East-London based Cossac’s motto is to appeal to the mainstream fashion customer through attractive branding and accessible language. Brand’s founder Agata Kozak boldly believes that the aesthetic allure of fashion-making doesn’t come inseparable from acts of activism, breaking Cossac out of all things eco fashion cliché. Savant explores Agata Natalia Kozak's world of leading an everyday 'eco-hot' brand in high demand...
When did you decide that this cycle of fashion industry's mindless overproduction just can't go on anymore?
I started the brand only in 2014 — we actually have our second birthday in 2 weeks, which is really exciting. I studied Fashion Design in Istanbul and my previous experience was purely in mainstream fashion, both high-end and high-street. Back then, sustainability wasn’t really a thing in fashion. I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning it to me! When I moved to London right after university, here I became more conscious about sustainability as a form of living in general, so I started educating myself [on the topic], and I was applying it to everything — from my eating habits and the products I use to the kind of consumer I was. I thought that applying it to my job as well was just the right thing to do.
What were the main large-scale concerns that triggered you to create a conscious fashion brand?
[I quickly realised] there weren’t that many brands around that were doing something related to sustainability. Unfortunately, sustainable fashion is associated with certain subcultures, like hippies, and mainstream fashion people don’t really like wearing it, so I saw it as a gap in the market. COSSAC was born as a green alternative to the fashion industry, but our attractive and engaging sustainability element is more to do with the branding and styling, which is very important for us. That we appeal to our mainstream fashion customer is, I think, a key to our success so far.
You mentioned that initially there were not so many brands around, but did you have some idols that you were looking up to, some brands that made you think: Wow, they’re getting it right….
There were brands that I was admiring, like EDUN — they had well-established marketing and PR from the start — but I can see there are more now, mainly because I am in the eco fashion business every day and I live and I breathe it. Even though I was admiring the pioneering brands like PeopleTree, it was more because of the activism work they were doing, than about the fashion they had on offer.
Whenever I was actually trying to buy something sustainable, the offer wasn’t what I had expected it to be — for example, shipping charges of 30 per cent on top of the product is a bit of an exaggeration. Therefore, I was thinking, let’s do something about it…
What's your attitude towards the idea that eco fashion has certain negative connotations? As you mentioned earlier, it can be related to certain subcultures.
I’ve encountered that there are more brands growing now that actually understand how extremely important the image is… the way you sell your brand, the branding, styling. Even Alexandra Shulman [editor-in-chief of British Vogue] has said that: “First of all, you have to have a fashion product that has to look good”. [My interpretation is] that everything else comes as an addition to it, because people buy first into fashion, then sustainability comes as a bonus. I think that most eco fashion brands often get it completely wrong.
"People are still buying into fashion first and eco comes as an additional value. […]To me, obviously, sustainability is very important, I apply it to every aspect of my brand and my life, but I feel nowadays, for the customer, fashion — the visual appeal — comes first."
However, have you encountered a change in attitudes recently?
I think the attitudes are changing — for example, we are selling in Boxpark, Shoreditch, in a shop called UTTERCouture, where they don’t have eco brands per se, we are the only eco brand at the moment. They say that people really like the product first, then they read the story at the back, and they fall in love with it. I think the change is happening, but as I mentioned, we all have to remember that first of all, it is fashion, and everything else comes as a bonus.
Do you feel it’s also the reason why many brands get it wrong — they only focus on the sustainability aspect, leaving the fashion side secondary?
100%. Not to sound mean, but there is a difference between doing activism or being a charity worker and being good at fashion-making. I just cannot believe how fashion goes entirely missing sometimes…
More often, I see brands that actually have the aesthetics in place as well…
There are more brands like that. There are some cool, innovative things happening, like eco underwear and eco shoe brands. I think another problem with the eco brands is that sometimes the price is over the top, ridiculously high. But if you therefore want to appeal to the mainstream fashion customer, your price has to be quite competitive, because otherwise they will go to Zara instead! I understand that eco costs more, but you can still do it within reason, because I am doing it, so I know first-hand it is possible.
"If you talk to them in this accessible and easy language and prove to them that eco can be sexy — for example, our motto is ‘eco hot’ . This is very appealing to people."
Do you think that slow fashion’s high price will remain unchanged in the future?
It depends on many things, but my goal was to grab the interest of this customer who shops in high street, so the price needs to be more or less similar. It will never be as low as Zara or Primark, but it all is to do with where you source the fabrics from and where you produce. For example, if you do the production part in the UK, prices will be much higher and most of the materials are anyway imported, especially fabrics. I manage to keep the price low because we source locally in Turkey, where I produce, so I don’t have additional fabric shipping costs or import duty costs on the fabrics, everything is local. I think the price of eco products is one of the biggest issues, lately I wanted to convince my friends to buy eco fashion only… their reaction was that, not only are the clothes unattractive — not very sexy — but the price is also so high, I mean, who would buy it? It is possible to keep the price low, but it depends on quantities as well, so many, invisible factors must be taken into account.
Is it very difficult to find the right fabrics?
I used to live in Istanbul, it’s a wonderful city. I also know how rich their history is, when it comes to textiles. But they are used to working with big fashion brands, so the order quantities they want for fabrics are thousands and thousands of meters, and my small label can’t give them these orders, so they take longer to produce my fabric. I can find whatever I want, but minimum orders are a concern.
Do you feel that slow fashion is still targeted at the niche market? Who is the most typical customer of yours?
I think it is still a fairly niche market, but I believe it is changing rapidly. Even though my clothes are quite universal and ageless, I have thoroughly envisioned who [my target customer] is and what she does. She is between 25 to 35. She is ambitious, she lives in a city, she is very aware of the world she lives in. She admires art, she loves socialising… The most important, she likes to pay a bit more for a product that has something more to it, something of value — sustainability or longevity.
Give a London-based example.
I think [in London] people who come to Boxpark, Shoreditch, to shop are pretty much my key customers — they are creatives from East London, they have a bit more of disposable income, and they actually like to invest in pieces, which they wear more than 30 times, which is the magic number [you wear your clothes]. They don’t really buy throwaway fashion. From the next season, we will also be selling at 69b Boutique in Broadway Market. I think this is another ideal spot, as people who go there are more into shopping organic — there is a farmer’s market down there on the weekends, so it nicely relates.
Does the carefully selected presence add to the uniqueness of the pieces, would you say? There will always be people who don’t want to wear clothes that everyone else has…
The products are quite unique, because I do very small production rounds. I prefer to have less than restock, because I don’t think it’s sustainable to have stock left over. For example, I have sold out a couple of items of AW16/17, I had to re-order. I think it also adds to the exclusivity and creates a buzz around the brand, when it’s not so widely available.
"COSSAC was born as a green alternative to the fashion industry, but our attractive and engaging sustainability element is more to do with the branding and styling, which is very important for us."
What's the most complicated part of the process of educating people on sustainable fashion?
I think one of the problems with sustainable fashion is that… I always feel that it’s too pretty, too unreachable. I always feel that someone is telling me off [when talking] about eco-fashion. People hate that. After all, fashion should be fun, fashion should be sexy and playful, we don’t want to have anyone telling us, ‘You are a bad person, when buying Primark’. I think some eco brands still don’t know how to speak about the issues. The language we use [when interacting with customers] is very casual, like “Hey babe, here is some eco fashion for you…”. The kind of thing that feels very close to people and invites them to explore the fashions, what’s on offer. It is also something that people can relate to and it doesn’t seem that harsh, even though you speak about a very serious matter. For example, we hosted the screening of ‘The True Cost’ [the documentary] a year ago and obviously it is a very serious documentary, but it was all about the way we approached people… we hosted it in Hackney Wick, at a bar that my friend owns. I turned it into an evening with good food and great fun. I think the language you use is very, very important. I think people responded well to it.
You state on your website that you’re also reducing all the packaging and use of additional labels. Has this also appealed to people?
It does. This is actually quite funny because there are eco brands, which I have ordered a few times and the parcel came to me, and it had thousands of tissue papers and receipts. I was just standing there looking at all the rubbish, and thinking, ‘there is no need for that!’.
Do you feel that there are eco brands that are still not fully transparent when it comes to what they’re actually doing?
There are brands that choose to focus only on one aspect of sustainability, because to be honest, it is quite hard to apply all the aspects. However, even if they only focus on organic fabrics, then that is already a plus. I don’t want to be a hypocrite, so I try to execute [my fashion-making] on a fully transparent level, but it doesn’t change the fact that you live and you learn. 2 years ago, I even did my shopping at Primark, but as I became aware of the impact of the fashion industry on the planet, it is quite nice to observe that I grow with the brand, I learn every day.
Would you say you’re not buying high street anymore at all?
I try not to as much as I can. Recently I was shopping for knitwear and I was only looking at eco brands, like Everlane, because I would like those brands to grow and I’d rather support smaller businesses. I don’t want COSSAC ever to be an enormous H&M. It is not my goal to make it into a global superpower. I think small is beautiful, so I am all for smaller businesses.
But in the end, you have to sell to live? That’s perhaps the controversy.
My goal is not to get filthy rich. I don’t think that is sustainable either. If you are able to do what you love and make a living out of it… that’s already great, a goal accomplished. People can get too greedy on the way.
Sometimes I’m allured by a brand, and everything looks good on paper. Then I find out it is still ‘Made in China’. What does it mean?
Depends on where in China do they manufacture. I did work with some factories in China before and there’s nothing wrong — the factories I worked with have very good salaries, regulations, even obligatory yoga classes on weekends. There’s a difference between ‘Made in China’ and ‘Made in China’. Unfortunately it still has this negative connotation, but China is much high-standard now than it used to be… the more red-light areas are Cambodia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
We also live in an era that proudly advocates the cult of shopping. What do you think, what would make us invest in quality rather than quantity?
I think by making pieces that are quite universal and versatile. Then people will see themselves that they don’t really need to buy 3 jumpsuits, when they have one existing good quality, durable jumpsuit, which can be turned into something more interesting with the way you style it for different occasions.
If you talk to them in this accessible and easy language and prove to them that eco can be sexy — for example, our motto is ‘eco hot’ . This is very appealing to people.
‘Eco Hot’! Sounds fun. How did you come up with it?
We were looking for a catchy phrase, that would define shortly what I want COSSAC to be. I wanted it to be sustainable fashion, but I also wanted it to be sassy, I wanted it to be desirable. Every piece in the collection is a piece that I would personally wear… [the aim is that] you look at the design and you wouldn’t necessarily say it’s eco, and then you find out that it is also sustainable. The customers read the story and they feel better about themselves that they’ve made a more conscious choice, they contributed to creating a better world.
Eco aspect vs the aesthetics?
People are still buying into fashion first and eco comes as an additional value. It will change over time, but it will take years. At the end of the day, it is a fashion brand. To me, obviously, sustainability is very important, I apply it to every aspect of my brand and my life, but I feel nowadays, for the customer, fashion — the visual appeal — comes first.