Conscious Fashion and Storytelling

Last night, I attended an event run by Women’s Collective at the Biz Dojo (yes I should pretty much move in there!). The founder of fashion label KowTow, Gosia Piatek, shared her inspiring story.

I went to the event as a fan and customer of Kowtow. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised to find out about the compay’s values through Women’s Collective. This lead me to be curious, why would a company with such a compelling story not leverage it in their marketing?

The answer was surprising, flipping the theory of marketing storytelling on it’s head. 

The story of Kowtow

Gosia at WCGosia formed Kowtow 9 years ago, when a friend suggested she should create an ethical clothing label. She didn’t know what that meant but after consulting Google, decided it was the perfect fit.

Her first business decision was that every garment she produced would be 100% fair trade and organic. She set about building her business on these values. She partnered with an India factory that is fair trade and organic certified. They work with the factory from “seed to garment“. This allows her to ensure every step of the production process meets her exacting standards. They have exposure to every step in the cotton chain. Kowtow staff visit the factory every 6 months to check things are still meeting their ethical expectations. They also decide the feel, colour and weight of the cotton produced.

Gosia has a burning desire, an obsession even, in making the world better. Not in an idealistic, preachy way. But in an infectious, unmissable and genuine way. When questioned about how she reconciles her ethical values with consumerism, she explained;

“It’s depressing, I would never get our of bed if I just thought about it. So I think about how I can make a small difference… these cotton farmers would otherwise be making cotton for other buyers, getting paid unfairly and being exposed to harmful chemicals… Nothing’s perfect, you’ve just got to start and tweak as you go.” ~ Gosia Piatek, Founder, Kowtow

Making ethical choices accessible

I’ve also had the pleasure of hearing Matt Morrison present the story of All Good Organics who import Fairtrade bananas and create All Good drinks. What I enjoyed about both Matt and Gosia’s talks is that never once did I feel like I was being lectured to. Rather they presented why they feel so strongly and how they’ve created profitable, sustainable businesses to make a difference. These aren’t charities. These are successful businesses that offer consumers ethical choices at competitive price points.

Unwavering commitment

One thing that struck me was Gosia’s commitment to her values. They aren’t guidelines, they’re rules. For example, Kowtow uses no zips in their garments. They haven’t been able to find a supplier able to meet their fair trade and organic standards. They ship their stock by sea not air freight to save carbon miles. They make choices that support their values, even if they add cost or make life harder.

Design first

Given these ethical values drive every business that Gosia makes, I was equally surprised to hear how commercially minded she is. When talking about her buyers, she remarked that the clothing design had to be great, the ethical story was a nice sweetener at the end but not what made you stand out in a crowded fashion industry. She understands that offering ethical clothing choices is only possible when your clothing is also desirable. Most people aren’t prepared to compromise personal style.

Building trust through exceptional customer service

Gosia was also very savvy when it came to the importance of customer service to her business. She offers buyers increased confidence in purchasing Kowtow stock by providing a service of “Mid-season swaps”. Buyers can swap slow selling stock mid-season for garments that have been better sellers for them. She explained that this has lead to increased sales and that the returns were different by area/store type so they never have issues with the same items being returned on mass.

Growing a successful international business

Gosia shared that from day one she though globally. Perhaps, because Gosia and her family arrived in New Zealand as Polish refugees she was always going have international aspirations. She sees New Zealand as a small country with an insulated fashion market.

Gosia stressed the value gained from having mentors to help her achieve this vision.They helped keep her on track and plan growth. She explained that scaling, while retaining a unified vision, was the hardest challenge. I got the impression that Gosia was careful to grow slowly to ensure her values weren’t compromised. When questioned about new lines like children’s wear and lingerie, Gosia was quick to confirm they’re staying focused on their core range.

“We don’t want to crash and burn. Now more doors are opening we need to be considered.”

~ Gosia Piatek, Founder, Kowtow

Her advice for new fashion designers applied equally to all start-ups:

  1. Expect to work hard
  2. Expect not to sleep
  3. When you’re close to giving up, keep going. That’s the difference between success and failure.
The enthralled crowd soaking up Gosia's wisdom.

The enthralled crowd soaking up Gosia’s wisdom.

Leveraging the Kowtow Story

One of the underlying principles of storytelling in marketing and sales, is that people don’t buy “what” you do, they buy “why” you do it. It’s a powerful theory that Simon Sinek introduced in his Ted Talk “How Great Leader’s Inpsire Action”.  To summarise crudely, it explains the difference between Dell and Apple. Although Apple and Dell both sell MP3 players and computers, Apple is vastly more successful, because people believe in the “why” first. Apple makes beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly products (their why). This allows them to build emotional connections and extend to other product categories easier than their competitors. Their design story is transferable to other products like phones and smartwatches. 

Kowtow has an incredibly strong, authentic story. The logical step, from a marketing perspective, is to share this. Let consumers connect to the clothing on an emotional level. But Gosia has inside chosen to keep the company’s values in the background. Take a look at the Kowtow site and you will notice the ethical story is subtle with a video on seed to garment and brief explanations on fair trade organic.

A subtle mention of

A subtle mention of the Kowtow ethics on the last page of the season lookbook.

When questioned about using more video content to tell the ethical story behind Kowtow, Gosia explained that it didn’t feel right to use this as marketing. Profiting off how they’ll helping “poor people” seemed to have “white knight, first world” feel (my words not hers). She wanted people to fall in love with the clothing first, and then discover the story. Like in so many aspects of her business Gosia chose the path less travelled and created a new story for her customers. She created the story of minimalist, effortless fashion. A story that is resonating with many new markets across the US and Scandinavia.

This happened to me. I feel for the clothing and then discovered the ethics. As a result, the story became more powerful, more genuine. When your story is based in ethics, sometimes you shouldn’t lead with your “why” as it can actually destroy belief in your true commitment.

I love that Gosia has protected her company’s value from becoming more than just a marketing story. She let’s customers self-discover they have chosen clothing that not only makes them feel good, but is good for our environment and others.

My only caution to this is, a colleague who attended the event with me has previously chosen not to purchase Kowtow because it’s made in India. Before knowing the story behind Kowtow, she had assumed that this meant that it wasn’t fair trade! It’s a fine line between not exploiting your values, and ensuring potential customers know the full story.

Female confidence

The Women’s Collective is a group that runs community events to create collaboration, cooperation and connection around global issues that affect our community. They aim to share the collective wisdom and encourage women in leadership. This was the first of their events I’ve attended. I was really impressed and am looking forward to the next one already! The co-founder Sasha Kljakovic hosted the events wonderfully, putting Gosia at ease as she interviewed her.

Sasha helping Gosia tell her story.

Sasha of Women’s Collective helping Gosia tell her story.

Despite Kowtow’s successes, Gosia remains humble. If there was anything I could fault, it was this humility. At a few points Gosia pointed out that she wasn’t especially smart or gifted. However I strongly disagree. She’s one of the best speakers and business women I’ve had the pleasure to listen. Gosia is a talented entrepreneur as well as an exceptional fashion designer.

“I usually work in a workshop alone, I’m humbled 150 people came to hear me”

I hope this experience grows Gosia’s confidence to tell her story. Thank you to Women’s Collective putting Gosia’s unique perspective in the spotlight to inspire other women.

You can find out about upcoming Women’s Collective events in Auckland and Wellington on their website.

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