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. By Alyx Gorman.

Kit Willow Podgornik’s Kitx

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 research-intensive 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.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 12, 2017 as "Reaping Willow".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.

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