The Interview: Eva Vucheva and Boryana Uzunova, founders, Kool and Konscious
In today’s fashion marketplace “greenwashing” or “green sheen” has become a tsunami of confusing labels. Consumers are drowning in “organic” that, and “sustainable” this, while brands, many far from authentic, jump on the eco/environmental bandwagon. Knowing who to trust, and, simply, what it all means, offers up a gap for a curated marketplace specialising in fashion products that are trying to be less damaging. Enter Kool and Konscious, or KKompany, to give a little bit of reassurance to consumers looking for truly greener clothes and accessorises.
Established in May 2019 in Hong Kong by Eva Vucheva and Boryana Uzunova, both from Bulgaria, it has recently closed its first financing round and turnover is projected to hit €1million by the end of 2020.
“We are three co-founders, me, Eva and Ufuk [Ufuk Inci]. Ufuk and I started the company in Hong Kong as a spin-off idea of a technology we have been working on. Eva joined in later, as we were relocating the business to Europe,” says Uzunova.
Vucheva says: “In addition, part of the company is owned by our incredible investors, Eleven Ventures, who backed us early on.”
Their backgrounds are in fashion and tech. “Kool and Konscious has been a natural continuation of the technology my team and I had been building for nearly five years out of my university in Hong Kong – MorphX. MorphX is a technology that facilitates on-demand production in a cost-efficient and timely manner, with the ultimate goal of eliminating the need of mass-producing pieces that will go straight to landfills,” says Uzunova.
“I have been developing e-commerce and digital products for the last 15 years,” says Vucheva. “I was part of the founding team of the biggest fashion marketplace in CEE - Central and Eastern Europe – [Fashion Days Group] later sold to Naspers. At the time I left it, the company was grossing €70million.
“I have come to realise first-hand the effects of consumerism on the environment and on us as human beings. I started taking an interest in circular and shared economy, but it took several years until the KK found me,” she says smiling. “In the meantime, in 2015, I started a data management company, servicing companies such as Rakuten, eBay and PayPal, which I still own, and which gives us a great advantage in the current project,” she says.
“When I entered university in Hong Kong, I started to come across fashion industry facts that were truly shocking,” says Uzunova. “Making a real change to fashion’s impact had to touch on every single level of the value chain: from how we grow crops, to how we process textiles and produce garments. No less important was how do we dispose of the millions of tons of textiles produced each year?” she says.
“The idea for Kool And Konscious started to emerge. We started approaching the most innovative material-science, dying and packaging companies, as well as the direct to consumer brands from around the globe that were founded with the mission of being kind to the planet.
“We further tested the consumer demand through doing a month-long pop-up in Hong Kong and were blown away by the result. People loved the pieces, the quality and mostly the story and origin behind it all. With this, we decided to take Kool and Konscious bigger than a physical pop-up in Hong Kong and launch the platform online globally,” she says.
Kool and Konscious has signed 200 brands to its site. Currently, it stocks 28 designers with additional brands being added every week, including both men’s and womenswear. They take a flat 22% commission on sales.
“We launched in the UK in late November [its first European market] and have already reached a local customer base in the low thousands,” says Uzunova.
So, why the UK first? “We did very detailed research on several European markets before we decided for the UK,” says Vucheva. “What it showed is that the demand in the UK is growing by the day. It actually grew 200% YoY in 2019 alone.
“London is the cradle of quite a few fashion revolutions and we believe it is time for a new one,” she says optimistically.
“Our launch in the UK is two-fold. On the one hand we are investing heavily in our digital channels, which are quite classic,” says Uzunova. “On the other, we are putting a very serious focus on our brick-and-mortar strategy. Our up-coming pop-up in Covent Garden would likely act as our official entry in the UK market,” she says.
“Our long-term vision is to develop the first circular fashion marketplace,” says Uzunova. “We start with the B2C segment, where we select premium sustainable brands, all of which use different sustainable practices, and we give them access to a global market. The products currently listed on the marketplace save on average 75% of the resources needed to produce their regular alternatives and respective output pollution.”
Vucheva says: “Currently most sustainable labels are small. They produce in low volumes or on-demand, which means they only have access to a small part of the eco packaging, dyeing and sewing technologies out there and it comes at a high price. For example one of our partner packaging companies requires a minimum volume of 25,000 units, which is an unattainable number for most sustainable brands.
“We have already started building an eco-system of different players in the supply-chain – producers of sustainable fabrics, natural dyes, biodegradable packaging, carbon neutral logistics, and we are allowing our brands to source all of those supplies in an aggregated manner. This will help the labels source at better prices and thus be more competitive in the end-customer offering,” she says.
How do you vet the brands and designers? “The brands we our reach are already pre-vetted,” says Uzunova. “We would have normally researched them and, in some cases, would have bought a product to inspect it. Once a brand is live on the platform, we do ad-hoc secret shopper vetting.
“Twice a year we employ a third party controlling company to cover factory visits. The producers are selected on a random basis,” she says.
How can consumers be careful of greenwashing? What should they look for? “My personal approach is to question and research,” says Uzunova. “I love to deep-dive in facts, but more importantly in the data source and methodology used to derive conclusions that make big titles. After all greenwashing is just a fraction of the usual propaganda that we are all exposed to on a daily basis. From political agendas to the ‘new, stronger’ detergent formula, being influenced by media is inevitable. Thus, coping with greenwashing should be quite similar in nature to how we cope with usual news,” she says.
Are consumers becoming jaded by the “sustainable” and “green” tags? “I can’t say about consumers, but I definitely am overwhelmed with that message. For us sustainable fashion is not a trendy alternative. We firmly believe it is the only way forward,” says Vucheva.
“At the same time habits and perceptions are hard to change. Fashion is a purchase of the heart, an impulse buy, and sustainable solutions need to offer the same excitement, high quality, great design and accessibility. The goal is not to punish the customers for making concisions choices. Instead, our approach is to show them that premium sustainable products are available and are no compromise, compared to the status quo. If we need to have only 10 key items, then let them be worth it,” she says.
“We have new brands on the platform almost daily,” says Uzunova. “Some of my all-time-favourites are Rhumaa, for business casual styles, Siz, for playful look, Cosmos Studios, for basics, and Kozha Numbers, for bags and accessorises. On the product front there really isn’t an outlier. But, I guess we sell bags, jeans and basics the most.”
Prices range from £25-£500, with everything from swimwear and lingerie to ethical cashmere coats available. There are “Conscious Filters”, for those looking for something specifically vegan, eco-tanned or recycled.
“We are building the planet’s first circular marketplace,” says Vucheva. “At the end of this year we will launch our second European market and will open the talks for our next financing round. In the long run we see the Kool And Konscious platform to be a fully closed circle – hosting an eco-system of supply chain players and brands, who produce fully circular items, we can in retrospect collect from the end-customer and reuse depending on their technology. We see the change is happening and we want to be in the forefront.”