Kotn proves menswear basics don’t have to be basic

I walked into the flagship store of Kotn immediately after one of the first major snowfalls in Toronto, one that came so early and fiercely that it took the entire city by surprise. It made you want to get as warm and as comfortable as possible — almost the opposite of the conditions that lead to Kotn being founded in the first place. 

Benjamin Sehl, Mackenzie Yeates and Rami Helali launched the company during a blazing hot summer in New York, where regular T-shirts got so ruined by sweat that they recognized a need for something better. This, despite having little direct experience in creating a brand. 

“We knew nothing about making clothes,” Yeates admitted as she showed me Kotn’s Winter collection for men. “This was basically our Master’s degree.”

Their approach involved more than simply making good clothes, however. Kotn has also focused on demonstrating ethics and sustainability as part of the production process, working directly with farmers in Egypt to get the premium cotton for their garments. 

Yeates said that it was important to not only create something consumers could feel good about buying, but clothes that they could buy without double-checking their bank account. Some items are less than $20 and others are in the $100 range.

“A lot of brands talk about being aimed at creatives, but there’s not out there that’s priced at something a creative can afford,” she said.

Though it started in T-shirts, Kotn has since moved into sweatshirts and pants for men, as well as dresses for women. Some are not unlike what you might find in other stores, but I was struck by the relaxed fit of its pleated pant, which Yeats said was intended to be an alternative to a traditional chino and has quickly become one of its most popular sellers. 

Kotn’s fabric-first approach, meanwhile, means it experiments with the blend of cotton and then comes up with the aesthetic, like a ribbed shirt or what Yeats called a “work pant” where you could see the mulch, flecks and other environmental elements in the final product. 

“We looked at it and we thought, ‘Why not just keep it as it is?’” she recalled. “It’s been pretty amazing to watch something in the journey from a plant to a garment.”

The journey doesn’t end there. Instead of the usual Black Friday initiatives, Kotn has used some of its profits to fund five elementary schools in rural Egypt to combat illiteracy and child labor. They also require that at least 50% of the school children are girls due to child marriages and the higher illiteracy rate found in the female population.

“I didn’t see a reason why my aesthetic and my values couldn’t be combined,” she said. I imagine a lot of other people will feel the same.

Images courtesy of Kotn.

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