The spring 2019 launch party took place on a sunny Saturday afternoon the first weekend of May. Behind a house several streets north of campus, a small backyard had been converted into a showroom for the fashion brand Kotami. There were racks of clothing at the perimeter, colorful and patterned, inhabiting the outdoor space easily, blending with the lush green of late spring that adorned the low-hanging branches. A table of delicate hair pins accented with colored spheres—tiny marbles—stood near the front, and towards the back there was a table with artisanal cheese, crackers, fig spread. White wine. Music pulsed, but not intrusively. The yard was full of people. What I was almost tempted to call wholesomeness—it was, after all, the culmination of an impressive creative venture in a sun-dappled backyard—was carefully balanced with the edginess of it all, the distinctive structures and surprising patterns of this spring’s collection: (s)Extra.
A year before, I had attended the spring 2018 launch party. More atmospherically appropriate for the color-blocking simplicity of their Raw collection, the brand’s creators had hosted guests at twilight on the Terrace porch, a less defined space that let those inhabiting the collection’s unambiguous silhouettes move around each other at different heights like Tetris blocks. It was there that I met founders Sofie Kim ’20 and MC Otani ’21 as they fielded praise and congratulations from friends and acquaintances. I remember being particularly taken with a table of less strikingly trendy pieces, college T-shirts cut apart and sewn back together for a Frankenstein effect. I took it as a metaphor for a way to take the situation one is in, the structure of it, its solidity, and to use that for one’s own purposes—a metaphor as easily discernable as it was striking.
The launches were the product of weeks of work for Kim and Otani, who by themselves shop for fabrics, design pieces, produce the collections, find models to photograph, promote the brand, and plan the party. And it is truly a two-woman operation. “We do all of the labor ourselves. We produce everything. Everything,” said Kim to me the Monday before their most recent launch. “We spent more than twenty hours working last week, and I think this week we could spend… maybe fifty hours.”
We were in their studio, a well-lit room in the basement of the Princeton Entrepreneurial Hub. It was covered with clothing, mostly hanging on the racks but also lying across chairs and on tables. Fabric pieces in strange shapes lay next to the sewing machine in the corner, and on the walls were taped pictures of models in pieces from prior collections. Kim and Otani were working as they spoke to me, preparing for the launch. Two pairs of fantastic, dangling earrings swung whenever they turned to ask each other something. One and a half pairs, actually, I realized, seeing Otani’s bare left ear. “Asymmetrical jewelry is really in,” she said, when I asked if it was on purpose.
Kim is from a suburb of Minneapolis and in the East Asian Studies department. She is half Danish and half Korean, interested in traditional Chinese medicine, and doing a language study abroad this summer in Korea. She wore blue jeans and a leopard print jacket, at first, and tried on other outfits as we spoke. Otani is an international student from São Paulo, Brazil, fourth generation Japanese, studying electrical engineering. She wore loose black pants and a black tube top with a cream-colored jacket, again, among other things.
They had known each other their first year at Princeton but had not been close friends. And then, “It was freshman spring finals period, the last Saturday that there was,” said Kim. “We were drunk in a dorm room,” said Kim, “and we were lamenting at how frustrating Princeton was, how academic it was, and we both like to be more creative and work with our hands. We were friendly and knew we liked fashion and we got along well.”
Otani continued, seamlessly, “We both knew how to sew, which is something that I think most people don’t. And that’s how we were like shit, we should start a fashion line.” How many ideas have been hatched on campus in analogous circumstances and swallowed up in the events of the rest of the night, lost in a hangover, referenced later, perhaps, as a running joke? And yet this plan, once hatched, became the exception. “That night I remember we were both like, I’m in if you’re in, but we both have to be in. And we both listed out the groups we were in and said, I’m going to quit this, you’re going to quit this.”
And they did. They both quit the dance group Sympoh. Otani stopped working for Contact, a suicide prevention hotline. She had been the news director at wPRB, the Princeton radio station, but she “dropped that like a hot potato.” She had been the cultural chair of the Brazilian society and left the position. Kim, Otani said, became less active in the student group Princeton US China Coalition. “I dropped a lot of friends, a lot of relationships,” said Otani. “For us, we found that this is not something you can do on the side.”
What filled all that time they created was the all-encompassing project that surrounded me now, two years in, the fabric, the finished and unfinished pieces, the machines, the computer they opened to show me the photographs from their last shoot. It was the combination of ceaseless creativity with the practical, sobering necessity of physical industriousness. Work is integral to the brand’s identity and mission. The sewing machine, their first investment, is a perfect microcosm: decidedly physical, teleologically productive. It churned soothingly in the background as we spoke.
Their newfound time was also necessarily full of each other, which led, as I saw it, to an almost uncanny working relationship. Each was uncommonly sensitive to the other’s train of thought. They told me about the brand not by adding to each other piece by piece but by continuing each other’s spoken paragraph—one continuous piece of fabric, say. “We have had a few big disagreements over the course of our friendship, but in terms of Kotami, we almost always agree,” one said, and relistening to our conversation, it was sometimes hard to discern who it had been and when, exactly, the other had picked up the thread. The word “Kotami” is a good proxy, Kim and Otani linguistically intertwined. The name is curiously brandable, concise yet unmistakable. It also, incidentally, means cat in Polish. One told me so.
The first Kotami collection was comprised of upcycled pieces. Kim and Otani bought clothing at thrift shops and edited certain elements of the pieces to make the piece more wearable. “You need to have a good eye and you also need to know what clothes look like on,” Otani said.
“And doing photoshoots was important because if you show this to someone, they might not think it’s cool, but if you put it on someone’s body, it gives people more imagination on how items can fit,” continued Kim. They still show their thrifted line, Busy, at every launch party.
They decided, for spring 2018, to move on to original design. “We looked at Busy and we were like, I don’t think I’d wear all of it,” Otani said. That next show was Raw, featuring, according to the website, “recycled and organic textiles and cuts that support a large variety of body shapes and sizes.” It took inspiration from Japanese fashion, minimalist, colorful, and structured, with a signature jacket a cross between a smock and a kimono. “We used a lot of unbleached hemp to source our stuff,” Otani said. That spring they also collaborated with Helen Lin ’18, then a senior in the Visual Arts department, who designed prints for some of the pieces as her senior thesis. The collaboration was called Continuous Reward.
Last fall was DIY, white t-shirts that read Kotami and other brand merchandise, to be paired with whatever the wearer wanted. And this spring, (s)Extra. “We wanted to juxtapose Raw by doing something more “extra,” both with our silhouettes and colors.” The parenthetical aspect of the name refers to the goal of this collection in particular: “Something we talk about a lot is: what is sexy? In Japan,” for example, “it’s manifested in baggy clothes and selective exposure. And so we’re being super experimental with that.”
Now, both say they would wear 100 percent of the pieces.
“A lot of our designs come from us scrolling through designs or going to Nearly New,” a consignment store in Princeton, “and wondering, you know, what if this had straps over there? We’re not trained to come up with designs the way you might be,” Kim said. The creativity, they emphasized, is free. It comes as they go.
They are much more deliberate about other elements of clothing production. Kotami is as much the designers’ desire to produce a particular “look” as it is a set of ideals. For one, Kim and Otani are both deeply committed to environmental sustainability. Personally, they told me, “we made a pact not to buy new clothing. We thrift.” Busy is the brand’s reflection of that personal commitment, and for original designs, they source fabric lines as cheaply and non-wastefully as possible. They began by searching for recycled or discarded materials. For the most recent line, they bought fabric from FABSCRAP, which bills itself as a solution to the fashion industry’s “textile waste problem.”
Sustainability is more than environmental. Ethical sustainability is part of why the project is so labor-intensive for the two founders. In most businesses, Kim told me, “Somebody is exploited along that process.” She continued, “We don’t know how to not do that by having other people do stuff. So we do all of the labor ourselves.” Friends help, they told me—one designed their first website, another their logo— but it is all for free. They have never paid models or photographers, but “We give back to them. We don’t charge people to come” to the launch party. “They don’t have to buy our clothes if they don’t want to.”
“We give back in Sangria,” the other said, laughing. “We don’t see it as labor because it’s our friends and people have fun”—labor, they seemed to mean, by choice. And the liveliness of the photoshoots comes through on social media. Some shots are staged, but some are candid, and even as the models pose, they smile.
Kotami’s emphasis on sustainability can be contextualized within the larger sustainable fashion movement. At the time we spoke, Otani planned to work this summer for a designer called Nicholas K, an example, she says, of a brand that is conscious of sustainability. (She is now working for Prabal Gurung.) “They adopt this thing called slow fashion, which is the antithesis of fast fashion,” she said. Fast fashion is most of what people buy today. “New clothing comes out every two weeks, three weeks. Most of it is produced in developing countries, and the model is that the clothes are really low quality, so the turnover is really high. Clothes become a disposable good.” Zara and Forever21, she said, are good examples. “Fast fashion, you want it, you got it.”
“Like ‘Seven Rings,’ by Ariana Grande,” said Kim from across the room, referencing the refrain of the pop hit (“I want it, I got it”).
Slow fashion is the opposite. Collections are released less often, and less clothing is produced for each release. Biodegradable materials are preferred, and working conditions are important factors in production decisions.
Their most recent photoshoot was open casting. “We put it on our Instagram that people could just show up.” They create clothing that fits many body types.
In addition to sustainability, Kim and Otani are focused on body positivity. “We both grew up in non-Asian communities,” said Otani. Kim continued, “One thing that we both struggled with growing up was being East Asian girls with white beauty standards. We didn’t have the same body type as what we saw. We’re using fashion as a tool to deal with that, as a form of healing.”
As such, much of their clothing is “a little more structured and a little less fitted. It gives more range in what body types can wear the clothing.” There most recent photoshoot was open casting, and previously, models were friends who wanted to dress up. The models pictured on their website and Instagram are individuals of different genders, ethnicities, heights, and shapes. The clothing fits each a little differently, as it must, but it fits. “We can’t promise it will fit everyone, but we try.”
An extension of their pluralism is their branding themselves as “community-based fashion,” especially in terms of collaboration with other artists on campus. Aside from Lin, they did costume design for their former dance group, worked on their video campaign for (s)Extra with Janette Lu ‘20, a rising senior, and featured Bhavani Srinivas’s jewelry at their launch in May – the hairpins at the front with the little marbles. “We want to make clothes and have them be cool, but we also want to foster an artistic community,” Otani said.
It was complicated to pull these goals apart from each other after the conversation, make them into separate points that were also separate from the existence of the brand as a fashion project. Nowhere do they list these ideals. One bleeds into the next—like tie-dye, say—and they are so wrapped up in the way Kotami sees itself that they do not live as ancillary to the clothing but instead, perhaps, as the clothing’s raison d’être. Almost as if Kim and Otani founded the brand to challenge themselves to see how sustainably, pluralistically, liberally they could do it.
One purpose Kim and Otani did have in founding the brand was making money. Back in 2017, when they were starting out, Kim and Otani put in a combined $500. When they applied to the University for funding, they were awarded $500 by the Keller Center, which gives money to members of the Entrepreneurship Lab every year. They paid themselves back and since then have personally net zero. “We just reinvest. No profits. Getting fabric, getting material, transportation, storage,” said Kim. Because their costs are so low, “We have all this extra money. We’re not sure yet what to do with it.” They had a rough estimate of how much money they had made in their first show and have made since then, but they asked me not to share the specific numbers. It is not, they say, their point.
That fact on its own puts them in the minority in contemporary startup culture. “When people talk about Kotami or when I talk about it on campus, people are like, it’s so cool that you started a business,” said Otani. “And that just sits so weirdly with me. When I think of business, I think of finance, I think of tech startups, and there’s just such a different kind of labor that goes into that. We have the technical skills and the machines.”
There is certainly support on campus for creative business ventures, but from the start, there was a fascinating disconnect between what was offered and what Kim and Otani needed. Otani said, “The Keller Center is great. That’s the one support we found. They have so many incredible opportunities, but most of the people who use the services are more tech oriented or wide-scale social impact oriented, so a lot of the resources and mentorship opportunities don’t really apply to what we need.”
She continued, “We’re technically are a startup, but the reason entrepreneurship and startup culture are so tech oriented is that the return on investment is so much greater and so much faster. The turnout is like two years. With consumer goods, it’s much harder” and it takes much longer.
For Kotami, in contrast to tech-oriented startups, which require money and invested teams, the most important thing they needed from the Keller Center was space. “We started in Sofie’s dorm,” Otani said, “like in her common room. And it was impossible, there was just thread everywhere.” Being able to use a room in the E-Lab as their studio and for storage was crucial.
Kotami is not just different from tech startups. It has also set itself apart from other student-founded fashion initiatives. There are others, but “none that intend to sew their own clothing,” said Kim. “They want to design a t-shirt and get it printed.” She said that one of the reasons they have not more collaboration is that there are not so many people who prioritize the creativity and the ethics enough to do all of the labor for free.
“But there are a lot of artists,” Kim said, listing friends who sell hair or makeup services, ceramics, jewelry, food. “I feel like we identify with those small businesses more than more profit-oriented projects.” They are, she said, “smaller scale, physical” businesses, where success is “driven by interaction with the community.”
Personal profitability, of course, need not counteract ethical fashion, though Kim did tell me at one point that “sustainability is not something you can achieve unless you’re not trying to make money.” One could debate the veracity of that, but for Kotami, money is also a question of presentation. A more profit-oriented company is, according to Kim, “Just a different aesthetic than what we’re going for”—a fascinating claim, that a preoccupation with personal profitability would representationally undermine the other values for which the company claims to stand. There is an irony here: That curation is, like any other, branding. For one day, perhaps, when they could monetize it.
On the most basic level, the profitability of the company is not something they need to worry about. They work in a space for free; they are funded for having a viable idea; they are surrounded by friends who will spend time helping at no cost. “This is the only time in our lives we’ll be able to do this,” Otani said.
“It’s been a fun intellectual journey,” said Kim of the growth of Kotami. “We’re at a phase where we’re thinking of this in the bigger picture, tying it into things we learn in class.” There was a gentle academic bent of some of the language they used to describe their work, their commitment to being every means of production, their thoughts on non-Western beauty standards, their promise of environmental sustainability in the fashion industry, where it is increasingly important.
Going forward, they intend emphasize that aspect. They will both try to incorporate their work on Kotami into their theses. Kim, in the East Asian studies department, known for its multidisciplinary flexibility, described her work as an analytical paper about a personal project, “Putting Kotami in context, talking about the intellectual frameworks that have over time inspired Kotami,” especially since the last collection was based largely on Japanese fashion.
For Otani, in the electrical engineering department, a way to make her thesis about the brand is less straightforward. She may try to do it cross departments with mechanical engineering. “I’m really interested in materials,” she said. “And I don’t want to make anything that lights up. That’s kind of… really gimmicky.” She laughed. “I do like the idea of closing the gap between production and design, removing the middle men. Because we have the opportunity of taking material straight from the lab and bringing it here, without having a research facility of our own. There are really cool tech styles coming out, made out of spider silk and stuff like that.”
“Spider silk outfits. That would be dope,” said Kim.
“But the level that we’re working at is so removed from the engineering process that I don’t know if I’ll be able to spin it.” Otani, who is taking a year off, will approach the challenge a year from now. But at the very least, the brand will continue for two more years as first Kim and then Otani work toward their graduations.
Kotami functions at the University. Even in its uniqueness, it is very much of Princeton. Here, Otani has a student visa. The brand has funding from the Keller Center and a studio without rent. They have a stylistic niche, even, on a small campus, in a small town: In their words, they service not the “preppy” or the “hype beasts,” but the “people who do their own thing.”
Both founders fully understand this matrix; their genius is as much in their designs as it is in their commitment to taking advantage of every opportunity. It is the good kind of privilege, one conscious of itself as such, one that is deliberately ethical, that uses what it is given to further moral priorities.
But what happens when they graduate? When I asked them last April, they both agreed they would ideally continue working on the brand. They are acutely aware of the challenges they would face. As I sat in their studio, though, with its natural light and colorful chaos and their friends who stopped by, it was hard not to be hopeful. I wonder, in a few years, which T-Shirts Kim and Otani will be cutting apart and stitching back together.