Gosia Piatek is an expert in making something out of nothing. She had never run a business, didn’t know much about fashion and certainly didn’t have any money when she started Wellington-based clothing label Kowtow. It’s now stocked around the world and employs people at home in the capital and abroad. “I wanted to do something that was good, sustainable, ethical,” she says. “It made sense. It was time to do it.”

Piatek had just finished up a contract for Weta Digital, was unemployed and had no dependents. She had nothing to lose, and knew she wanted to start a business: one that might put some good into the world. The question was, what kind of business?

She kept jotting down ideas, but none of them stuck. It was over dinner one night that a friend told her to start an eco fashion brand. At the time, fairtrade and organic were labels normally applied to food, but rather than brushing off the idea, Piatek googled it. She found a factory in Calcutta, India with ethical standards she approved of, willing to accept a clothing order that was tiny by international standards, and a source of cotton that was fairtrade and organic.

Piatek secured a distributor in Australia and drafted and redrafted a business plan until she was granted a government loan. Kowtow started out as a collection of t-shirts, each of which came with a CD of independent music. “I got a WorkStart grant – that was cool, it was $10,000. Which lasted about a month. But I was too naive to realise any of this. I thought it was heaps of money.”

Piatek comes from a family of risk-takers. They fled Poland’s Communist regime in 1985, and since passports weren’t easy to come by, her parents pretended they were taking part in a competition overseas. After two years in Italy, New Zealand accepted the family as refugees, the World Council of Churches donated airfares and Piatek’s parents arrived in Wellington with $200 and two small children. Piatek has the same no-nonsense attitude toward making the best of things. “You can make something out of nothing easily if you've got the passion and the willingness,” she says with a shrug. “Maybe people give up too easily. Cause it does get really tough.”

It’s less tough now. Piatek stuck it out through the lean years of a young business, evolving the brand into a more sophisticated collection. Kowtow still sells t-shirts, but they form a line of minimal basics that sit side-by-side with architectural, avant-garde creations. They’ve also branched out into underwear, accessories, even homewares. The brand is a regular fixture in New Zealand’s fashion press, and has been garnering international attention via magazines such as Yen, Frankie and Elle Italy. Piatek has just employed two new staff, bringing the Wellington studio up to a team of eight.

But Piatek knows that Kowtow’s success is due to its high design values rather than its fairtrade certification. She’s under no illusions: Kowtow’s ethical attributes were never its selling point. The garments had to be cool first, and good for the world second. “We don’t market Kowtow to the converted. It should be well designed, it should fit well, the fabric should be quality, the colours should be nice.”

The difference is that on Kowtow’s website, you can find photo stories of its cotton being harvested and milled, plus a visual tour through the factory where its garments are manufactured. Piatek visits it regularly. “I can confidently say that we make products that are sustainable and ethical. They’re not 100% perfect at all. But I can walk around the factories, they don't use child labour, they have regular holidays, paid breaks and all that.”

It hasn’t been an easy ride. Kowtow may have grown, but it’s still tiny in the scale of things, and it’s common for their orders to be postponed or overlooked in the face of last-minute orders from American or European giants, meaning late deliveries. “As we grow that can be quite dangerous. You can't say to people that we're limited in the factories we use. The fast fashion world wants it there on time, which is fair enough. We try to work as best we can, well in advance, just to reach our deadlines.”

Piatek says there are only five or six factories that she regards as appropriate to use in India. She has just started working with a second factory in Mumbai, which she’s optimistic about. “They seem just a little bit smaller, a little bit more onto it. The owner is really into the idea of sustainability.”

Kowtow’s team in New Zealand challenge Piatek to keep the brand’s ethical standards high. All Kowtow’s buttons are made from recycled hemp; parcels are sent out in recycled card  packages. They haven’t yet found a source of sustainable, ethically produced zips, so Kowtow clothing doesn’t use them. They come up with inventive design solutions instead.

It’s clear that Piatek is proud of helping people make a living on the home front in Wellington as well as in India. “I don't have too many contractors, I try and employ people because you need to pay sick pay and holiday pay, it's all really important stuff. Even New Zealanders get taken for a ride sometimes – companies taking on contractors when they should be taking on employees.”

Another big positive for her is the leadership role she’s able to take within the industry. “I think that's why I've always been drawn to the business side – showing other entrepreneurs and other businesspeople and people who are larger than ourselves, big organisations, that you can do business ethically and sustainably in a profitable way. It's not about having to scrimp and save all the time. It's about having an awesome product that people want.”

Words by Rebekah White. Photography by Pat Shepherd.

Visit www.kowtowclothing.com