Written by Karen Kwan
“We thought a cool starting point was creating a better t-shirt, ’cause that sounds easy,” says Mackenzie Yeates with a dry laugh. She’s referring to when she and her husband and now business partner, Benjamin Sehl, were working in New York City in 2014 but were contemplating working on a personal project together. The two mentioned the idea to their friend Rami Helali, who soon after attend a family wedding in Egypt. “They have good quality cotton in Egypt, let me see if we can get it produced here,” he replied.
Although they were all living in NYC at the time, the trio moved back to Toronto to launch the brand they had started to put into motion. Partly due to work visas, but also thanks to each having a wider network in their hometown, wanting to be closer to family and the better work/life balance they could have in Toronto over the Big Apple.
The brand that came of out of this personal project: KOTN, a fashion brand of well-made essentials composed of Egyptian cotton, that will expand this spring to include woven cotton (yes, you can soon look forward to chinos and shirts). It all started simply, though, with three white T-shirts for men, which were the same other than the necklines, that they launched spring of 2015. With interest growing in their tees from both men and women (the tees would soon be repositioned as unisex), next came the pop-up shop on trendy Ossington Ave. in Toronto late 2016.
With that under their belt, “it felt like it was starting to become a real business,” says Yeates. So the trio raised some funding and in 2017 went full-time on building KOTN—up until then they’d each taken on freelance work to pay bills—including hiring staff and opening a store on Queen St. W. in March of that year. They’ve since established flagships in New York City and Vancouver, in August and November 2018 respectively.
What sets KOTN apart from other brands, though, other than the quality Egyptian cotton their goods are made of, is its farm-to-store model. Yeates confesses they didn’t set out to be an ethical brand per se—”we just wanted to make the best product possible.” The ethical focus of KOTN came about from knowing nothing about manufacturing and opening up dialogue with the cotton farmers on the Nile River Delta. “Rami asked around in Egypt where to get started and he got connected to one of his mother’s cousins who’s from the region where the cotton comes from. He learned how these people were struggling to make ends meet,” she says, explaining that thanks to fast fashion, Egyptian cotton exports have declined for the past decade. And while the government used to provide subsidies so that the farmers could buy materials and pay their labour given the long growing season—making it a long time before they could recoup their cost–those subsidies had been cut, so the company started by dropping off soil and seeds. This initial step is what would set KOTN off into wanting visibility into all areas of production. “Most fashion brands couldn’t tell you where their fabrics are produced, never mind yarns or raw materials,” she says. “To us, that was true transparency, and the ability to create an ethical supply chain with visibility over the whole thing? We went from one step to next,” she says of the company quickly evolving into a ethically produced brand.
Now that the government has started giving farmers subsidies again, this has allowed KOTN to pivot and divert those funds into providing education. In talking with their producers, they discovered that the biggest problem the farmers faced was kids having no access to school. ‘School was two to three hours walk away and this meant that they just wouldn’t go, and they’d just work on the farms,” says Yeats. Now having opened two schools and two more being refurbished (scheduled to open this fall), KOTN is looking to help develop the communities so that the industry can be taken into the future: with these kids having more access to proper education, it’ll give them a foundation of skills that’ll enable them to take the family business forward.
As for what the future holds for the company, KOTN is looking to open their fourth store, with an eye on Montreal, which is the brand’s second biggest market after Toronto. Why the focus on Canada? “American brands don’t see value in coming to Canada until later in their trajectory but we see as an opportunity; there’s less competition here,” says Yeates. More recently, KOTN launched a side business, Ordinary Supply, which is their B2B side of the business. Red Bull and Pinterest are a couple of their past clients and while their plans include expanding this branded merchandise side of the business this year, take a guess at what their best-selling item is? The KOTN white tee.
Photo credit: Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real