Makenzie Yates

On exploring the balance between

consumerism and consciousness

2CB18970-6364-484C-B5D5-449BFBD8E4DA.jpg

Mackenzie Yeates is the Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer of Kotn, a direct-trade premium clothing brand ethically made in Egypt from authentic Egyptian cotton. Mackenzie co-founded Kotn in 2015 and leads creative and product for the brand. She received the Forbes 30 under 30 award in 2017. Our Founder, Dorcas Solomon had the pleasure of interviewing Mackenzie in their downtown Toronto office, and we are quite delighted to share the conversation with you.

JUMP TO TOPIC

PERSONAL JOURNEY AND KOTN STORY

Dorcas:

How did Kotn start? What prompted you to start it, and what was the journey like?

 

Makenzie:

Ben, Rami, and I started this together. We were all living in New York and were friends. Rami and I met through mutual friends when we both moved to New York through a Canadian connection. He then introduced Ben and I, and now we are married. So it’s a very close group. We always just liked to talk about business ideas and that was kind of what we did for fun. We felt like we had a gap in our wardrobes in terms of having designer-basics that were good-quality and well-made, and then having other T-shirts that were sort of like our everyday T-shirts that were questionably made and not as good quality. So we thought we could create something that was sort of in the middle and with no compromises, allowing us to have quality, ethically-made basics that formed the core of our wardrobe. We launched with three T-shirts in the beginning, so it was very simple. We used our own money to manufacture black and white T-shirts in three slightly different varieties - a v-neck, a crewneck, and a scoop neck. Then it kind of just went from there.

Dorcas:

Wow, that’s amazing. You mentioned you guys love to talk about business, so why specifically the fashion industry? Was it something that was pinpointed for you and you thought other people would probably have the same problem?

 

Makenzie:

My background was more in the fashion industry. I studied fashion at Ryerson and worked at Holt Renfrew for a few years, then worked in Brandy in New York. So that was sort of my history and where my personal interests lie. Ben was on the digital side of things. He worked at a tech start-up but he had the ability to develop a website and those sorts of things. Rami had a business/finance background. So business, finance, and tech kind of relate to any modern-day business. I guess my skill set in fashion sort of influenced the direction, but they really helped to grow that.

Dorcas:

Why did you guys decide to come back to Canada rather than launch it in New York?

 

Makenzie:

We all knew that we wanted to be in Canada eventually. We all love Canada and are very proud to be Canadian, so I think that was the number one point. The number two point was that it was a lot easier for us with visas and all the legal-side of things to start something. We also started it with our own money - Ben and I moved into my parents’ basement and lived at home for the first two years of starting it. So that allowed us to have more flexibility in terms of quitting our jobs.

Dorcas:

So at the time you thought this was worth it - having a brand that was producing clothes that were ethically and sustainably-made was worth the sacrifice of all of these struggles. ‍

Makenzie:

Yeah, I think we felt like that time in our life was a good opportunity to do it. We didn’t have a lot of responsibilities - we didn’t have any kids or mortgages - so we were just like “let’s do this now.” I’m happy that we did. We also did freelance projects on the side in the beginning to pay our bills. It was definitely a leap of faith, but we had a safety net being home with our families and having that support.

 

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 5.35.40 PM.png
Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 5.37.12 PM.png

Men and Women Collection - ca.kotn.com/collections

 
1KOTN.jpg

PHILOSOPHY ON CONSUMPTION

Dorcas:

In our current Issue, we are focusing on conscious consumption - what would you say conscious consumption means to you from a holistic standpoint - not just fashion?

Makenzie:

I think it’s awareness and consideration in everything you purchase or consume. So I think educating yourself about what good choices mean allows you to make those choices. I guess from more of a fashion or project standpoint - investing in things that last a long time is the main goal for me and for the products we make. We try not to make things that are too trend-driven or will go out of style right away, and we also make things out of material that will last. I think “fewer, better things” is a mantra that I live by more now. Sometimes it’s hard to convince yourself to invest in something that’s maybe a bit more expensive, but I think it ultimately pays off if you consider price per wear, which is something that I like to think about. When I worked at Holt Renfrew, I bought a coat in Paris, which was a big splurge for me. Literally ten years later, I still wear it almost everyday in the winter. So I think that was a great investment. I’ve done things to keep up with it - when the lining ripped, I got it repaired.

 

 

ON BUILDING A WARDROBE - INVESTMENT PIECES, AND SHOPPING METRICS

Dorcas:

That’s good. You kind of segwayed into the next set of questions, which are more shopping-related. I wanted to get your personal view on these questions because I find that I’m always talking about these questions with my friends and it’s relevant right now. Do you have a philosophy that guides the way you shop or helps you decide what to add to your wardrobe?

 

Makenzie:

I’ve been trying to think of a more holistic view of my wardrobe or use themes. In the past I would just see something, think it’s really cool and buy it at that moment, although it didn’t necessarily fit in with the other things that I had. So I try to think about color palettes and buying things - for the most part - that are neutral and I can mix and match with other items. I think separates are great because you can mix and match things. Especially when you’re packing for a trip - that’s the ultimate experience when you have to curate a small wardrobe to last you for a few weeks. Having skirts, tops, and jackets that you can mix and match together and make combinations helps you have more options. Just investing in things that will last.

Dorcas:

In terms of investing in things that will last, what investment pieces would you recommend?

 

Makenzie:

A good coat. It’s something that will make you more comfortable if you invest in one that’s warm, plus, it really elevates an outfit. It’s one of those things that is hard to cut corners on because it’s a complex garment to make. I would also say “basics.” I mean that's the reason we started with T-shirts - we are also adding underwear this year, which is really exciting - those pieces are sort of the first layer after your skin. That’s why I like to wear items that are made of natural materials and are soft. It’s a worthwhile investment because those things can make you feel comfortable and cozier. I also think accessories really help elevate your wardrobe. So that’s part of the reason why our products are at - what we consider - to be an attainable price point. Obviously, that’s relative, depending on who you are and your circumstance. For the most part, everything is under $100 - they are items that you can mix and match into your wardrobe, seamlessly. I don’t think - under any circumstance - you should spend $100 on a T-shirt. So that’s why we try to keep it at $30.‍

Dorcas:

When making a fashion purchase, do you consider fabric composition, weight, make, quality of fabric, stitching, or any other detail that the average consumer may overlook or consider too technical?

 

Makenzie:

Definitely fabric is the number one thing that I would look at. I favor natural fibers because I just think they’re more comfortable and perform better. Synthetic materials also take longer to biodegrade once they do get into a landfill. When you wash synthetic fibers, bits of the fibers go into the water stream, which affects our ecosystem, so I think that’s something to consider. Shopping vintage is another way to invest in things that will last but at a really affordable price. A lot of vintage clothes are made of natural materials and they’re really good quality fabrics. That's another way that you can find those pieces for your wardrobe. So I would say fabrics is the number one thing. Then fit and how it fits your specific body - knowing your body and knowing what shapes work for you.

Dorcas:

Are there any other metrics you consider when shopping for clothing that you haven’t talked about?

 

Makenzie:

We are a B-corporation, and I think that is something that is worth looking into when you’re thinking about conscious consumption. B-corp is a marker of whether companies are doing good across the community, the environment, and how they treat their employees - it’s a great stamp of approval. If a company is a B-corp, you know that B-corp has done the work to do the research to make sure that people are actually doing what they say they’re doing. It’s a really long process to get this sort of certification, so I look for that. I also just always look for or talk to my friends to see what people recommend.

Dorcas:

You touched on this, but would like you to share a bit more. Do you subscribe to the cost per wear metric - where the value of an item is directly related to how much you use it? If yes, how do you apply it? To investment pieces or just to all purchases?

 

Makenzie:

For sure, I definitely subscribe to that. I think in everyday products, it’s easy to buy things that you can mix and match and wear all the time. But I have a lot of friends who are getting married right now, and shopping for weddings and stuff like that is tough because you can’t necessarily wear those dresses that often. Renting is a really good option for that. There’s a place in Toronto called Fitzroy that does dress rentals, so I’ve experimented with that a bit. Also just borrowing from friends - I think that’s something anyone with sisters or girlfriends can do. I also think that’s part of the price per wear idea if you can share things. ‍

"So I think educating yourself about what good choices mean allows you to make those choices."

Enlight278.JPG
34C87F94-C181-4512-A9BB-EA7B7AF53058.jpg
 

VIEWS ON OVERCONSUMPTION

Dorcas:

Being in the digital space with the online/e-commerce - side of the business - how do you navigate between staying up to date with your industry/what’s happening with the overconsumption of media?

Makenzie:

I think it’s tough. I definitely feel like I personally need to be on Instagram to stay relevant but I do try to set aside time after work to unplug and look at references outside the Internet. Look at books, old movies, art, and things that can add influence or spark ideas that aren’t the same as what every other company is doing. Since we produce in Egypt, travelling and going to Egypt also provides a lot of that analog inspiration.

 
Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 4.27.27 PM.png

CHANGES IN THE FASHION AND THE FUTURE 

Dorcas:

How do you see the fashion industry changing in the next few years?

 

Makenzie:

I definitely think customers are much more aware of shopping ethically and sustainably. The younger consumers are demanding to know more from companies. So I think for us - continuing to be as transparent as possible. We have a fully traceable supply chain, so adding to that supply chain with other fibers is kind of our goal for the future. We’ve focused on Egyptian cotton, but this year we are adding linen to the mix and eventually silk, recycled cashmere, and other natural materials that we can add to provide that sort of well-rounded collection of essential items.

Dorcas:

What can we expect to see from you and Kotn in the future?

 

Makenzie:

Besides adding new fibers to the mix, we are also expanding our product line to include some more exciting pieces. I think we’ve learned from our customers that their definition of basics isn’t necessarily boring - it’s basics with a twist. So we are adding some new things that are exciting and I think people will love. You can see on that board some stripes and some prints. We are launching the lounge update collection next week so you will see that and underwear.

Dorcas:

How do you see the fashion industry changing in the next few years?

 

Makenzie:

I definitely think customers are much more aware of shopping ethically and sustainably. The younger consumers are demanding to know more from companies. So I think for us - continuing to be as transparent as possible. We have a fully traceable supply chain, so adding to that supply chain with other fibers is kind of our goal for the future. We’ve focused on Egyptian cotton, but this year we are adding linen to the mix and eventually silk, recycled cashmere, and other natural materials that we can add to provide that sort of well-rounded collection of essential items.

Dorcas:

Looking forward to it! Thank you Mackenzie for taking the time to chat with us.

 

PERSONAL JOURNEY AND KOTN STORY

Dorcas:

How did Kotn start? What prompted you to start it, and what was the journey like?

 

Makenzie:

Ben, Rami, and I started this together. We were all living in New York and were friends. Rami and I met through mutual friends when we both moved to New York through a Canadian connection. He then introduced Ben and I, and now we are married. So it’s a very close group. We always just liked to talk about business ideas and that was kind of what we did for fun. We felt like we had a gap in our wardrobes in terms of having designer-basics that were good-quality and well-made, and then having other T-shirts that were sort of like our everyday T-shirts that were questionably made and not as good quality. So we thought we could create something that was sort of in the middle and with no compromises, allowing us to have quality, ethically-made basics that formed the core of our wardrobe. We launched with three T-shirts in the beginning, so it was very simple. We used our own money to manufacture black and white T-shirts in three slightly different varieties - a v-neck, a crewneck, and a scoop neck. Then it kind of just went from there.

Dorcas:

Wow, that’s amazing. You mentioned you guys love to talk about business, so why specifically the fashion industry? Was it something that was pinpointed for you and you thought other people would probably have the same problem?

 

Makenzie:

My background was more in the fashion industry. I studied fashion at Ryerson and worked at Holt Renfrew for a few years, then worked in Brandy in New York. So that was sort of my history and where my personal interests lie. Ben was on the digital side of things. He worked at a tech start-up but he had the ability to develop a website and those sorts of things. Rami had a business/finance background. So business, finance, and tech kind of relate to any modern-day business. I guess my skill set in fashion sort of influenced the direction, but they really helped to grow that.

Dorcas:

Why did you guys decide to come back to Canada rather than launch it in New York?

Makenzie:

We all knew that we wanted to be in Canada eventually. We all love Canada and are very proud to be Canadian, so I think that was the number one point. The number two point was that it was a lot easier for us with visas and all the legal-side of things to start something. We also started it with our own money - Ben and I moved into my parents’ basement and lived at home for the first two years of starting it. So that allowed us to have more flexibility in terms of quitting our jobs.

Dorcas:

So at the time you thought this was worth it - having a brand that was producing clothes that were ethically and sustainably-made was worth the sacrifice of all of these struggles. ‍

Makenzie:

Yeah, I think we felt like that time in our life was a good opportunity to do it. We didn’t have a lot of responsibilities - we didn’t have any kids or mortgages - so we were just like “let’s do this now.” I’m happy that we did. We also did freelance projects on the side in the beginning to pay our bills. It was definitely a leap of faith, but we had a safety net being home with our families and having that support.

1KOTN.jpg
Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 5.37.12 PM.png
Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 5.35.40 PM.png

Men and Women Collection - ca.kotn.com/collections

PHILOSOPHY ON CONSUMPTION

Dorcas:

In our current Issue, we are focusing on conscious consumption - what would you say conscious consumption means to you from a holistic standpoint - not just fashion?

Makenzie:

I think it’s awareness and consideration in everything you purchase or consume. So I think educating yourself about what good choices mean allows you to make those choices. I guess from more of a fashion or project standpoint - investing in things that last a long time is the main goal for me and for the products we make. We try not to make things that are too trend-driven or will go out of style right away, and we also make things out of material that will last. I think “fewer, better things” is a mantra that I live by more now. Sometimes it’s hard to convince yourself to invest in something that’s maybe a bit more expensive, but I think it ultimately pays off if you consider price per wear, which is something that I like to think about. When I worked at Holt Renfrew, I bought a coat in Paris, which was a big splurge for me. Literally ten years later, I still wear it almost everyday in the winter. So I think that was a great investment. I’ve done things to keep up with it - when the lining ripped, I got it repaired.

34C87F94-C181-4512-A9BB-EA7B7AF53058.jpg
Enlight278.JPG

ON BUILDING A WARDROBE - INVESTMENT PIECES, AND SHOPPING METRICS

Dorcas:

That’s good. You kind of segwayed into the next set of questions, which are more shopping-related. I wanted to get your personal view on these questions because I find that I’m always talking about these questions with my friends and it’s relevant right now. Do you have a philosophy that guides the way you shop or helps you decide what to add to your wardrobe?

 

Makenzie:

I’ve been trying to think of a more holistic view of my wardrobe or use themes. In the past I would just see something, think it’s really cool and buy it at that moment, although it didn’t necessarily fit in with the other things that I had. So I try to think about color palettes and buying things - for the most part - that are neutral and I can mix and match with other items. I think separates are great because you can mix and match things. Especially when you’re packing for a trip - that’s the ultimate experience when you have to curate a small wardrobe to last you for a few weeks. Having skirts, tops, and jackets that you can mix and match together and make combinations helps you have more options. Just investing in things that will last.

Dorcas:

In terms of investing in things that will last, what investment pieces would you recommend?

 

Makenzie:

A good coat. It’s something that will make you more comfortable if you invest in one that’s warm, plus, it really elevates an outfit. It’s one of those things that is hard to cut corners on because it’s a complex garment to make. I would also say “basics.” I mean that's the reason we started with T-shirts - we are also adding underwear this year, which is really exciting - those pieces are sort of the first layer after your skin. That’s why I like to wear items that are made of natural materials and are soft. It’s a worthwhile investment because those things can make you feel comfortable and cozier. I also think accessories really help elevate your wardrobe. So that’s part of the reason why our products are at - what we consider - to be an attainable price point. Obviously, that’s relative, depending on who you are and your circumstance. For the most part, everything is under $100 - they are items that you can mix and match into your wardrobe, seamlessly. I don’t think - under any circumstance - you should spend $100 on a T-shirt. So that’s why we try to keep it at $30.‍

Dorcas:

When making a fashion purchase, do you consider fabric composition, weight, make, quality of fabric, stitching, or any other detail that the average consumer may overlook or consider too technical?

 

Makenzie:

Definitely fabric is the number one thing that I would look at. I favor natural fibers because I just think they’re more comfortable and perform better. Synthetic materials also take longer to biodegrade once they do get into a landfill. When you wash synthetic fibers, bits of the fibers go into the water stream, which affects our ecosystem, so I think that’s something to consider. Shopping vintage is another way to invest in things that will last but at a really affordable price. A lot of vintage clothes are made of natural materials and they’re really good quality fabrics. That's another way that you can find those pieces for your wardrobe. So I would say fabrics is the number one thing. Then fit and how it fits your specific body - knowing your body and knowing what shapes work for you.

Dorcas:

Are there any other metrics you consider when shopping for clothing that you haven’t talked about?

 

Makenzie:

We are a B-corporation, and I think that is something that is worth looking into when you’re thinking about conscious consumption. B-corp is a marker of whether companies are doing good across the community, the environment, and how they treat their employees - it’s a great stamp of approval. If a company is a B-corp, you know that B-corp has done the work to do the research to make sure that people are actually doing what they say they’re doing. It’s a really long process to get this sort of certification, so I look for that. I also just always look for or talk to my friends to see what people recommend.

Dorcas:

You touched on this, but would like you to share a bit more. Do you subscribe to the cost per wear metric - where the value of an item is directly related to how much you use it? If yes, how do you apply it? To investment pieces or just to all purchases?

 

Makenzie:

For sure, I definitely subscribe to that. I think in everyday products, it’s easy to buy things that you can mix and match and wear all the time. But I have a lot of friends who are getting married right now, and shopping for weddings and stuff like that is tough because you can’t necessarily wear those dresses that often. Renting is a really good option for that. There’s a place in Toronto called Fitzroy that does dress rentals, so I’ve experimented with that a bit. Also just borrowing from friends - I think that’s something anyone with sisters or girlfriends can do. I also think that’s part of the price per wear idea if you can share things. ‍

"So I think educating yourself about what good choices mean allows you to make those choices."

VIEWS ON OVERCONSUMPTION

Dorcas:

Being in the digital space with the online/e-commerce - side of the business - how do you navigate between staying up to date with your industry/what’s happening with the overconsumption of media?

Makenzie:

I think it’s tough. I definitely feel like I personally need to be on Instagram to stay relevant but I do try to set aside time after work to unplug and look at references outside the Internet. Look at books, old movies, art, and things that can add influence or spark ideas that aren’t the same as what every other company is doing. Since we produce in Egypt, travelling and going to Egypt also provides a lot of that analog inspiration.

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 4.27.27 PM.png

CHANGES IN THE FASHION AND THE FUTURE

Dorcas:

How do you see the fashion industry changing in the next few years?

 

Makenzie:

I definitely think customers are much more aware of shopping ethically and sustainably. The younger consumers are demanding to know more from companies. So I think for us - continuing to be as transparent as possible. We have a fully traceable supply chain, so adding to that supply chain with other fibers is kind of our goal for the future. We’ve focused on Egyptian cotton, but this year we are adding linen to the mix and eventually silk, recycled cashmere, and other natural materials that we can add to provide that sort of well-rounded collection of essential items.

Dorcas:

What can we expect to see from you and Kotn in the future?

 

Makenzie:

Besides adding new fibers to the mix, we are also expanding our product line to include some more exciting pieces. I think we’ve learned from our customers that their definition of basics isn’t necessarily boring - it’s basics with a twist. So we are adding some new things that are exciting and I think people will love. You can see on that board some stripes and some prints. We are launching the lounge update collection next week so you will see that and underwear.

Dorcas:

How do you see the fashion industry changing in the next few years?

 

Makenzie:

I definitely think customers are much more aware of shopping ethically and sustainably. The younger consumers are demanding to know more from companies. So I think for us - continuing to be as transparent as possible. We have a fully traceable supply chain, so adding to that supply chain with other fibers is kind of our goal for the future. We’ve focused on Egyptian cotton, but this year we are adding linen to the mix and eventually silk, recycled cashmere, and other natural materials that we can add to provide that sort of well-rounded collection of essential items.

Dorcas:

Looking forward to it! Thank you Mackenzie for taking the time to chat with us.