In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
To an outsider, it might seem that Upstate founder Kalen Kaminski has a secret fairy godmother looking over her quickly growing career. She didn't study fashion or slog her summers through the intern system. She didn't even have to hustle for seed funding to launch her business or borrow money from her parents.
She has, however, worked incredibly hard. In 2011, Kaminski and a friend, Astrid Chastka (who's since left the brand), started Upstate by dying scarves in the bathtubs of their New York City apartments. Since then, the line has grown into a full women's collection known for its inventively tie-dyed prints and vibrant hues on clean, easy shapes, like kimono tops, maxi dresses, crisp-collared button-downs and silky jumpsuits. Two years ago, Kaminski moved herself and her company into a Greenpoint, Brooklyn, studio that's spacious enough to house a a work table for all her dye and fabric projects, multiple racks of samples, an industrial sink and — most significant for Kaminski — a washer-dryer unit.
The burgeoning designer was more than happy to take a break from experimenting with new dye techniques (and running her business) to talk about her career path from anthropology major to fashion designer, and how she's expanding Upstate into new categories, from ready-to-wear to home.
Tell me about your background. How did you start Upstate?
Well, my friend and I started the line in 2011 because we both had a love for making things and we noticed a missing part in the marketplace: these wraps that we wanted to make. So we started experimenting with indigo and shibori and started making scarves — and this was before the whole indigo craze, I feel like it’s everywhere now — but we made these raw silk indigo scarves. Those took off in 2011 and, then in 2012, we worked with an online retailer [Of a Kind] to make a top and that sold out right away, so then we launched into womenswear and the past year it’s just me because my business partner and I parted ways.
You don't come from a strict fashion background. What you were doing before you started your business?
I grew up in Colorado in Boulder and I’ve always had art projects happening, whether they were sewing projects or jewelry projects. I didn’t go to school for design, I went to school for anthropology. Then, when I moved to New York, I started working for a set designer and then started prop styling and was just always really interested in different textiles and making things and so it just kind of grew from that.
Upstate uses a special shibori dye process, tell me more about that.
It's this ancient form of Japanese tie-dye, essentially, where you fold and bind the fabric in a certain way and there are all different techniques. There’s an arashi technique where you wrap it around a hose and then another technique where you fold and you put wooden blocks in it and clamp it. So [we started with] a few of the more traditional techniques, but then as the years went on, it’s more of our own made-up techniques. So it’s not exactly still shibori. Like this is the particle process [points to her tie-dyed button-down shirt), we definitely reinvented it.
How did you come across the shibori technique and learn how to do it yourself?
My roommate, he was this amazing artist, and he had these amazing shibori tapestries and we were shopping around trying to find the right textiles and going to different fabric mills and couldn’t find anything. It was like stuff was right in front of my face all the time that I just never really noticed it and then one day it was like a smack in the face. I was like, oh my god, shibori. We didn’t have any formal training in it, so we just watched YouTube videos and read books about it. And I mean, honestly, YouTube and Google have been the most amazing teachers in becoming a fashion designer.
So that’s how you started dyeing the wraps. How did that grow into an actual business?
I think it happened really organically and, I think, since there was nothing like that in the marketplace at the time, that a bunch of larger boutiques picked it up. It was made-to-order, so we didn’t really have funding or need to put any money into it. And, yeah, it just kind of gained momentum. We started working with a sales rep and a showroom and then they would encourage the collection to grow in certain ways. But [the business] really did its own thing. But we were dyeing everything in our bathtubs at home, sewing everything, packing it, having it made in midtown [New York] and then up until a year ago it flipped the growth and then a lot changed from there.
So up until then you didn’t have overhead costs?
No, we moved into this studio two years ago, just to get a washer and dryer. I mean when we were dyeing stuff in my bathtub, walking three blocks to the laundromat with buckets, I got in really good shape, but then we hit a point that we were like, we need a studio with a washer and dryer. [Before then] we would go wash everything out, come back and sew it.
When you first started selling, were you still working a full-time job?
I was freelance and I was working for a set designer, so I was working pretty full-time and I’d come home and start working from 6 p.m. at night ‘til 2 a.m. sometimes. I stopped working for the set designer a few years ago and started doing this more full-time. It was lots of working.
Could you tell me more about the dyeing and production techniques?
My sample factory is in New York and I’ll dye everything and have it sewn here, and then I’ll take it to LA, where we do piece dyeing, so it'll be sewn first and then dyed out there in this specific technique. For the first few years, we would go to dye houses out here and things weren’t coming back right at all and then I realized that we actually have to go in and teach them how to do it. You could dye yardage of it, but I’m seeing that wastes more fabric. So you should have it sewn first, grade it for shrinkage and then dye it after it’s sewn. But each season, it’s really a learning curve on figuring out what’s the smartest way, what’s the most economical way.
How did you learn about clothing design and patternmaking?
I’ve always been a major vintage shopper and collector. So I’ll see an amazing collar on something and a sleeve on something else. I’m not a huge illustrator, but I’ll make a lot of collages and piece everything together as I go and then I work with a technical patternmaker who helps me put it all together.
What did you take from your anthropology and prop styling background that you use in your business now?
I took a lot of art and anthropology classes, and we would study tribes and cultures from all over the world and that’s when I really fell in love with different textiles. At that time, if you would have told me I would have had a company, a whole womenswear line, I would have not believed you, but that’s where that interest cultivated. In prop styling, I learned that it’s all teamwork. A huge thing I've learned, especially in the past year, is that delegating and teamwork brings more success than just trying to do it all yourself.
Do you have staff right now?
I have a part-time assistant who comes in two to four days a week, depending on how busy we are and then last year I moved most of the production to LA and hired a production team out there who is streamlining everything from the dye houses to the factory. I’m still dyeing the samples and prototypes here.
How did you acquire the necessary business skills to grow your company?
Last summer was a major turning point for the business. I applied for Design Entrepreneurs NYC, this joint program by Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and New York City Economic Development Corp (NYDEDC), that’s a mini-MBA for fashion designers and people with fashion companies. It’s every Saturday and Sunday and three nights a week, so your summer is kind of shot, but I was forced to look at every single element of my business from my mission statement to my operations. I left the program with a 50-page business plan and really was able to understand what I needed and, you know, things that you don’t want to think about, like the next five years for cash flow projections and profit and loss. It was just really good to look at all that and figure out what's realistic. And then after looking at my margins, moving production to L.A. just made more sense. You also are linked with a mentor, so my mentor has been really amazing and helpful. That program was a pivotal point for me.
You started out with scarves. How did you start adding categories and growing your line?
It really started with just doing the most basic shapes that worked, like a very basic top, that then moved into being a dress. I just added length onto that and then little tweaks, like buttons. So if you look at the progression of the line it just started with these basic tea-length dresses and tops and ponchos and things that didn't require too much technical stuff as far as fitting and different seams. Now I can bring in more pleats and different shapes.
What new categories are you eyeing?
Home is something I really want to focus on the next year. I want to do a menswear line. I’ve had lots of requests for men’s. As a side project, I want to do art installations. I’ve learned so much about fabric throughout the years and manipulations and doing an installation with different fabric sculptures would be really great. And maybe more trunk shows around the world and I mean I want to do it all. Jewelry, more accessories… everything.
It’s a good time for specialty tie-dye right now, with the ‘70s and festival trends. How do you keep tie-dye feeling fresh and evolving?
Recently I’ve been trying to bring in new interesting fabrics that aren’t just tie-dye, like a beautiful crinkled silk or a quilted denim, that I can still tie into tie-dye and going off of new color palettes each season. I feel like as the brand is growing, my woman has kind of grown a little. It started as an 18 to 28 year old and now I see it more as a 30 to 65 year old woman. I think just like any creative company, you just have to have your point of view that you stay true to but also grow with that. For me it’s having that person in mind of who I’m making it for.