Kalen Kaminski of Upstate

We recently met with Upstate designer, Kalen Kaminski — whose work has been featured on a number of Passerbuys profiles. This Greenpoint-based tie-dye artist has built up a niche following for her vintage-inspired designs...

When we meet Kaminski she is in an army green jumpsuit - one too many outfits have been ruined in her dyeing process, she says - and white kicks unintentionally covered in strong blues and reds. We settle into antique wicker chairs overflowing with velvet pillows to learn about putting a modern twist on ancient processes and how to accidentally build a successful brand from Kalen.

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So Where did you grow up?

I lived in Boulder up until I went to college there and then I moved here. I grew up riding horses, and ballet, and yeah. It was fun. Totally different life than this...hiking, camping.

Did you study fashion in school?

No, I studied anthropology and art history. From there, I always was interested in making in making things, I always had some sort of project going on, but when I moved to New York I started doing set design - which I actually still do. I'm a freelance set designer and prop stylist for photo shoots, so in my free time, Upstate just started as this passion project. I was really interested in textiles, and then I lived with this amazing artist, who was doing these shibori techniques, and he taught me how to do all of these really intricate shibori techniques, and so I started making wraps and scarves. I wasn't even intending on selling them and then like ten stores caught wind of them and picked them up. I got bored of just scarves, started womenswear, and now I do womenswear, scarves and home stuff - whatever I want to do.

You studied anthropology and art history - was your fascination with tie dye then born out of your roommate and interacting with him?

He started making the shibori textiles and me and a friend at the time wanted to make these big wraps. I found this amazing big wrap upstate, big U-shape, just like cocoon yourself in. And we were like, “oh we have to make these, everybody would love them.” So we made the wrap and we were gonna use old random dead stock fabric, and we couldn't find the right fabric and we saw his. And I'd never been so taken visually by shibori, and by hand dye, and just the depth and color to it all. So he kind of took us under his wing, and we started practicing and watched YouTube videos, read books, and trial and error.

Can You Tell Me A Little Bit About The Shibori Process?

Shibori is this ancient form of tie dye pretty much. It's been around since the 8th century AD and it started in Japan, but they have it in India, and Africa, and it's this way of dying fabric that involves folding the fabric in certain ways and then binding it with clamps, or string, or anything, and then once you do that you dip it in the dye and that's what creates all the beautiful patterns and texture. So it's like an ancient form of tie dye pretty much

How long would you say then between that moment when you made your first U-shaped wrap and saying to yourself, 'I want upstate to be a tie dye line'? And What was that process like?

It was such an organic process, because Upstate is just so it's own kinda thing. Like when it's time to move into something else, we just do it. It was in 2010 before most companies, now I feel like this indigo shibori is everywhere. Madewell’s doing it, J.Crew is doing it, Helmut Lang has it. But you know nobody was doing it yet, so it was kind of this missing spot in the market. Like people were doing psychedelic, cheesy 70s tie dye, by there wasn't this really high end beautiful wearable art. And people were doing a lot of indigo and we were doing some indigo and bringing in other colors. So I feel like in 2010 we just jumped on it, and other stores noticed that too, so that's when they picked it up.

Do you have a business partner?

I had a business partner. Okay so when we first started in 2010 there were three of us, my roommate being one of them, and then in 2013 it was clear that it was more than just a hobby. We all had day jobs and then we were working after work from like 8pm until 3am some nights. And I think after it became me, I was ready to take it on and just do it and really grow it from just a hobby. Originally it was just whenever we had pieces ready, then we would sell them, but now it's following a calendar.

How did you figure out how to run a business on your own?

I did take this business program at FIT called Design Entrepreneurs and I highly recommend it for designers. I should give you the link to include in this. It was a really valuable program and the city pays for it and you leave with a mini MBA and you have a business plan and projections and a financial advisor. So it's like a mini CFDA program. I did that, but honestly it's like the blind leading the blind and learning from every mistake. And I think a lot of people, most small business owners kind of learn that way. And definitely just like being open and meeting with anybody and everybody. And I feel like that's the beauty of New York. Like everybody's just trying trying to do cool shit, and pretty open for the most part with sharing and introducing you to people and you never know who you’re gonna meet.

Have any collaborations come out of that?

Yeah! I did a thing with Levi's. That was a few years ago they had is whole Made Here series with designers and so that was fun. I did a collaboration with The Standard Hotels, and then the Smyth Hotels, and then with a lot of stores that I work with I'll do exclusives, since everything is made here I can come up with fun color ways with people or just a fun project. But yeah, I feel like I love the beauty of this industry is collaborating and I do see Upstate growing into doing a lot of projects and collaborations with companies and people and artists and musicians. Have you guys seen that Pipilotti Rist exhibit at the New Museum? It’s incredible. But it’s like this crazy three-story video installation she did, and being in there, it’s like video, sculpture, it’s so awesome, bringing all the worlds together. Because I have my set design too, so eventually I see it all doing something together.

Are there any other brands or people you would dream of collaborating with?

Right now...I'd love to do a collaboration with somebody like Vans or Converse, because for one I don't make shoes, or menswear at all, so doing something that's totally out of my realm, that like I feel like that whole vibe is very un-pulsed - is that the right term? You know. Yeah I’m really inspired by doing something with, Vans, Converse. Or something a company that's totally different like Natori, they make beautiful lingerie and robes.

Is there something you wish you knew at the beginning of this process?

I think it's really important when you're starting a company to just focus on making like going narrow and deep. Like just doing a few things that you can do really really well instead of  starting with a million things that aren’t, that you're kind of, that you can't really get in order. I think also just taking the high road in situations because you start dealing with production, with factories, and there are a lot of people in the industry who just kind of want to scam you or aren't honest, and when you're dealing with people who aren't face to face with you if you’re on the phone with them all the time, you don’t know what’s going on. But I think it is important to take the high road and not sink to anyone’s level. What else? Business wise...Get your QuickBooks in order. We didn't have an accountant for like two years, and then got our QuickBooks finally and it was like, yeah. Just get it started, get your LLC started or your incorporation, books, yeah.

Do you have any 'oops' or 'I could've done without doing that' memories from the early stages of your business?

I'll always think something is an oops and then I look back later and I'm like ‘oh I'm glad I did do that.’ At first I took out a business loan for this, and at first I was like ‘oh I don't really need to do that because I spent it and now I have to pay back this business loan,’ and I was a little down on myself about that, but then I was like wait a second, I needed that loan to jump start and like get PR going, and get a sales rep, and do things that you have to do to get going, so I don’t really think there are any oopses.

Actually, I don’t really think, something I stand by, I don't think it makes sense to have a business partner unless one person is handling like finance and business strategy and the other person is handling creative, because if you're both trying to do the same thing, I think it’s going to stump the company and the growth of it. So I really think doing it yourself...Oh God! Also, being able to delegate. Delegation is the key to success. I'm somebody who is always like I'll just learn to build a website, and I'll learn coding and I'll learn this and I'll learn this. And now I’m like, it's worth it to just delegate those things out.

Go check out Upstate's website to shop online or browse their Instagram @youre_upstate for a little tie dye envy.                                                                          

Words by Katy Hallowell