Simple is difficult. With food, the most difficult dishes to master are those with the fewest ingredients. For furniture, there is nowhere to hide with minimalism. And in fashion, it is a crusade to find the perfect tee—that steadfast staple in the wardrobe of every man, woman, and child. Enter Kotn, the Toronto-based apparel brand whose pursuit of creating the perfect T-shirt became much more than a singular accomplishment.
When founders Benjamin Sehl, Mackenzie Yeates, and Rami Helali launched Kotn in 2015, they set out to deliver high-quality basics for everyday wear: long-staple Egyptian cotton T-shirts at a price point for consumers to pick up in multiples. Friendship is the thread that unites this trio and while in New York, each working in varying industries, “The T-shirt was the go-to uniform,” says Sehl. “And what we found was that our closets were not-so-great tees or the wear-only-occasionally James Perse tees.” Noting the discrepancy, the three quit their respective jobs and launched Kotn, a T-shirt in black, white, and grey, in three cuts.
The intention from the beginning has been full transparency, “a farm to fashion supply chain for the apparel market,” says Sehl. Egyptians have for centuries depended on the nutrient-rich soil of the Nile River Delta. In recent years, the production of the fabled Egyptian long-staple cotton has been on the decline. When the government did away with aid for cotton-farming, many farmers turned to other crops such as rice and wheat, leaving Egyptian cotton farms on the brink of extinction. “We lived on the farms for six months [Helali’s distant relatives are cotton farmers] and got to know what the farmers were going through and the struggles,” says Sehl. “These are really small family-run farms—they don’t have the funds, they don’t have the logistics, they don’t have the support system,” he adds. And so, Kotn allies with the Egyptian cotton farmers in the Nile River Delta in support of reviving a struggling agriculture business. “One of the first things we did was provide subsidies so the farmers could buy seeds and fertilizer,” he says. Kotn is cotton well before it becomes a Kotn tee.
Kotn allies with the Egyptian cotton farmers in the Nile River Delta in support of reviving a struggling agriculture business.
In their quest of moving forward Sehl, Yeates, and Helali understand the importance of giving back. The children of the cotton farmers face many barriers to accessing an education—notably, not having a school to go to. And so, the first Kotn-funded school was built this past September with sales generated from the company’s first two years of operation. Black Friday to Cyber Monday sales in 2017 funded the second school, due for completion at the end of August. “We’ve tackled one little town so far,” says Sehl. “The plan is on building 50 more schools in the next five years.”
Sehl was in Vancouver for the opening of the first-ever Kotn pop-up outside of hometown Toronto, where the company currently has one retail shop. The Kotn pop-up in Gastown, open until June 14, takes all who step inside on a journey from farm—photographs as wall art illustrating the cotton process—to fashion, a tee for every occasion along with a range of ethically-sourced cotton apparel for both men and women. The sales from the month-long retail outpost in Vancouver will be put towards converting the 34 cotton farms currently partnered with Kotn to be certified organic. The Nile River, the artery of Egypt, is the only water source for millions of people living in the Nile Delta. As rainfall is sparse, the farmers rely on irrigation from the river to produce their cotton. When the water runs through the fields, residual chemicals from industrial fertilizer usage is washed back into the river trunk. And although the farmers are eager to go organic, “none of them have the upfront funds to become certified organic,” says Sehl. Through 2019, Kotn et al. will be working with farmers to convert their fields to organic, providing the training and equipment needed for them to become self-sufficient in five years. In 2020, the soil will be stable enough to begin the renewal process. While technically organic, traces of the fertilizer chemicals can be detected for up to four years. By 2023, Kotn cotton will be certifiably organic.
Sometimes the simplest things bring the most sartorial satisfaction. And how something is being made is as important as what it becomes.
Kotn Vancouver pop-up, 348 Water Street, Vancouver, BC, is open until June 14, 2018.
Kotn Toronto, 754 Queen Street West, Toronto, ON.
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