A pandemic pivot
When we wrap up the interview, the sun is streaming thick golden blocks into the store, illuminating the turtleneck sweaters hanging next to oxford shirts and button-up dresses. Back in February, the brand had no idea how COVID-19 would change how they do business in 2020. Their stores would close in March, then open up in the early summer for curbside pickup and one-on-one appointments, all while maintaining social distancing protocols. During this time, the brand ran a few limited edition runs on existing an product with Toronto artist Jess Chen, who illustrated the Nile River on a long-sleeved tee, and then a sublime floral design on their signature oxfords. How Kotn responded in the early days of the pandemic is how they ensured their farmers responded: putting the summer collection on hold and sending their farmers home to keep them safe.
In March, first and foremost, Yeates says that the founders thought of their employees’ needs, like how they were going to pay salaries and keep everyone healthy. However, she enjoyed thinking up solutions while their retail stores were forced to close because “solving problems and changing things up is what [gives] entrepreneurs energy.” The fairly small size of the team meant they could stay nimble with the near-daily changes in the news about the virus.
Remarkably, Kotn’s community, too, would help energize the team. Yeates says their team quickly decided to shift their focus on growing and strengthening their bond with their community and building up customer love. “Being a small team, and having a traceable supply chain, allowed us to quickly understand how everyone in our production stack was being affected by the pandemic,” she says. “It was so heartwarming that some of our customers were reaching out, asking about the well-being of the people we work with in Egypt, and including us in round ups of small businesses to support.” With 115K followers on Instagram, that is a lot of customer love and loyalty.
Where the Kotn team would have spent their time working on shooting and promoting new products, they shifted to communicating with customers—trying to provide value to them on their social channels was more relevant to the current climate. “Our community has responded so well and really stood by us through these turbulent times,” she says.
In turn, Kotn wanted to give back to the community. “We knew we wanted to contribute to the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage in some way but we weren’t sure how our factories in Egypt were shut down. Rami put out a message on LinkedIn and the H Project team at Holt Renfrew jumped in with a solution to use our deadstock fabric and have their alterations team work on making masks from home. Our Brand Marketing Manager Naomi Nachmani and I both worked on the H Project team in past roles so they are like family to us,” says Yeates. “It was so awesome to collaborate with them on this initiative. I think the main learning is just that companies of all different sizes can come together and share resources and information to contribute to the common good.”
Kotn’s pandemic year yielded some other interesting pivots and expansion: spearheading a pay-it-forward campaign for unsold stock; doubling down on loungewear, like almost every other fashion brand; and moving some production operations to Portugal, with a goal to expand further beyond there and Egypt. They even introduced a stunning new home collection. In 2021, the brand is exploring how to use recycled and natural materials to produce less waste, adhering to their earlier promises to become even more sustainable. It’s a marvel to see brand commitment threaded through arguably one of the most precarious and unprecedented commerce periods in modern history. Yet, every Kotn promise begins and ends with people, and how to ensure profit isn’t always the return on investment.
The pandemic has accelerated so many parts of commerce such as having a strong digital presence and a real connection with buyers to keep staying afloat. But Kotn has always been a people business first: touching parts of the digital world with their online community, loyal in-store buyers learning to adapt, and the bigger picture that a sustainable world helps everyone, not just customers. Perfecting basics is their product goal, and consumers respond positively to it time and again, even in the face of growth.
“I’m pretty happy that customers choose us for a product first. They choose us for quality, and then how a piece looks and feels,” Sehl told me then. “People can learn and care about what we care about, maybe influencing other companies to do so, too. Then we can feel good that we know that we’re doing the right thing.”