Polish-born Gosia Piatek ventured into the world of fashion with little experience and only $5000 in her bank account. Ten years later and her ethical clothing label Kowtow has blossomed into one of New Zealandâs fastest-growing fashion brands.
Gosia Piatek is back in her adopted hometown of Wellington on one of her whirlwind visits. Born in Poland, the entrepreneurial creative currently spends half her time in London. The ambitious young businesswoman and mother of one seems unruffled by a lifestyle that would undoubtedly leave many others on edge. Piatekâs nonchalant demeanour is even more apparent when I mention that thereâs been an office-wide debate over the correct pronunciation of Kowtow. âItâs âco-toeâ, but Iâm pretty certain it should be âcow-taoâ,â says Piatek, laughing. âSometimes I make up sounds! I think itâs to do with having English as a second language.
âItâs Chinese,â she goes on to explain. âYou kowtow to the emperor; itâs a sign of respect.â As for how Piatek decided on her companyâs name, it was during a late-night flick through the dictionary that she first stumbled on the word. âI wanted something short, memorable and abstract. I wanted it to stick in peopleâs minds.â
This October, Piatek will celebrate Kowtowâs 10th anniversary, and sheâs still happy with the name. âWhen we first started, I had $5000 in my bank account; it was just me and my partner. Now there are 16 of us in New Zealand, and weâve just opened a three-storey showroom in Australia.â The Melbourne showroom is only one of Kowtowâs milestones. Although Piatekâs company is experiencing rapid growth, she says itâs been a slow evolution to get where they are today. âI was bored with my life, and it was actually my friendâs idea. She said: âWhy donât you start a fair-trade organic clothing company?ââ Piatek admits she had little idea what that was and went home to Google it. âIt made sense to me. I felt like the world can be a messed-up place and I didnât want to add more to it. I love design and Iâve always cared about the environment and people. It was all the aspects; it wasnât just fashion.â
Things progressed quickly: Piatek emailed a bunch of people, then a contact from India got in touch and before she knew it a retail order from Australia had been secured. Piatek herself was somewhat surprised by how it all fell into place. âWe delivered the order successfully and got paid, so business was on! I think my naivety got me through.â Kowtow has gone from designing two collections a year to six, and Piatek says the brand is nearing 200 stockists worldwide. âYou can even find us in Dubai; itâs kind of crazy.â While New Zealand and Australia remain Kowtowâs biggest markets, the brand is gaining international recognition quickly: Piatek has a dedicated agent in New York with an office in Copenhagen and Tokyo, and has just appointed another in Italy.
Piatekâs designs are undeniably wearable â thereâs something timeless about the structural silhouettes that feature strongly in her collections â and her ethical and sustainable stance has undoubtedlyÂ propelled Kowtow into the spotlight both locally and internationally. âIâve never known anything else,â says Piatek. âI donât know what the conventional version is. I donât know what itâs like to be in a factory with children or terrible conditions. I just know what we do feels good.â
Unlike most designers, Piatek purchases everything directly from the cotton farmers and is certified Fairtrade and organic. âThe whole process is really transparent; we know the farmers who grow our cotton. We pay a premium, thereâs a set price. We canât bargain them down.â
Travelling to India to visit the two factories Kowtow works with (one in Mumbai and one in Kolkata) is a real assault on Piatekâs senses: she loves it, but admits it can be overwhelming. âYour heart pours out. Some of the things you see, youâd never dream of seeing them in New Zealand. But I love going to the factory. Everyone has a job, so theyâre happy. We joke around. Theyâre paid fairly. Itâs a positive environment.â
Conscious, sustainable fashion is the opposite to fast fashion: at Kowtow, runway trends are rarely, if ever, considered, and everything moves much slower. âWe canât use everything we want to; we wanted to create a coat, but we only work with cotton. Weâve been looking into using a filler made from recycled plastic bottles, but itâs tough.â Piatek isnât quick to chastise other designers; she understands itâs easier to buy what you need without asking too many questions. But Piatekâs team keep each other honest. âWe all hit each other up on it and on not taking the easy route, itâs what our culture has been built on. Itâs exciting.â
It seems to be Piatekâs way: to focus on her teamâs direction rather than worry too much about what other designers are doing. âWeâre about to start Autumn/Winter 18 and we donât know whatâs going to be in fashion, but we just do what we love. We donât worry about trends, weâve been so staunch to our own aesthetic, and itâs paid off.â
As for ethics in the industry, Piatek thinks weâre pretty blessed in New Zealand. âWeâve got a solid scene here. A lot of people are manufacturing locally and itâs great to see all the designer boutiques popping up.â Internationally, she feels positive change is afoot. âWeâre asking more questions and big brands are starting to pay attention. But itâs always going to be hard,â she says. Piatek believes for things to truly change, we need to reassess the way we consume fashion. âI think some people buy excessive amounts rather than buying one good thing theyâll treasure.â
Today itâs Piatekâs wish to encourage people to buy what they love. âThe best advice Iâve ever received is if you really want something, donât just buy it; go home and if youâre still thinking about it, then go back and buy it.â