THE SIBLING DUO TURNING DESIGN GREEN
By Alexandria Haechler
Brother and sister, Christopher and Nicholas Kunz, have a connection to nature that runs deep. As kids, they grew up in Arizona with the state’s brilliant red mountains as their playground. “We were just wild. Our mom wasn’t a worried mom; she let us explore. We grew up outside,” recalls Christopher. Today, they are the driving force behind the Manhattan-based luxury sustainable womenswear brand, Nicholas K — a label often cited for putting organic, natural fibers and androgynous design on the fashion map. And, thanks to nearby homes nestled along Delaware County’s Pepacton Reservoir, they are upstate neighbors who savor their weekends interacting with Mother Nature in a more tactile manner.
“You see the eagles and deer wandering the land, it’s so wild; it feels like a retreat in Canada or something,” says Nicholas. “I find it super relaxing to go up every weekend and work in the garden. All of this manual labor feels exciting. It’s this contrast to sitting at your desk or computer. I find it so meditative.” While Nicholas and her husband, Marco, found their home nine years ago, Christopher bought his property recently, a gut renovation he is almost entirely fixing up himself. “It’s nice to have space,” he admits. “I think that, at the end of the day, everyone likes to work with their hands and work on something that has a tangible aspect to it, not like sending 500 emails. I mean, you work on the garden, you see your progress, and you enjoy your progress later in the year. I think those things are often overlooked nowadays.”
Besides tending to Nicholas’s generous garden, which has been home to the likes of goji berries, peanuts, arctic kiwis and mulberries, the siblings fly fish, forage, tap Maple trees, paint, host photoshoots and build furniture at their upstate abodes. “I think upstate is good. It brings back [our] creativity and it has reawakened different art forms that we used to do,” explains Nicholas. “[For example,] we built all of our furniture for our SoHo store upstate including some tables we finished using the Japanese practice of Shou sugi ban, [a technique consisting of burning wood]. We’re trying to explore more of these artisanal, sustainable craft practices without using chemicals.”
If that sounds like a nod to the pair’s commitment to conscious living, it is. While Christopher’s home is still under construction, much of Nicholas’s Catskills home is outfitted with progressive details like solar garden lights and a shed built by her husband using recycled windows and wood, and powered by solar panels. “Most people don’t realize that all of these things are still totally functioning and they’re just sitting somewhere,” she says, seemingly not realizing just how perfectly her last comment mirrors the exact awareness their brand, Nicholas K, is now famous for bringing to the fashion industry.
“The business of fashion didn’t care if something was organic. They cared that you delivered every four weeks, and that the next season was on-trend, and that the next season after that was different. You get pumped into this equation and you just keep spinning your wheels trying to keep up.”
Since their first collection, the Kunzs have been designing mostly in natural fibers that had otherwise been rarely — if, ever — used. “We were drawn to cotton, canvas, and merino wools,” Nicholas says, “but, it wasn’t easy in the beginning. We would get comments like, “You’re not using enough luxury fabrics,” because the collection was very cotton-based.” They met similar resistance when the brand (now infamously) introduced undyed alpaca into its collection in lieu of the industry gold standard: cashmere. “People think that cashmere is the best fiber, but it’s actually not. The herd [today] has been bred for volume, not quality,” Christopher explains. “There are many grades of alpaca that are finer than cashmere. There is just all of this misinformation out there and we’ve realized that the educational impetus is really on us.”
Rooted in season-less design and environmental mindfulness, Nicholas K started as a tough sell to an industry that thrives on seasons and trends. “The business of fashion didn’t care if something was organic. They cared that you delivered every four weeks, and that the next season was on-trend, and that the next season after that was different. You get pumped into this equation and you just keep spinning your wheels trying to keep up,” he adds. Nicholas remembers those early days well, “When you are a lot younger, you think, “Okay, I guess we have to change if we want a business,” but as the collection developed, we finally said, “Screw it. If we have to do it like this, it’s not worthwhile.”
Ironically, as soon as they unwaveringly committed to their vision, everything changed. “The whole fashion world evolved and androgynous fashion was in; sustainable fabrics were in. It’s crazy to think that it came full circle when for so many years, so many people pushed us against doing what we inherently wanted to do,” recalls Nicholas. Around the same time, the brand evolved from a wholesale into a direct-to-consumer model which gave the siblings considerably more control over the collection. “When we were working with wholesalers, if we wanted to change all of our merino wool to alpaca, we knew it would be a problem because alpaca is 30% more expensive,” explains Christopher, “but, a direct-to-consumer business has allowed us to make these changes. If we want to convert all of the cotton to 100% organic cotton and the price goes up to $50, we’re going to do it. We don’t need to satisfy anyone but our customer.”
In addition to championing un-dyed and organic textiles, Nicholas K hand-dyes all of its prints (with nontoxic or vegetable dyes) and works with family-run small businesses, namely in India, instead of giant factories in an effort to cut down on waste. Each seasonal collection is a study in pragmatic inventiveness — the brand is known for its wearable, albeit special pieces — which for S/S ’20 translated into sweeping silhouettes in tones of olive, plum, and sand. “We take a lot of color inspiration from nature so our palette is always very organic — things that we see upstate or in the wild,” Nicholas explains while gesturing towards a clothing rack dripping in glossy silks and sturdy linens. “This collection is called, “Convent,” because we showed in this old hospital run by nuns for Barcelona Fashion Week.” One glance at the rack and a sinewy olive dress that can be worn with either short or long sleeves and a convertible shirt-to-maxi-dress in a wine tie-dye unmistakably stand out. “We like to think of silhouettes differently. Why does a shirt have to be a button-down when it can be an asymmetrical shirt that converts into three other things?” Nicholas asks. “I design how I want to wear things.” Bold and adaptable — not unlike Mother Nature, herself.