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Kathy Hattori: Opportunities in Unexpected Places

Kathy Hattori of Botanical Colors

photo cred: Botanical Colors

Kathy of Botanical Colors was one of our amazing sponsors for last weeks Fashion Revolution event at Brand Assembly. In case you missed it, she is the lady we got our indigo dye from. This week I got a chance to speak with her to learn more about taking the plunge to start your business, aging as a woman in the fashion industry, and of course natural dyes.

Make sure to check out the amazing photos of last weeks event at the end of the interview!

how did you first become involved in natural dyeing?

I have had a long fascination with dyeing. One of the art projects that I did when I was in college was to dye a huge banner that I strung between the dorm buildings. And, I think that the magic of seeing the color develop, even though it was a rit dye or some off the shelf dye, it was really intoxicating for me.

Shortly after, I took a class in Navajo weaving. The art of the class was to take a raw wool fleece and then dye it with natural dyes that we gathered ourselves. We didn't have a whole lot of info from our teacher, so it was a lot of trial and error. It was fascinating to see something that looked like a bunch of weeds but gave a gold color.

I remember at that time I lived in the apartment right above the garage of a retirement home, and there was a dye plant that was part of their landscaping that was supposed to get a purple color, but they wouldn't let me touch it, so I ended up at midnight crawling down the gravel driveway on my stomach to this plant and gathering the berries, and that point I realized I was pretty hooked.

What made you decide to leave your corporate job and take the plunge into owning your own business?

I had a career in telecommunications but I always had a hand in spinning, weaving or dyeing since 1983. In 2003 I had an epiphany where it felt like time was running short and I had been a really good corporate drone for a long time. I realized that if I stayed in telecommunications until I could no longer work there would be regrets I would never get over. I’m so glad I made the leap. I think one of the things I would tell people is that I was really stuck about this idea of “security” if I left my corporate job. Those fears were paper tigers: they were nothing. I know there are a lot of people out there that feel like they need to stay in their job because they have responsibilities. My advice for them is really question that. It might be that you stay in your job for the reality of living and surviving for a few years, but if there is something else that is calling you, you should pay attention to that.

What advice would you give to millennials?

My “success” - and I say it that way because I’m still a very small company - comes from persistence and the willingness to do everything from scrubbing dye pots to talking to designers and brands.  Sometimes people don't give themselves enough time to dig in and see what they can make of their business or idea. But sometimes opportunity shows up where you’re not looking, and it helps to have an open enough mind to see the possibilities but not lose track of your goals. You have to have a laser focus but be aware of things around you that could be a more interesting or take your business in a different direction. It’s not an easy skill to cultivate but, it’s easier to do if you are talking about your ideas with people you trust that can give you unbiased feedback. Try to surround yourself with a number of different viewpoints and not just people who are going to be your cheerleaders because ultimately you need to know if it's going to work.

What is it like aging as a women in the fashion industry?

Women tend to completely discount their knowledge and then, because of that, their power and as a mid-century woman, I’m the product of wanting to be nice and also confront the realities of being female in today’s society. I’m at the age where I'm not willing to give up power so easily anymore.  I use every tool that I learned growing up in Silicon Valley on how to position yourself, but I do it on my own terms. I have reconciled as much as I am going to be able to, and I can use it in a better way: I can use it to give advice rather than fight for recognition.

I’m at a different point in the struggle than a young woman. I feel like my attraction comes from the fact I love what I do and I'm confident about that.  I have the gravitas of experience that younger women don't have yet, and it's not a reproach on them, it’s just there are decades of experience between the two of us.

I have trouble educating consumers about how to care for natural dyes, have you had this issue?

What I tell customers is that this product came from a plant it is not something that came from a dinosaur or from fracking. If you look at synthetic dyes the only reason they exist is to color a specific fiber; they have no other use. A plant has lots of uses; a medicine, something that captures carbon dioxide, or holds soil in the ground, or a nest for birds, it also happens to give a color. The color is a huge bonus that people figured out through experimentation. Will the performance be the same? No. But it's also something that you feel good about because its cultivation and use are not causing widespread degradation the way that synthetics can, and in some cases, food waste is being repurposed as a textile dye.

If people are opposed to natural dyes, I say this might not be for you. It’s the same as organic food. When it first came out people didn't want the apple with the spot on it, and if it wasn't perfect then it wasn't good. Organic produce comes in assorted sizes, shapes, and colors and the consumer who is amenable to organic produce is extremely amenable to organic clothing and dyes.

There are many myths around natural color and color replication. All of the colors I work with are lab tested with AATCC lab results and they all pass. So natural dyes do pass for color. Does it perform as well as synthetics? No, it doesn't have that high of a performance profile.  I like to compare it to a home-baked cookie vs. a Twinkie. Sure, the Twinkie has a shelf-life that’s much longer than an oatmeal cookie, but do you really want to be eating that knowing what the manufacturer had to do to artificially extend its freshness?

When I started working with Eileen Fisher, we had to provide a range of possible shades in production that was larger than what they experienced with synthetic dyes and we weren’t sure we would be able to operate within the company’s quality expectations and the reality of natural dyes.  But when they saw the upcycled collection I did for Renew, the beauty of the colors was enough to convince them to go ahead with the project. Shade variance can happen but the customer has a better understanding of the natural shade differences and that they come from nature. I feel we really upped the game by capturing the beauty of the colors and managing the variation so that the colors looked like a unique and amazing collection.

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