It’s a difficult situation, being fired from the business that bears your name, but renowned Australian fashion designer Kit Willow Podgornik has made one hell of a comeback.
Applauded by critics and fashion folk, the runway debut of KITX, the second label Kit has put her name to was, without doubt, a highlight of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia. But the key to success the second time around is being able to rise from the ashes of her first label, Willow.
“There is no knight in shining armour, okay?” says Aussie fashion designer Kit Willow Podgornik tells us point-blank. “There is no knight!” And Kit would know, having been unceremoniously ousted from Willow, the label she founded and helmed for a decade.
“I’ve heard it everywhere. Friends of mine, gorgeous young designers [with pleading voices], ‘I need funding’. I’m like, ‘Yes, you can get legal advice and amazing commercial advice but, at the end of day, you’re your own knight’. You play the chess game and you make the next move. You take time and you do it properly, otherwise don’t do it.”
This mantra has been the engine behind Kit’s astounding reinvention – and recovery – following the events of late 2013, when the Apparel Group, Willow’s business partners since September 2011, released a statement declaring the founder was “no longer a part of Willow.”
Today, tucked away in a dark corner of the bar at Paris’ swanky Hotel Costes, the Melbourne native is talking all things mergers, investors, life after being ‘let go’ and her comeback, KITX by Kit Willow.
Raised by an “incredible and highly creative” mother (“She and Dad had these fabulous, crazy parties – they were these wild globetrotters and then Mum had me when she was 21 years old. They had this crazy life so they split up quite early…”), Kit has always been besotted by the rag trade. While her academic strengths steered her in the way of a marketing and psychology degree, she worked one day a week at now-defunct Australian label Morrissey Edmiston; sometimes coming in straight from the disco to do her Sunday shifts.
A later position as assistant buyer and publicist at Melbourne department store Georges saw Kit headhunted for a role in the PR department at French Connection, aged just 22. “I remember actually doing an email for the first time. I thought, ‘This is so easy to put everyone in [it], how efficient.’ Isn’t that funny?” she says with a full laugh.
“I was there for two years and I said to Peter Lew [the retail heavyweight whose company owns the Australian license to French Connection], ‘I want to start my own thing.’”
With Peter’s support, Kit left French Connection and worked as a consultant to fund the launch of Willow in Sydney, where she moved to join her husband, Mark, before returning to Melbourne.
“I remember the most amazing feeling of revelation. It was like I found my path for going forth in life. I was walking on the beach going, ‘Wow, how good is this?’
I’m actually going to be doing what I really want to be doing. I can’t believe I’m actually allowed to do this!’”
Willow debuted in 2003 with a capsule collection of lingerie at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia. A year later, Kit partnered with angel investor Joe Cross (“a great guy who was passionate and really just believed in me and let me do my thing”) and in 2008, the Willow flagship store opened in Sydney’s Paddington, soon followed by two in Melbourne.
“There were quite a few people I went to when I was looking for funding in the beginning. Even when Willow was going strong, I was approached by quite a few people to invest in my label.”
In 2011, Kit was approached by the privately-owned Apparel Group, owners of Saba and Sportscraft.
“We had many, many meetings [and] as the meetings progressed I got more and more comfortable with them,” she says.
“Willow was going to be the jewel in the crown and they wanted to open stores oversees with me, [saying] ‘We want to put the best structure around you. You’re the creator, the vision, the product, we are the back end … Let’s combine the two strong forces and be a really strong force in the world.’ I was like, ‘Yeah!’”
A six-month courtship saw the deal done. “I had a legal firm representing me, they had a legal firm representing them – there was a huge amount of dollars and time spent on drafting and putting together that shareholders’ agreement,” says Kit. “Joe said to me, ‘Kit, this is your decision, not mine. If you believe that these guys are the right business partners for you, you’ll take the money for your shares.’”
Joe sold out to Apparel Group and Kit entered into an equity partnership, remaining as creative director – a position she would lose two years later.
Willow grew to be an international fashion force, lining the racks at more than 80 retailers across the globe including London’s Selfridges and Neiman Marcus in the US, and reportedly turning over annual sales of AU$20 million. In November 2013, that fairytale ground to a halt.
“I kept going into board meetings, I mean I’m not an idiot, but I had no… commercial legal experience,” says Kit. “They registered my name in eight categories around the world, then they terminated my position as creative director.
“It was so hard, very hard. Straight away I called my husband and said, ‘Mark, it’s over,’ and he said, ‘No, no, no…’ I said, ‘It’s over!’” Kit pauses. “We [had] just moved into our house that we finished renovating with this enormous mortgage.”
Unable to communicate with her staff at the time, Kit describes the severance as being “like an amputation”. She took a year off, the first three months of which she describes as “hell”, but slowly became stronger and stronger. Time spent with her children, daughter Misia, 10, and son Rocco, five, was particularly healing.
“I’ll never forget having the time of being a stay-at-home mum, picking the kids up every day and cooking them dinner and cleaning the house.
“We didn’t have a cleaner anymore. We didn’t have a nanny anymore. The phone stopped ringing. The buzz around me stopped. I was quite surprised at how it just stops like that.
“After never having enough time to do anything with anybody, all of a sudden I wasn’t being picked at by everyone.”
Then in 2015, Kit did something few had expected, but many had hoped for – she launched a new label: KITX.
“I don’t even know at what point I thought this, but it was very much in parallel with everything going on in that terrible moment,” she says. “I was like, ‘What I do next has to be a business and a brand [where] everybody wins’, because what happened to me was not that. I don’t know who was winning in that situation. The customers were not winning. The business was not winning. The staff weren’t winning. Who was winning?
“I wanted to make sure I created something that has a really positive impact on the planet and people and that was it, without compromising fashion, design and desirability. It was sort of as simple as that. And that’s the core, you know? KITX – K for kindness, I for integrity, T for transparency and X for future thinking,” she says, scrawling the logo on my notepad.
“It’s strong, it’s balanced. It all just felt right and it’s been a really beautiful experience. It’s quite amazing, quite easy, a really easy hustle in every way.”
The fresh, ethically focused label has seen Kit align with sustainability groups such as the Global Organic Textile Standard, along with the clever incorporation of materials like used bullet casings from Cambodia and an Italian lycra crafted from plastic bags reclaimed from the sea. “So [our organic cotton supplier] is amazing. He grows cotton crops next to vegetables, next to apple orchards and then all the insects eat each other and that’s how it’s organic. Beautiful! No chemicals … Nature has all the answers!”
The industry has embraced KITX, with David Jones signing the label after its unveiling (as it did Willow in its first season) along with a number of smaller stores. In October of last year, the KITX flagship store opened in Sydney’s Paddington, less than 100 metres away from the Willow emporium.
This time around Kit has majority shareholding, and “like-minded” investors including Sydney’s MBP Advisory managing director Lawrence Myers and Melbourne mogul Boris Liberman.
While she has ventured back into investor territory for a second time, it’s not without caution – advice she readily shares with up-and-comers in the fashion industry.
“I just came from a meeting with a shoe designer who’s got her own label and she said, ‘I just need an investor,’ and I said, ‘No, you just need to create a shoe that people really want and like. You’ve got to get your customer and sales pumping and then when you need funding to fund your sales, to deliver your sales, then it’s good!”
With the European market firmly in her sights, she stands by her original advice to fellow creatives: “Be your own knight.”