When life dealt their family a rough hand, Johanna and Brittany Cosgrove created something positive.
Johanna and Brit greet me at the door of their warren-like family home wearing the t-shirts designed right here. Armed with two plates of scones and a plunger of coffee, they lead me to the bedroom that was once Johanna’s but has since been taken over and - annoyingly - made much more beautiful by Brit: “I’ve stopped drinking so much and once you do that it’s like ’what am I meant to do with all this spare time?’” she laughs.
NopeSisters Clothing was officially born in 2016, but the events that inspired that moment kicked off four years previously, when Johanna and Brit’s mum Bette was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the end the cancer would be dealt to with two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation - or as she puts it, “being slashed poisoned and burned over a nine month period”.
“You’ve met our Mum,” says Johanna, “She just makes shit happen. It’s really scary to see someone like that vulnerable.”
“But she was so reassuring!” adds Brit, laughing, “She’d be like, ‘I’m never gonna die. I’m gonna live forever! I’m gonna live until I’m 1005!’”
Fast forward a couple of years and Brit finds herself back at home after a stint living in Melbourne, itchy to jump into an art project after too much time slaving in hospo. That itch coincided with an art auction raising funds for Bette’s CanSurvive dragon boating team, and so the Mastectotee was born - a tee-shirt depicting a full breast and a large scar embroidered across the chest, made by Brit with the intention of normalising the bodies of cancer survivors. Johanna loved the idea immediately.
“I put a picture on Facebook and within an hour we had 30 people being like, ‘I wanna buy one, I wanna buy one, I wanna buy one’,” says Johanna, “And so the empire was born.”
Very quickly, Brit and Johanna found themselves packaging up tees to send all around the world - from Australia to the USA, the UK and Mexico, with 10 percent of all profits going to CanSurvive. At first hand-stitching the Mastectotee at home after work, demand quickly outstripped Brit’s capabilities and the sisters outsourced the work to A1 Embroidery in the Lower Hutt suburb of Petone - where a framed news story about NopeSisters now hangs on the wall alongside a handwritten note that reads, “proudly made here”.
With things going so well, the sisters turned their minds to other things they cared about to inspire the next NopeSisters design, and consent was top of the list. This was about the time that Wellington College students were caught “joking” about rape on Facebook sparking protests calling for better consent education in schools, but it was also important to the sisters for personal reasons - one of Brit’s first sexual experiences was being assaulted by a group of teen boys at a party, who also videoed the assault. She was 13.
“[It] completely shattered my ideas of consent [and].. I was “slut shamed” and victimised by my girlfriends too, which was absolutely soul destroying,” she says.
Brit spent the next several years feeling out of control when it came to her body and relationships, telling me: “I did not know how to give my consent and say no. I was constantly terrified of the consequences if I did.”
Years of counselling and support have gotten Brit to a place where she can talk about what happened, but both girls worry for those still being hurt by a lack of comprehensive consent education in high school.
“Our sex education was abysmal,” says Johanna, “Imagine if someone had sat us down when we were in our first year of high school and been like, ‘This is what consent is’…”
Profits from the Nope tee - available in black and white with “NOPE” stitched in bold across the front - go to Sexual Abuse HELP Wellington.
“NopeSisters can't do a great deal to change a deep-seated problem, [but] we can… plaster the message 'NOPE means NO' on chests, and push the hell out of it on social media … and if that makes a difference in one person's life, maybe empowers them to break their silence and own their own body, then that's enough for us,” says Brit.
To date Nopesisters have sold more than 700 tees, with the bulk of their advertising happening on Instagram where the clothes are modelled by the sisters, their friends and their many passionate male and female customers.
The NopeSisters third design - the ‘period. tee’ - went on sale this week, with proceeds going to the Wā Collective, a new non-profit operating out of Massey University that offers subsidised menstrual products to university students.
“Absolutely in no way should anyone be missing out on any education because they’ve got their period… half the f**king population menstruate… why is there still stigma?” says Johanna.
The sisters are obviously onto a good thing - NopeSisters has grown quickly and organically despite the fact that neither hold any official qualifications in fashion, marketing or business.
Partly this is down to a growing demand from consumers for the brands they support to be socially responsible - and increasing savviness when the marketing message is not backed by action (think Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad).
“NopeSisters is not a marketing ploy,” says Johanna “We genuinely believe in what we’re doing, and other people do too which is real frickin’ awesome.”