TORONTO — Sometimes a great idea comes without any warning. That was the case for Kotn cofounders Rami Helali, Mackenzie Yeates and Benjamin Sehl, who credit one sweltering summer spent in New York for opening their eyes to the need for a simple, affordable and socially responsible basics brand.
“Everywhere we looked we saw people wearing black and white T-shirts. It was part of the daily uniform,” said Yeates, who moved to New York from Toronto in March 2013 to become brand director at Watson & Co. Helali and Sehl also headed to Manhattan in 2013 to work in finance and the tech industry, respectively.
Yet what these Toronto natives believed they didn’t see were New Yorkers wearing T-shirts that fit well and were in great fabrics that were ethically made — and at an affordable price.
“It was like people had two sides to their closets,” Yeates said. “The everyday T-shirts felt like sandpaper. The quality T-shirts you’d wear to dinner on the weekend were too expensive. That’s when we started to think about creating affordable clothes you could live in, but clothes that also had a conscience.”
Returning to Toronto, the trio launched Kotn online in 2015. “None of us had experience in manufacturing,” Helali said. “But our naivete and inexperience were assets. That’s what helped us take the leap, quit our jobs and go for it.”
In its first year, Kotn offered just three T-shirts, in white, black and gray. Each version featured a tailored cut and three different necklines: the scoop, V-neck and classic crew.
Since then the brand has expanded to include tanks, sweaters, sweats and more items priced between 16 Canadian dollars and 120 Canadian dollars for both sexes. The collection now fill Kotn’s first flagship, which opened in March 2017 on Toronto’s trendy Queen Street West.
In its early days, Kotn’s reimagined T-shirt gained a following, particularly with online shoppers in the U.S., because of its softness. That quality was due to Kotn’s use of Egyptian cotton sourced from the Nile Delta — the only place in the world where this “white gold” can be found.
“We focused first on this core product and on getting it right,” said Helali, who spent six months living among the cotton farmers learning their business and seeing their struggles. “What is unique about Nile Delta cotton is that its fiber length is extra long. That lets you spin a finer, softer and more breathable and durable fabric than any other cotton,” said the former director of business development at New York music publisher Reservoir Media.
But Helali learned that Egyptian cotton was nearing extinction due to funding cuts implemented by Egypt’s government between 2014 and 2015. As a result, farmers were about to convert their fields to rice. “Once you do that you can’t convert back to cotton,” Helali explained. “So we wanted to honestly see how we could input change here in the short and long term.”
To that end, Kotn’s team came up with a farm-to-table business model that scrapped the middleman and pushed to make its own fabrics from raw cotton bought directly from farmers at guaranteed prices. These materials were then sent to a responsibly run factory outside Alexandria for production, where Kotn could ensure a fair wage for local workers and, ultimately, a better price for consumers.
Kotn also built its first school in the Nile Delta in 2017 to combat the illiteracy epidemic in the region, particularly among women. Located in the village of El-Gezira El-Khadra, the school welcomed 33 students — many of them young girls.
Thanks to strong sales on 2017’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Kotn will direct more than 56,000 Canadian dollars in 2018 toward construction of a second school, as well as uniforms, books and supplies.
The brand has seen 35 percent growth online month after month, according to Helali, with more than half of its online sales coming from the U.S. Celebrities such as Cindy Crawford, Emma Roberts, Jason Sudeikis, tennis star Milos Raonic and Drake music producer Noah “40” Shebib are Kotn customers.
Expansion plans are also proceeding for more stores in Canada, as well as in the U.S.
Kotn also is exploring ways to introduce Egyptian cotton into home and baby items as the brand grows.
“At its core Kotn is about people,” Yeates said. “Not too many companies really pay attention to where their raw materials come from. But Kotn creates clothes that consider people and their lives.”