More Than Just A Brand: An Insightful Conversation With Kotn’s Co-Founder & CEO, Rami Helali

Kotn is a Canadian fashion brand on a mission to create a sustainable impact on the planet and its people. As an FTA Youth Ambassador, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Rami Helali, co-founder and CEO of this leading sustainable brand at his Toronto studio.

What Sparked the Idea to Start Kotn?

Rami always knew he wanted to start a company that would have a positive impact on the people and environment in which it operated. In 2014 he and his good friend, Benjamin Sehl (and eventually co-founder—along with his wife, Mackenzie Yeates), decided to take on the mission of creating the perfect t-shirt. At the time, Rami was living and working in New York City, with a successful career in the music industry, and decided to quit his job and move to Toronto, where Ben was living.

Together, Rami, Ben, and Mackenzie created a vision for what was to become Kotn. Rami decided to start from the ground up by quitting his job and moving to Egypt to learn about cotton production and product development.

A generous family of cotton farmers opened their doors to Rami, without even knowing who he was, allowing him to live on their farm for four months. “I assumed that brands always started at the farm level and built up from there”, recalls Rami, “Looking back, I was completely naive and have since learned that most brands do not approach it this way. Through this experience, I was inspired to learn how to make yarn, how to make fabric, and how to dye things without ruining the world. And from there we made a t-shirt – in black and in white – the only two styles we produced at the time.” 

This boots-on-the-ground experience led Rami to form important relationships with farmers from across the region. He then connected with other suppliers, such as cut-and-sew manufacturers, as well as fabric dyeing and finishing facilities, to create the supply chain that Kotn has today.

Since then, Kotn has formed partnerships with over 2,300 cotton farmers in Egypt’s Nile Delta and Faiyum regions. “It was important to me to build this company with partnership in mind”, states Rami. “There were a lot of learnings from the initial period that helped create the company that Kotn is today.”

What is Kotn’s Ethos?

According to Rami, Kotn’s ethos honours the people and the places they have worked. For him, it’s about how to build systems that change the trajectory of the future – 50 years from today, not just tomorrow.  Kotn truly practices what they preach, as the company continues to make a tangible difference within the communities they work.

Rami explained his position on transparency & traceability, both of which form the ethos of Kotn. He believes they are the key pillars to sustainability. “You can’t make a single claim until you know every person who is touching your product and in what part of the world,” he tells me. And by taking a look at Kotn’s website you will see this first-hand as the company shares its transparency and traceability in a storyline format, connecting customers to the product. 

This authentic connection with their suppliers helps them truly understand the needs of the communities. Today, Kotn is working with different communities around the world in South Africa, Pakistan, and Tunisia.

Rami witnessed gender inequality and generational poverty in Egypt, particularly among young girls and women who are pulled out of school to work on family farms. Kotn strives to combat this inequality by breaking this cycle of poverty, and making sure these young girls and women are being educated, are given opportunities, and that their families are getting support. By managing adversity at the root of the cause, Kotn is able to help drive change sustainably over the long term–or what Rami shares as “the 50-year change.”

It’s not education that will be the answer for all of these communities, but an actual long-term strategy on how to make change and impact. Rather than looking at what may be appealing from a marketing perspective, Kotn focuses on the specific needs in each part of the world they work with.

“I believe a strength of ours is our authentic approach to defining what sustainability means to us. We don’t chase sustainability trends; we want to take care of the people and the environments in which we operate and do it to the best of our ability, and then continue to improve. I think that authenticity is what has enabled us to build a community we are very grateful for.”

Rami Helali

What Inspired You to Build Schools in Egypt?

Kotn has partnered with a local Egyptian NGO, the Misr El Kheir Foundation, to start the ABC’s Project, where a portion of each purchase goes towards a fund to build and run schools throughout the Nile Delta and Faiyum regions of Egypt. Kotn’s goal is to build 53 schools in this region, and so far, 15 have been completed.

Rami tells me, “The foundation operates the schools and we pay for the build and the ongoing operation, which includes teachers’ salaries, uniforms, stationary, computers, land, and building. They take care of the curriculum, hiring, training of teachers, and administration”. Delivering this tangible impact contributes to the longevity and growth of these farming communities.

What Does Being an Impact-Driven Lifestyle Brand Mean to You?

Kotn creates products that are made from high-quality natural fibres that will biodegrade at end of life, contributing to a circular economy.

Kotn has developed a restricted fibre list that includes only fibres that meet their sustainability standards and certifications. The brand has, in turn, become more circular by focusing on biodegradable materials and non-harmful dyes.

“The real answer to ‘how do we become more sustainable?’ is simply to not make any more stuff, and to re-use what we already have for as long as possible – that is the best case scenario. The next best case is to make things that don’t hurt people or planet.”

Rami Helali

The brand has positively impacted 100,000+ people across its supply chain, which Rami says is something they are most proud of. Kotn is also a certified B Corp voted Best for the World™, with the fourth-highest B Impact Score of apparel brands in North America. Learn more here.

How is Kotn Making Sustainable Fashion More Accessible?

When shopping for sustainable fashion, one often expects to pay a  higher price than they would for traditional fast fashion. Like most other sustainable brands, Kotn prices their items to reflect the true cost of the item, which includes the materials that go into it, and the people who make it. Finding the sweet spot between affordability for consumers and what is right for people and the planet, is a constant challenge for Kotn, but one that they are up for. For anyone looking to build a brand of their own with similar values, Rami advises picking one thing that you can do uniquely well while not damaging the world in other areas.

Tell Us More About Your Personal Relationships with the Cotton Farmers

From living on the cotton farms to building long-term relationships, Rami shared some insight with me into how and why the brand has built its own processes.

Kotn has close ties to its raw materials suppliers, and they have direct relationships with their manufacturers and facilities around the world. Over the years, they have developed their own systems to allow this level of communication and visibility. Because of this, Kotn was able to handle the pandemic more seamlessly compared to others – within a matter of 6 hours they were able to pause operations from tier to tier. 

What are Kotn’s Long-Term Goals?

Kotn sees its products as a source of inspiration for other brands who want to implement similar practices in their own line of business. They believe they can build a truly global brand that builds real tangible impact and would love to open their supply chain to other businesses. Rami also shared that Kotn has a B2B aspect of their business, Kotn Supply, which allows others to create custom products using their ethos and creating a supply chain that benefits both people and planet.

After speaking with Rami and learning more about the brand, I believe that Kotn is truly making a difference in the fashion world today, by paving the way for others and proving that making and selling clothing can be done ethically, sustainably, and profitably.

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