With a fo­cus on sus­tain­able ma­te­ri­als, Kit Wil­low Pod­gornik’s la­bel, Kitx, is pro­duc­ing flow­ing gar­ments so pop­u­lar they push their hand­made man­u­fac­tur­ing to the limit, writes Alyx Gorman.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week / Contents - Alyx Gorman

When Kit Wil­low Pod­gornik was sourc­ing fas­ten­ings for her brand Kitx, she had a ques­tion for the world’s largest zip­per man­u­fac­turer, YKK: “Why are they more ex­pen­sive when they are made from rub­bish?”

Pod­gornik has cho­sen ev­ery­thing from Kitx’s fix­ings to its fi­bres ac­cord­ing to a strict code of con­duct, writ­ten to pri­ori­tise ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques that are kind to the en­vi­ron­ment and to the work­ers in­volved in ev­ery stage of the pro­duc­tion process. The zip­pers in ques­tion are up­cy­cled polyester, avoid­ing the need to man­u­fac­ture new polyester. They come with a higher price tag, Pod­gornik says, “be­cause there is no one who is buy­ing it. So you’ve got to buy into it to be able to get the de­mand go­ing … It’s crazy that we’re even mak­ing new polyester, so I just refuse to use it.”

“It’s all at the de­vel­op­ment end,” Pod­gornik says. “Peo­ple say ‘con­sumers need to know’ [but] there is too much in­for­ma­tion for [con­sumers] any­way. The peo­ple that need to do it are the cre­ators and the vi­sion­ar­ies and the busi­ness own­ers and the en­trepreneurs. We need to cre­ate de­sir­able, mouth-wa­ter­ing solutions that are also con­sciously sourced.”

For the la­bel, some­times that means spend­ing a few ex­tra dol­lars on a zip­per, even if no one no­tices. “You don’t have to push it onto the cus­tomer – she’s just buy­ing it be­cause she loves it. She doesn’t re­alise it came from an up­cy­cled bot­tle.” A few mo­ments read­ing the gar­ment tag on any Kitx item would prob­a­bly tip off a con­sumer though, with pieces named the “Sol­i­dar­ity” trouser or “Unite Dif­fer­ence” dress, a tomato red, asym­met­ric silk cock­tail gown with con­trast­ing white edg­ing that is tak­ing a star turn in David Jones’s na­tional cam­paign.

The care-for in­struc­tions also dif­fer. Most Kitx pieces can be cold ma­chine-washed, which fewer la­bels prom­ise. “There are a lot of cus­tomers that say, ‘Oh my God, I washed it, you said I could wash it and it’s gone and shrunk.’ It’s be­cause they didn’t wash it prop­erly.

So a lot of fash­ion la­bels cover them­selves and just say, ‘Dry Clean Only’.” At her pre­vi­ous la­bel, Pod­gornik was guilty of do­ing so too. “Now we are very dili­gent with the test­ing, and mak­ing sure we can wash it in cold wa­ter.” Of­ten, she takes sam­ples home and washes them her­self.

In just two years, Kitx has be­come an in­ter­na­tional leader in luxury sus­tain­abil­ity. Although the ma­jor luxury con­glom­er­ates have taken an in­ter­est in be­com­ing more en­vi­ron­men­tally savvy, the charge to­wards ethics-minded high fash­ion is be­ing led by celebri­ties. Edun, a la­bel fo­cused on eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in Africa, was founded by Ali Hew­son and her hus­band Bono in 2005. In 2009, LVMH ac­quired a 49 per cent share in the com­pany. Livia Firth, wife of ac­tor Colin Firth, has been en­cour­ag­ing her high-pro­file friends, and the de­sign­ers who dress them, to un­der­take the Green Car­pet Chal­lenge since 2013, pro­vid­ing best-prac­tice cer­ti­fi­ca­tion to col­lec­tions and one-off de­signs that meet a set of 10 “prin­ci­ples of sus­tain­able ex­cel­lence”. It’s an en­tic­ing dream: that one can have all the op­u­lence of a de­signer gown, with none of the at­ten­dant con­sumerist guilt.

The most vis­i­ble cham­pion of sus­tain­able high fash­ion is Emma Wat­son. Re­cently, the ac­tor gave Kitx a 9.9 mil­lion-view boost by wear­ing a dress from the brand’s re­sort col­lec­tion in an In­sta­gram video. The clip de­picted Wat­son as a “book fairy”, hid­ing copies of Mar­garet At­wood’s The Hand­maid’s Tale around the col­umns of a grand sand­stone build­ing in Paris. With its Vic­to­rian-fu­tur­ist neck­line and an­kle-length hem, the black or­ganza “Ac­tive Cit­i­zen” dress made Wat­son ap­pear al­most like a res­i­dent of At­wood’s Re­pub­lic of Gilead, her mod­esty be­trayed by sheer fab­ric and bare arms. Where Wat­son goes, oth­ers fol­low. “We’ve got a lot of re­quests from peo­ple all around the world get­ting to wear things,” Pod­gornik says. Some­times, she doesn’t have the sam­ples to keep up with the celebrity de­mand.

The de­signer is no stranger to at­ten­tion. Thanks to her pre­vi­ous la­bel, Wil­low, she has been in the pub­lic eye since 2003, when her de­but lin­gerie col­lec­tion showed at Aus­tralian Fash­ion Week. In the sub­se­quent decade, Wil­low be­came one of Aus­tralia’s most suc­cess­ful high-fash­ion brands, hold­ing run­way shows in Lon­don and New York and pick­ing up high-pro­file whole­sale stockists such as Sel­fridges, Neiman Mar­cus and Lib­erty Lon­don. In Aus­tralia, the brand ex­panded its re­tail foot­print to six stores and nine David Jones con­ces­sion stands.

In 2011, Ap­parel Group, which owns Jag, Sportscraft and Saba, ac­quired a ma­jor­ity stake in the com­pany and two years later Pod­gornik was dis­missed. At the time, she told The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald: “My em­ploy­ment was ter­mi­nated with­out my con­sent. I was not a con­sul­tant for the la­bel, I was a share­holder, di­rec­tor and cre­ative di­rec­tor.”

The shock re­dun­dancy gave Pod­gornik time to re­search and re­cal­i­brate. In the years lead­ing up to Kitx’s 2015 launch, she says, “I spent all my time re­search­ing and sketch­ing and com­ing up with ideas”. Pod­gornik has a fre­netic en­ergy that makes it dif­fi­cult to imag­ine her dur­ing the years of glued-to-her-lap­top re­search it took to ac­quire the knowl­edge she can now reel off so quickly. “I was get­ting frus­trated be­cause I like to op­er­ate at an in­tense pace, so I found it a lit­tle bit slow. But now that I look back on it I think, ‘God, that was very pre­cious and pure be­cause I was able to re­ally find the ba­sis of what the brand stands for.’ Now I have no time.”

The Wil­low Woman was al­ways an Artemis type, all god­dess gowns and ar­mour. The aes­thetic of Kitx is much the same – drapes and ruf­fles cas­cad­ing down fem­i­nine dresses, skirts and blouses, con­trasted with tough leather trousers and pow­er­fully shoul­dered tai­lor­ing. But there have been some ad­just­ments. For starters, many of the fi­bres Pod­gornik uses are hand­wo­ven, which gives even the most mod­ern cuts an air of yes­ter­year. “Part of what we’re do­ing is em­pow­er­ing the ar­ti­san, which is in turn good for the planet as well, be­cause it’s hand­work, it’s not ma­chine. It’s re­ally bring­ing the old-world skill back into the mod­ern day.”

“With Wil­low I had ... more pieces that were just of that sea­son,” she says. “In the wardrobe now [it] doesn’t feel as rel­e­vant.” To­day, when Pod­gornik de­signs a gar­ment she’s ask­ing her­self not just if it will work in the mo­ment, but if it will work for sev­eral years. Her cur­rent col­lec­tion, in which a cir­cu­lar mo­tif ap­pears as both a print and pat­tern-block, is a case in point.

The key print was hand-dyed in In­dia us­ing a com­plex knot­ting tech­nique called band­hani. “That’s a spot print. In 10 years’ time I know that will still be good in the wardrobe, you know? It’s not a dig­i­tal print of a flower that I used one sea­son.”

The band­hani print proved to be a smash-hit with whole­salers, which in the slow fash­ion world is not al­ways a good thing. “We sold a lot and they couldn’t do it. There were 200 women that grouped to­gether to get the or­der out. But we only had enough time – 85 days – to do one colour ... so we had to [ma­chine] print the other two colours, which kills me but we just had to.”

Although they couldn’t ful­fil the whole or­der by hand, Pod­gornik will work with that group of ar­ti­sans again. “You can’t stop do­ing it be­cause of that, be­cause they need to build their busi­ness as well,” she says.

Right now Pod­gornik has one Kitx store, on Ox­ford Street in Syd­ney’s Padding­ton. It opened in late 2015.

For more than six months, it stood just 100 me­tres away from the flag­ship of the other brand that kept her name but not her hands. Then in mid-2016, in the wake of store clo­sures, ma­jor whole­sale ac­count losses and an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to sell the la­bel, the Ap­parel Group ceased trad­ing the Wil­low brand name.

The way Pod­gornik works now is more re­search­in­ten­sive than her pre­vi­ous la­bel’s ap­proach. It’s com­plex, re­quir­ing pa­tience and care­ful plan­ning. Ac­cord­ing to her own code of con­duct, she must be con­stantly mind­ful of lim­it­ing her im­pact, from what her raw ma­te­ri­als do to the soil in which they are grown to what hap­pens once her fin­ished prod­uct leaves the rack and en­ters the home. And yet, for all these con­straints, and all the dif­fi­cul­ties of the Aus­tralian fash­ion cli­mate, her new busi­ness is prov­ing more sus­tain­able than her

• last in ev­ery sense.

De­signs from Kitx, the new la­bel of Kit Wil­low Pod­gornik.

ALYX GORMAN is The Satur­day Pa­per’s fash­ion ed­i­tor.

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