Hong Kong women make clothing from scratch and save the environment

Concerned about textile waste, local stylist Denise Ho has launched Knotti, a brand which hires local women to knit clothing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 December, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 December, 2015, 4:23pm

Sustainability is no longer just a trend in the industry as more fashion conglomerates are adopting a “green” approach to their businesses as evidenced by Kering’s recent release of its first Environmental Profit and Loss Report and LVMH’s initiative to stop using chromium-tanned leather due to its hazardous effects on the environment. These changes are not just happening on a corporate level as more young designers are inspired to create products that not only better the consumer, but the world we live in.

Such is the premise behind Knotti, a brand launched in Hong Kong this month by local stylist Denise Ho. Ho has been working in the fashion industry for more than a decade and is also the founder of children’s clothing label A for Apple. A few years ago she became interested in learning more about textile waste, which led her to start working with fashion NGO, Redress.

“I would go to trade shows and began to realise that there was a big problem when it came to the impact the fashion industry was having on the environment. First of all there was so much out there, which meant that a lot was being wasted. I also started to see that there was a niche missing. There was no label out there that offered 100 per cent handmade goods with a social element to it.

“I had to connect the dots. If I wanted to launch something 100 per cent handmade I couldn’t buy a fabric and just remake something. It has to be created from start to finish. People needed to know who’s making it, how they are making it and what it’s being made from. It had to be traceable,” she says.

The answer came in the form of knitting – an old hobby of Ho’s. After studying it back to front and watching countless YouTube videos, Ho started visiting various yarn stores to take classes with fellow knitters, many of whom she would eventually recruit to join her label.

“Knitting is a fascinating culture. It’s an addictive hobby and it is also good for older people because it requires them to use their brain. Studies say it’s good for Alzheimer’s. At the same time [knitting] worked for the brand because of the handmade philosophy,” says Ho.

Initially Ho started working with two ladies – one a retiree and the other an office executive who loved to knit. Together they started sampling different looks in an effort to develop a workable style for the brand. It took a few months and plenty of trial and error before Ho and her team came up with a silhouette that would form the basis of Knotti’s first collection.

“My first thought was, what do we need? Scarves were too easy. I wanted to challenge the brand. Jackets seemed more attractive than just a sweater, so we came up with a cardigan version. The brand is very much about timeless pieces that you will always keep and wear,” says Ho.

Although Ho planned to keep the collection small, she still needed more manpower. She began to enlist more women through various community centres around the city. The group of eight would meet once a week to knit, discuss ideas and learn techniques from each other. Ho even had a group chat going on social media so they could keep in touch.

“I wanted to hire women that actually need to work. They can’t do nine-to-five because many of them are single mothers or housewives and can work four to five hours a day. This was perfect for them because the hours were flexible,” says Ho.

Creating a piece of clothing from scratch of course had its challenges, one of them being speed. In order to give the workers incentive, those who finished their piece within two weeks would be given a bonus. After each knit was completed, Ho’s team of designers would then add their own decorative details, also by hand.

By December Ho was ready to debut the first collection, Jute015, consisting of 30 one-of-a-kind pieces. While the colour palette is basic – think blue, red, black, and white – the decorative stitching transforms each style from classic to fashionable. In keeping with the message of sustainability, the yarn used is completely biodegradable. Each piece retails for HK$3,800 and is available exclusively online at Knotti.co. Once the cardigans sell out, Ho is ready to move on to the next collection.

“Fashion is going crazy because there is so much out there – my brand is the complete opposite to what people are doing. I want to take time, build a very solid base and see how it goes. The next collection will also be knitwear but it will only be available online. We aren’t ready for retail yet,” she says.

Looking ahead, Ho also wants to open a workshop to house a much bigger team (right now they knit at a community centre in Tin Shui Wai). She is also planning to approach factories that have yarn wastage to source materials for the next collection. More than that, though, she is hoping Knotti will have a lasting impact on the fashion community at home and abroad.

“Hopefully it will create a voice to educate people, and teach them that there are other ways to build a brand. If you want to help people and do fashion at the same time, you can do it. If you want to design a great collection and be sustainable and have one style it’s OK.

“At the end of the day I want to build a business, which is why the proceeds don’t go to charity. I am also teaching women how to sustain themselves. It’s a brand with a voice that also provides them with work. Being able to sustain this is essential,” she says.