How a Toronto-based brand is reclaiming the world of fashion through sustainability.
Inside the front door of 754 Queen Street West, the smell of palo santo burns in the air. Unique pictures hang on the wall leading to fitting room curtains. A table with a wooden bench harbours folded cotton t-shirts and socks. A rack of hanging sweats stands in solidarity beside potted plants near a sunlit window. The warmth shines through, welcoming all those who notice the simple space. Farther back in the shop’s “living room” there is a fireplace in the wall accompanied by a loved leather couch - cozy is what you would think. Please, keep your shoes on.
“That’s one thing about this shop, in particular […] we really care so much about getting out there in our community and community outreach,” explains Heather Peat, operations manager at KOTN.
Located in a major commercial district in Toronto, KOTN was designed to look and feel like a home. It’s a place where people can come in and relax, enjoy an espresso and take their time shopping. The company’s slogan, “your friends at KOTN,” reinforces how the customer experience is such an integral part of their mission.
After discovering her friend’s KOTN t-shirt, Peat immediately reached out to the company for an internship. Now, after a year and a half of being a part of the team, she says everyone there has become like a second family, working together towards elevating goals for the company.
“This is the job I’ve always dreamed of,” Peat said. “And I feel very lucky that it’s my first official job.”
“It was obvious”
KOTN is a sustainable fashion basics brand based in Toronto and made in Nile Delta, Egypt. After moving to Egypt in 2015 to explore and understand issues surrounding the cotton industry, Rami Helali established KOTN. Since 2001, major corporations have been choosing to go with cheaper cotton options, resulting in a 95% decline in demand. For cotton farmers, this meant weavers and craftspeople were left struggling to make ends meet.
“It was obvious,” Peat says. “Of course if we’re going to make t-shirts we have to do it this way, we have to do it the right way. It wasn’t necessarily something the founders thought about, it was sitting in front of them.”
Surrounded by examples of the cotton apparel they’ve created through this journey, Peat retells the story of KOTN’s creation. The brand’s founders always believed that ethically sourcing and creating clothes was the only way a brand should work. Without ethically-made clothing, a brand is nothing.
In 2015, the Egyptian government pulled subsidies from cotton farmers, taking away their ability to buy seeds and materials required to grow cotton. As a result, KOTN stepped in and subsidized those materials, buying farmers the seeds and soil they needed to maintain their jobs. When the government subsidies were reintroduced, KOTN needed a new focus - how were they really going to help these people, considering they no longer needed the materials to do their job?
“We dug in a little more,” says Peat, “and a lot of the children of these cotton farmers had never been in a school, [they] didn’t really know how to read a book.”
And so, like the conspicuous choice to make KOTN a sustainable brand, it was just as clear that they should build schools in the Nile Delta.
In September 2017, KOTN, along with pro-literary organizations, built their first school in the Nile Delta, where all the cotton is grown. Located in a small village, the school educates 33 students - 32 girls and one boy.
“So that means every child in that village gets to go to school,” says Peat. “When we’re finished with that village, I think we’ll go on and do another. I think we’d like to build quite a few schools over the next few years, so it’s one piece at a time.”
A dream to make a difference
With familiar scents circling the air, Peat describes how she self-educated herself on sustainable fashion, recounting her experience with the fashion industry from when she was younger.
With a history of modelling, Peat pulled out of the industry voluntarily - for her, its flaws outshined the glamour. These experiences inspired her to do something positive in the fashion industry. Reclaiming this vision, her research into fast fashion revealed the many issues involved, including environmental impacts from dye houses and clothing waste.
With this job, she is able to educate people on the importance of ethical shopping, which can be easy to understand, but difficult to pursue. Sustainable fashion is the future, according to Peat, but it’s also the present. It’s the things we wear and the people we help.
From the street, KOTN is barely distinguishable, blending in with all the other storefronts like rows of homes in the suburbs. Once inside, however, it is evident how special this simple space is. It’s quiet at first but, once the doors open, a curated playlist of songs begins and you know you are returning home.
This piece was originally published in print in issue 004: Reclaim