Considering their lack of formal training and work experience in the unforgiving world of fashion design, Astrid Chastka and Kalen Kaminski have made large strides with their start-up label, Upstate. We had the pleasure of visiting their studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a classic converted-industrial loft space where the stylish partners hand-dye the silk used in their breezy shorts, dresses and kimonos.
The idea behind their burgeoning line—which also includes , scarves, neckties, pocket squares, pillows, and duvet covers— began with an adaptation of the Japanese shibori dyeing method. Essentially, tie-dye with a touch of class. “Astrid and I have been doing this for about three years,” says Kaminski. Chastka adds, “It’s based on Japanese shibori, which is something they’d been doing for centuries which is tying or folding the fabric and creating pressure in it.”
The itajime method-inspired dyeing process, which the duo demonstrated, goes something like this: silk, be it raw and untreated or more sleek, is folded accordion-style and compressed using resists, typically blocks of wood. “Where the white is, that’s where the highest pressure on the fabric is, and where the color is, that’s where the least [amount of pressure was applied],” explains Chastka.
Their designs also feature an improvisations on the arashi dyeing method, wherein the silk is wrapped around a pole, tightly bound with string and scrunched, so that the dye creates a diagonal design. “We can’t really call ourselves shibori artists, because it’s our take on it and just inspired by shibori,” Kaminski says. “Now we have these new techniques – it’s moreso where we just drop and spread the dye on without it going into water, and that’s not considered shibori at all. That’s just us playing around.”
The apparent Japanese influences in Upstate’s approach to design doesn’t end with the dyeing process. The silhouettes – especially the kimono, which can be worn like a loose-fitted, breezy blazer – celebrate a modern Western ready-to-wear take on traditional garb. “A lot of the things we’ve made are things that we want to wear,” says Kaminski. Upstate’s collections are not, however, limited to tie-dye vibes: their newest collection introduces airbrushed designs and digital prints to their repertoire. One of their silk kimonos’ textural, abstract floral pattern is actually a blown-up photo of lichen; another, a composite of different agates.
The common thread throughout each of Upstate’s evolutions from season to season is, in a word, experimentation. “I guess because we don’t come from a fashion background, each season we explore something that fashion students did all throughout school—or that they would never do,” Chastka says. “I think coming from different backgrounds just makes it weird and exploratory. And with the nature of the dye process itself, I feel like we get so much better through mistakes. Like spilling dye on a piece of fabric.”
As for how two young women with no fashion background were able to bring a self-produced clothing and accessories line to fruition, their story is one of those unpredictable, one-thing-led-to-another series of events. Chastka and Kaminski, with backgrounds in architecture and anthropology, respectively, were freelancing in prop styling and set design when a commission came in for them to hand-dye duvets for a Bed & Breakfast in upstate New York. Three years later, their locally-produced designs are sold in over 40 stores: from boutiques in Brooklyn and Manhattan like Swords-Smith, Love Adorned, and Brooklyn Fox, to shops in California, Miami, Texas, and even Iceland.
“In our first season, [we had] maybe three or four stores, and last season we tripled in size and in growth. So that was kind of a lot, dealing with those growing pains; we were just working out of our apartments,” Kaminski says. “But now we have a showroom that does our sales, we have a patternmaker, and we have our factory that does the sewing.” But perhaps the most essential asset to keeping a fashion line up and running, the ladies have learned, is employing a bookkeeper. “When you come at something as an artist, I guess it’s an age-old dilemma of artists trying to sell themselves and represent themselves financially,” Chastka says.
Of course, these practical details are not the sort of thing that an aspiring designer (or anyone aspiring to do anything creative) necessarily takes into consideration until they learn just how necessary they really are. But with these logistics smoothed out, the ladies behind Upstate have been branching out creatively and taking on special collaborations. Recently, they created hand-dyed baseball caps for FairEnds, retailing for $75. Their menswear collaboration with General Assembly – which, incidentally, is what led them to acquire their lovely Greenpoint studio space, on the same floor of General Assembly’s offices – produced a limited-edition line of hand-dyed short-and-long-sleeved oxford shirts, retailing at $119 and $121.
“We’re doing a special collaboration with this store in Soho [called] Warm, where we’re making teepees right now. Like, teepee kits with tie-dyed tapestries around them that you can take home and build,” Kalen explains. One such structure in their studio, assembled of various thick tree branches, stands at the ready to adorn its hand-dyed sheath. To appropriate a significant cultural object like a teepee for fashion instead of function is, of course, a contentious issue, but embracing exoticisms has always been part of the fashion fantasy. And while Upstate takes inspiration from an amalgamation of cultural references, the beauty and quality of their designs speaks for itself.