SemSem has partnered with Egyptian cotton company KOTN to help support the manufacture of the world’s most exclusive threads, and we speak to Founder Abeer Al Otaiba to find out why this project is so close to her heart.
This summer SemSem has partnered with KOTN, a small company dedicated to supporting Egyptian cotton farmers by using the ancient material in their line of tees. Founded by Abeer Al Otaiba, who is originally from Egypt herself, SemSem has worked with KOTN to put its own twist on these handcrafted designs that use some of the world’s most sought after cotton, found in the fields of Egypt.
SemSem has adapted KOTN’s t-shirts both for women and girls in a truly unique way by adding their own embellishment and embroidery designs. In addition to including KOTN tees as part of the spring collection, they also created a whimsical graffiti design that was featured on KOTN tees during our inaugural pop-up in Washington, DC.
KOTN was born from a desire for good quality, simple essentials. They focus on one naturally remarkable fibre: their namesake authentic Egyptian cotton grown in only one place in the world–the Nile Delta. Egypt’s “white gold” as it is known in the industry, is finer, softer and more breathable than any other cotton.
Unfortunately, since 2001, there has been a 95 per cent decline in demand from big corporations who sought cheaper options. As a result, millions of farmers, weavers, and craftspeople are struggling to make ends meet. By working directly with cotton farming families in Egypt, KOTN is rebuilding the industry from the inside, making their own fabrics from raw cotton bought directly from farmers at guaranteed prices. KOTN’s cotton is then sent to their cut-and-sew factory outside Alexandria. The responsibly-run operations employ locals, securing their craft and their livelihood. By scrapping the middleman, they’ve ensured a fair wage for them, and an honest price.
To find out more about the partnership with KOTN we talked to founder Abeer Al Otaiba to find out why this project is so close to her heart.
What can you tell us about your partnership with KOTN and why is it important to you?
We collaborated with KOTN to showcase their mission through SemSem. They are a small company dedicated to supporting Egyptian cotton farmers who use the ancient material in their line of t-shirts. This season, our partnership involved featuring their tees within our women and girls’ collections in a truly unique fashion. My earliest memory of fashion was remixing the shape or design of clothes my parents bought for me. I still enjoy it up to this day and reinvented KOTN’s tees by adding our own embellishment and embroidery to them.
I think that the most meaningful part of life is how we treat others and doing what we can to make the world a better place. In this spirit, my mission through SemSem has always been to support and invest in the well-being of our community, especially women and children around the world. We do this in part by how our fabrics are sourced and garments are sewn so we’re very proud to partner with KOTN.
Why did you choose KOTN, in particular, to team up with? What are you trying to achieve with the partnership?
I am originally from Egypt, and SemSem is a brand deeply rooted in my heritage, so KOTN’s mission to improve the quality of life of generations of Egyptian cotton farmers has a powerful resonance for me, and one that is particularly close to my heart. Our goal is to raise awareness and shed light on the importance of supporting local producers and inspire others to do the same.
Why do you think it is important to preserve the use of Egyptian cotton?
Egyptian cotton is dubbed as “white gold” because it is more superior than commercially produced cotton. It is finer, softer and more breathable than any other cotton. But more than its quality compared to other textiles, Egyptian families have been working hard for decades to preserve their craft but also to preserve the livelihood of their families.
What would you like to see happen in the industry in terms of the use and production of cotton?
Cotton is the most used natural fibre in the world across a variety of industries. Such high demand requires mass production and is the main cause of the decline of local cotton growers such as the ones KOTN works with. As an active player in the fashion industry, I’d like to be a leader in taking steps to innovate how we choose our fabrics and how our garments are created that would impact our communities positively.
Why is sustainability important to you as a designer?
Fashion can be an industry that exploits unpleasant labour conditions and we want to be at the forefront of instigating change related to how collections are made.
What restrictions does sustainability put on you as a brand?
I think that it’s something each and every brand and company should strive to be part of their mission, and not treat it as a hindrance but a way to move forward. We have instilled in SemSem’s ethos to be socially responsible in the way we create our collections. We consciously ensure best practices are carried out with the ateliers we work with, and through offering luxury clothing, we can control the optimal quantity of resources we need, from the fabrics we use to the number of pieces created.
What can the readers at home do to contribute to sustainability in the fashion industry?
Investing in high quality, timeless pieces is a great way to start. Impulse buying is a tough habit to curb especially now with easy access to online shopping. I would encourage thinking about the true value that lies in our purchases when we shop by asking ourselves if it is something that can be worn on multiple occasions, researching about the manufacturing practices of the brand, and what impact it has on our communities and natural environment.
What has your background in Civil Engineering taught you about sustainability?
The technical skills and discipline I gained from building a career in civil engineering while I was residing in the UAE allowed me to grow in the arena of fashion and apply it to every part of how SemSem operates. Civil engineering has a lot to do with reconciling sustainable design and construction practices with its existing environment and community and that has taught me to mirror the same principles within SemSem.
What is the biggest challenge you face today as a designer?
The biggest challenge has been finding the right people. I’m based in Washington DC, and I’m managing everything remotely: My staff are in New York and our clothes are produced around the world. Trying to juggle everything and find people to depend on, that I can trust 100 per cent to understand my vision and what I’m trying to achieve is the hardest part.
You work with charities and organisations every season – why is this something that’s important to you?
Being a mother opened a piece of my heart I didn’t know existed. SemSem is the nickname of my daughter Samia and she is, without a doubt, the inspiration behind the brand. She inspires me not only to create pieces she would be happy to wear, but also to work hard and set a good example by giving back to our global community. Each season we partner with a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving gender equality, literacy, health, legal awareness, and education for women and children because the idea of giving back and being philanthropically active is deeply personal and how I operate day in and day out.
What is the message that you want to spread to women?
I want to promote empowerment, strength and independence and inspire women to strive every day to make a difference in the world.
What is the professional motto that you live by?
Never give up and never be afraid to act on a dream. Remember your strength as a woman, surround yourself with a team you can trust. Know we are often capable of more than we may realize.
How would you describe SemSem in one word?
Can I sum it up in five? A “luxury brand with a conscience”.