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A Moment with Upstate

From left: Kalen Kaminski and Astrid Chastka. Image by Shay Harrington.

As famous for his spectacularly coiffed ‘fro as he was for his television show, The Joy of Painting, Bob Ross soothed legions of amateur artists by stating, “We don’t have mistakes here—we just have happy accidents.” For fashion designers Astrid Chastka and Kalen Kaminski, these happy accidents are the foundation of their craft. As the owners of Upstate, a line of shibori-inspired womenswear and accessories, Astrid and Kalen custom dye each of their pieces using either arashi or itajime shibori techniques. The arashi technique involves strategic folding, whereas itajime relies on “resists,” which are clamped to a piece and subsequently create patterns. Depending on the fabric, chemistry of the dye bath and integrity of the resist, the results spontaneously vary, ranging in color depth, gradation and detail, rendering each piece unique.

Erin Dixon: Tell us about your respective backgrounds and how you met.

Kalen Kaminski: I grew up in Colorado and was the “horse girl” until high school. Every class has one of those, right? The girl who incorporates horses into every story, drawing, math problem, etc. Astrid Chastka: I studied architecture and worked in landscape and architecture firms for three years before meeting Kalen and starting Upstate. We met through a mutual friend in New York City.

Erin: Was there an “aha” moment from which Upstate evolved—what does the name Upstate reference?

Astrid: Kalen and I share a love for the outdoors and both have a dream of being able to escape to a little place in the woods where there’s space and quiet to create. Upstate is a way for us to lose ourselves in the creative process without actually going anywhere. Kalen: Astrid and I both agree that when you work with your hands, your mind just goes to another place. The name Upstate came after our first scarves were made. For weeks, we would text, email and have brainstorms trying to come up with these long, silly alliterated names. Some pretty hilarious and horrible names arose from this, but finally Upstate felt right.

Erin: How did you move from creating wraps and scarves into ready-to-wear?

Astrid: We kept getting requests for clothing. We love that the scarves are so versatile, but sometimes you just want to put on something without thinking about it too much. Kalen: We had both been looking for pieces of clothing that were multifunctional, especially in New York summer weather. When we couldn’t find anything, we decided we would push our luck and make our own. What we came up with was a hit among friends, so we moved forward with it. Originally, it was going to be a tunic but it progressed naturally and we couldn’t resist expanding our designs.

Erin: I know you were originally inspired by shibori tapestries; how did you come across them and what in them spoke to you?

Upstate Spring 2012 Lookbook. Photography by PAMU (Paola Ambrosi de Magistris and Murray Hall). Styling by Julie Williams. Makeup by Erin Green. Set Design by Angharad Bailey. Models: Angela Pham and Holland Brown.

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Astrid: For me it was the detail and geometry involved. Shibori tapestries are beautiful on so many scales. If you look at the whole piece you notice the overlying geometric pattern, but if you look at any area closely you discover some pretty amazing moments. A lot of people have said it reminds them of a Rorschach test, and I love that comparison. One of my favorite books is Shibori: the Inventive Art of Japanese Shape Resist Dyeing by Yoshiko Wada. Kalen: My old roommate is an amazing artist and had piles of art around his room. He had a hand-dyed shibori tapestry hanging up, and it really spoke to us and felt unique and special. To this day—after dyeing hundreds of pieces—I am still excited to see the pieces after they are finished dyeing. You never can be one hundred percent certain what a tiny fold and or the slightest change in the compression of a resist will do.

Erin: You use all different types of materials as “resists;” what is your favorite place to hunt for them and what is the most unlikely resist you have used?

Kalen: I once used a cholla cactus skeleton that my boyfriend brought back from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona. It broke halfway through the dye bath but still left a beautiful resist pattern. Astrid: Sometimes we design our own resists and cut them out of plywood using a CNC router. Kalen designed a horseshoe… Maybe that’s her second favorite.

Erin: Walk us through the hand-dying process.

Kalen: It’s sort of like baking a cake. You need to measure all your ingredients, have the right supplies and, most importantly, be very patient. Astrid: First, we cut the fabric and fold it accordion style in one direction. Then we fold it in the other direction so it becomes a dense but organized fabric mass. We clamp the resists to it and soak it while we prepare the other “ingredients.” We add dye, salt and soda ash to the bucket and let it sit. Small changes in these ingredients will affect the intensity and colorfastness of the dye bath.

Erin: What are you trying to communicate with Upstate?

Kalen: That’s a hard question, but I don’t think many people have a piece of art/clothing they can wear and fully embrace everyday, knowing it is one of a kind, made with love and will never be replicated. It still excites me to wash out every individual piece and discover new details I’ve never noticed. Each piece of Upstate only becomes better as you look at it more and more.

Erin: Tell us about the Spring 2012 collection, including your favorite piece.

Astrid: My favorite piece is the tea-length dress. It’s so easy-breezy. I love they way long skirts swish around you when you’re walking. Kalen: Because it was our first ready-to-wear collection, we wanted to start small and simple. Since our dye techniques can look a little insane, depending on the technique, we thought it would be best to keep each shape simple with small differences in length and hem. I’d have to go with the crop top and the tea-length as my favorite pieces. I wish I could get away with wearing the entire collection at the same time, but I may look like a burnout vagrant gypsy….which actually may not be such a bad thing.

Erin: How would you like to see Upstate evolve?

Astrid: We’d love to do large scale installations! And quilts—we’ve been making quilts. We’re always thinking of new ways to use the fabric scraps. In the coming Fall 2012 season, we’re exploring new materials and more involved patterns. Kalen: I agree—quilts and installations! We will need tons of quilts for when we have homes with fire pits in the country.

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