attainable, ethical options. Let’s take this up a notch.
So yeah, my attitude has changed but I suspect that going back to the farms will be like going back to the roots of why I started and help me regain some of my initial feelings. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is my attitude towards doing business simply for money’s sake. I have never been driven just by money and I can’t do this without there being a bigger purpose. It just doesn't sit right with me. I love meeting other likeminded people who don’t consider money to be the end game; it’s inspiring. The world is messed up, I can’t be the only one who worries about it. I’ve just had a child, and maybe one day he’ll have a child.. It worries me because the world just doesn’t seem quite right at the moment.
Sigrid: It’s hard not to take that responsibility on board. At times, I invest so much of myself into both Ethical Clothing Australia and Intent Journal that I forget to take care of my own wellbeing. This inevitably impacts the quality of my work and leads to me being less able to drive positive change. So I think it’s that ongoing balance between caring enough about the world to do something about it, but also remembering to take care of yourself as a way of bettering your impact. You’re definitely not alone in that struggle.
Gosia: Maybe it’s about finding the core of what drives you, and considering everything outside of that as simply clutter. For me, it has always been about ethical and sustainable fashion becoming attainable on a global level. We’re getting there, ever so slowly. We have a warehouse in Belgium, a warehouse in L.A, we have agents in Copenhagen, New York, Tokyo.. We’ve just opened up the showroom in Melbourne. I just need to remind myself that I can’t get stuck in the micro details of how it all runs—the internal politics of it all—I need to focus on the overall vision. What are we trying to do? Put simply, it’s to give an alternative to the consumer that isn’t at an unattainable price point.
Sigrid: Just quietly, I think you’re doing incredibly well. Your brand encompasses so many admirable qualities.
Gosia: Thank you.
Sigrid: Overall, are you quite positive about the future of the industry? Remember, don’t hold back on the real talk.
Gosia: To be honest, I don’t think much has changed—of any real significance—since I started out ten years ago. Big, fast fashion brands seem to be thriving and they are very clever in the way they disguise themselves.
I am quite hopeful, however, in the new generation and the kids in their young 20s. I don’t remember being as on to it and aware back when I was that age. They just seem like well educated, and well rounded people. But perhaps I’m just coming across really interesting ones?
Sigrid: Well here’s hoping the younger generation continues to embrace innovation and more progressive ways of thinking. The interest that Intent has garnered over the past twelve months has definitely been heartening for me and makes me think that perhaps their interest and engagement will eventually lead to changes throughout the fashion system.
Anyway, thank you so much for allowing me your time. I feel there is a lovely alignment between Intent and Kowtow and we seem to have a similar approach. It’s refreshing for me, and I’m thrilled to be able to share your story with our readership.
Gosia: I love what Intent is doing, so it’s my pleasure.
Photography Portrait by Adrian Samson, editorial image by Adam Bryce
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