Australian fashion designer Kit Willow combined her love of fashion and the environment to create KitX, spurring her to the forefront of the fashion sustainability movement in Australia.
“I strongly believe in a better world, through the simple mantra of making women look and feel beautiful, without harming our planet, so everyone can win.”
After ten years at the helm of WILLOW, a fashion label she started in 2003 at age 23, Melbourne-born designer Kit Willow reinvented herself with KitX, a fashion brand with sustainability woven into its DNA.
With KitX, Willow combined her love of fashion and the environment spurring her to the forefront of the fashion sustainability movement in Australia. Using eco-friendly materials and production processes, as well as paying close attention to her supply chain, KitX produces pieces that are sexy and effortlessly cool, as well as kind to the planet.
While Willow has always been a nature lover, it was a chance encounter with former CEO to Puma, Jochen Zeitz, that sparked a deeper journey into researching the environmental impact of fashion. Fashion’s supply chain is murky, from child labour, polluting dyes and chemicals that poison rivers and ecosystems, pesticides sprayed on crops, and excessive water use for cotton. Willow set out to create a brand that minimised environmental impact, but that also gave back.
“Millions trying to do it [sustainability] imperfectly is so much better for the world than one person doing it perfectly. Nobody can be one hundred percent sustainable, but just get started,” Willow said to a crowd gathered at the Raw Assembly sustainable material sourcing event last year in Melbourne. “Compared to our parents’ generation we buy three more times clothes and 80 percent of the clothes we buy end up in landfill. Buy quality clothes and wear them longer," she urged guests.
Kit designs with desirability, longevity and mendability in mind. Collections feature natural and organic textiles like hemp, cotton and flax; buttons made from corozo nut shells; up-cycled polyester; metal from spent bullet casings sourced in Cambodia; buckles made from reclaimed horn; as well as ethically manufactured materials from artisans across India. Every part of the design and manufacturing process, including the clothing labels and compostable packaging, is devised with sustainability in mind.
“Millions trying to do it imperfectly is so much better for the world than three people doing it perfectly. Nobody can be one hundred percent sustainable. But just get started!”
The brand is also committed to social responsibility, donating a percentage of profits from every Activism Tee to non-profits like the Climate Council and Bee the Cure. And for every third person who signs up to their database, KitX plants a tree with Carbon Neutral.
We chatted with Kit about her path as a sustainability-minded designer and what the future holds for KitX.
You had the fashion brand Willow for ten years before starting KitX. What motivated you to start a sustainable fashion brand, particularly at a time when so little was being said and done about sustainability in the fashion industry?
The environment always motivated me, but it wasn’t until I met a man called Jochen Zeitz [former CEO of Puma) who told me about the environmental P&L (Environmental Profit and Loss Account) for Puma that I had a real awakening. When I asked him what the greatest expense to the planet was he said he said that 70% of the environmental P&L comes from materials, and I had no idea. I was like, ‘God! I had my own label for ten years and I didn’t realise that materials were the contaminator!’
And is that mainly from the dyes used in textiles?
Dyes yes, but it’s also chemicals used more in the raw process with cotton and viscose — the cutting down of trees and turning them from viscose fibre to cellulose. And there’s a lot of acid that goes into water, a lot of pollution. Nylon and polyester, which produce nitrous oxide, are 300 times more toxic than carbon dioxide, and they contribute to the acceleration of climate change.
And then there are the pesticides used to kill insects on crops—they’re the biggest offenders. And of course, there’s the rest like leather which uses chromium, tanners and softeners.
How were you able to transfer the knowledge and information you had acquired about sustainability to the public through your brand? And how was the brand initially received?
Because I had had my own label, I already had the customer and the audience. I had the confidence of my customer base enjoying my designs. So, I thought okay, I need to combine that with conscious sourcing. I didn’t want to hammer people with statistics and scare them.
I needed to create a desirability with the product and do that with consciously-sourced material. I had to make sure the design was great and that there is desire for it, but then pair that with conscious material. That’s my positioning. I mean, creating something new at the end of the day isn’t sustainable at all.
It’s true that it’s a little bit harder to consistently find great looking —and great quality—stuff that aligns with your values. You don’t want to look like you rummaged through a dodgy garage sale on a bender.
Exactly! It needs to be modern and stylish. And that’s as important as the sustainable side.
Agree! You still have to love it. People won’t buy something just because it's sustainable or vegan. If you won’t wear it, and it'll just sit in your wardrobe or get tossed out, then it’s not very sustainable.
Yes. The question is, are you going to wear it? And then also, how are you going to wash it? A lot of synthetic fibres shed plastic filaments which end up in our oceans. Then there’s the dry-cleaning and all the chemicals that involves as well. You have to think about all these things and the impact they have too.
I listened to you talk at Raw Assembly in Melbourne last year about closing the loop and how materials can be reused at the end of their life cycle. You’ve obviously built circularity and up-cycling into your designs, and you’re conscious of not just putting out new things.
Yes, I am, but it is still most sustainable to be naked or just wear vintage.
How do you define sustainability in fashion?
So, there are three pillars to define sustainability.
One is that materials and the process have to be natural so it’s kind on the earth, comes from organic matter, and no known toxic chemicals have been used. And it can compost back into earth if it’s ever disposed.
Second is up-cycling. That means materials that have been up-cycled from waste like discarded plastic or polyester, and marine litter. It’s up-cycled so it’s turning waste into future material.
Third is artisans and trying to incorporate the skills of artisans in things like hand-weaving and beading. This preserves cultural traditions around the world, and it improves women’s wellbeing in their communities too.
How did you develop a working sustainability framework and how do you ensure that everything in the supply chain is done responsibly and sustainably?
I have been to visit Varanasi and Artisans of Fashion [a social enterprise with social and ecological principles] —we have someone to see the weavers and all of that. So, you’re working with organisations that you trust and who care. Sometimes there’s certification, sometimes there’s not, but their vested interest is in line with yours.
And then on the cut-and-make side it is important to ensure that fair living wages are being paid and that working conditions are good. We have a code of conduct and we audit our makers to ensure they adhere to it.
We talk about fair wages and decent working conditions a lot in fashion. But although we all know that this should be the bare minimum brands should provide, it’s still taking the fashion industry so long to get on board with this. Why are so many brands dragging their heels? You have smaller brands like yours doing it, but other big brands are not.
Oh my God! Yes! Well, I suppose when you start a business it’s easier to do it from the beginning than it is to integrate it in later. I started all of this from the beginning so I find it really easy. But, I think if you really care it’s a hell of a lot easier— if you’re making decisions based on financial profit only, then they become difficult decisions and you go the cheaper option, which is also the most polluting. The system is broken because the prices of materials do not reflect the price of the planet. They only reflect the short-term business cost.
What’s been the greatest challenge in creating a sustainable brand? You’ve said you’ve implemented all these measures from the beginning but then you’re up against a tide of an industry that greenwashes and does not implement change. What has been the most challenging for you?
I would not choose to be in any other space than sustainable fashion right now. I love creating but it’s such a hard industry to be in, and to know what I know now and ignore it, well I just couldn’t do that. So, certainly it’s very motivating and exciting and that part is fantastic.
I think the greatest challenge is from a business point of view where the decisions we make are not purely based on profit, but they’re based on planet cost. The world hasn’t caught up yet with, as I said, in reflecting the cost to the planet of materials. It’s expensive to produce sustainably— it certainly costs more in the short term to invest in the right materials with integrity. Doing this is a challenge.
This connects to something you said at the Raw Assembly summit which stuck with me. You said, “Millions of people doing it imperfectly is better than one person doing it perfectly”. It’s an important message because we’re in this period where many of us have climate crisis anxiety, and you feel powerless but then when you do something it feels like it’s not enough because you haven’t ticked every sustainability and ethical box.
That’s right! A lot of people say to me ‘I really love what you’re doing, but I just don’t know how to do it’. And I say, well, just start somewhere and then keep going.
There are so many different ways, aren’t there? But I think everyone is powerful. You just need to talk about it with the person next to you. Talk about the issues. Humans have been capable of incredible feats in the history of our civilization. And although we are currently destroying the planet, we also have the intelligence and technology to pull ourselves out of it. And how do we do that? Well, there’s power in numbers. And how do we get the numbers to really swell? It’s word of mouth, it’s the old school fashion way of just talking to people around you.
The greatest threat we have right now on our planet is the accelerated and unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide. By 2030 we need to be carbon neutral. The trajectory needs to go from a sky-rocketing vertical position to a horizontal position. And we’ve got to do that in 10 years?! We can do it but we need the numbers. I think that’s already happening. There’s been a real shift in consciousness just with the fires in New South Wales— nobody’s been able to breathe, koalas are almost extinct in the state. It’s hitting everyone now and it's starting to change people’s perception that climate is first now. There’s a sense of urgency.
We need to focus energy, on renewables. But also nitrous oxide from virgin polyester and nylon accelerates that. Just very simply don’t buy any virgin nylon or polyester. That’s a really simple one.
I was reading about the amount of water it takes just to produce a cotton t- shirt— 2,700 litres!
Oh, the water! Cotton won’t be a future material. We have water issues and that’s going to continue to be a big problem. And not only that, cotton attracts a lot of insects which means pesticides. Hemp is future. It uses very little water, it binds the soil when it grows, and it doesn’t attract any insects. It composts back into the earth if discarded, and it grows quickly and very little land is needed. That’s a future material.
What do you envision for future of KitX?
I would like to broaden the offering so that we become a portal for sustainable stylish fashion from every facet and accessory, so that swimwear, activewear, water bottles, everything is sustainably sourced. That is where I would love for it to go. And in doing that plant a tree for every sale— I want to plant a million trees in reforesting programmes. It's not only about sourcing consciously but with every sale have a physical outcome that goes back into nature. That’s where I would love it to go.
I would love to look at a forest when I’m 90 years old and know that that’s what I planted, and also be at the forefront of innovation as well. We’re using circular innovation and technology to create new product, and we’re using everything compostable or up-cycling. But KITX is also about looking chic, super fabulous and cool!