"Your innovative ideas are really needed"

Lessons from Leaders

Each month, the MA in Sustainable Design program invites a special guest for our Town Hall series where students, faculty, and alumni get to meet and chat with a leader in the field of sustainability or sustainable design.

This month’s guest was Mallory Ottariano, founder and CEO of Kind Apparel.  Below are a few highlights from our conversation.

Tell us about your background and how you got to where you are today.

I’ve always been very creative and always knew that I wanted to make a living in an artistic way. When I was in art school, where I studied architecture and design, I made colorful and stylish clothes for myself from items I found at thrift stores. Like many of my art friends, I started selling them on Etsy. 

When I got out of school, I had a job that was awesome but not creative, not inspiring. Meanwhile, my Etsy shop was doing really well and I also moved out to Montana. Once here, I really changed the style of what I was making to reflect how the women here live. They really engage with the mountains and want clothes they can wear on the trail, to work, and then to the brewpub afterwards. When I looked for clothes to fit this lifestyle that were also colorful, comfortable, and made me feel good about myself, I couldn’t find anything. So I started making technical clothing for everyday life.

Five years later, I’m CEO of a small company based here in Missoula (Montana) with a team of five. We outsource all our manufacturing — all made in the US. We’re growing really fast. It’s been a wild ride. 

Tell us about the sustainability element of your work.

When I ran my Etsy shop, my motivation was uniqueness and style, but also sustainability.  I was using fabrics that were already in the supply stream, repurposing and upcycling. But this was not a scalable material source.

My customer base really appreciates style and color and also sustainability.  So I started designing my own fabrics. I created interesting patterns and artwork that we could print onto fabrics. In my self-education of the textile industry, I realized that it was really wasteful and pretty environmentally degrading — an industry that I didn’t feel good about being part of. My printing process doesn’t work on natural fibers, so I sought out synthetic fabrics that were sustainable, made from recycled plastic bottles.

Tell us about one of the choices you’ve made along the way.

We have a very popular hooded dress made of polar fleece.  We had to choose between sourcing recycled fabric from China or non-recycled fabric made in the US.  We interact really heavily with our customers on Instagram, so we asked them. They chose the non-recycled domestically made fabric.  It was a very interesting and thought-provoking experience for us.

What about the colorful patterns on your fabrics?

We print on the fabric using a process called sublimation, rather than dyeing, because dyeing uses water and generates wastewater. The color vibrancy is really amazing and it doesn’t fade or wear away. The inks are also water-based and non-toxic. 

There are so many aspects to consider!  What about distribution?

Like most online retailers, we shipped our products in poly-bags — which also required the use of other bags as well as labels.  It doesn’t feel good to receive something that you’re excited about and get all this waste material with it that you have to throw in the landfill. 

We knew we were contributing to this problem, so we spent about 9 months doing research, and gathering and testing samples. We finally discovered a poly-bag alternative made of cassava root that feels and performs like plastic. It’s the best bio-plastic we’ve found. It actually dissolved in hot water and you can drink it!

We now ship all of our products in a recycled cardboard mailer with the cassava root bag inside.  

How did you grow your company, bring your vision to fruition? So many start-ups struggle with this. How did you navigate this in your leadership role?

It’s a daily challenge. I have a huge amount of passion and motivation, so I’m inspired even if it’s not clear to me where we’re going. But it’s very challenging to find others that are similarly inspired. A big tool that I use now in building a team is core values.  I work really hard on maintaining those and stories around them.

Core values are huge for me. I have them posted on the wall in our office. 

What advice do you have for people who want to  use sustainable design to make their impact on the world?

Just get out and do it. When you have an idea and something you want to do, I see a lot of people that want to wait until it’s perfect before they put it out in the world.  But there’s never a perfect time and nothing is ever going to be perfect. Patagonia’s mission is “We’re in business to save the planet.” That’s very powerful. It resonates with a ton of people. Sustainability is no longer a buzzword. It’s a way of life. It’s a necessity. Your innovative ideas are really needed — just go out and do them. 

Thank you, Mallory!

[image courtesy of Kind Apparel]

Do you have innovative ideas that might change the world? Do you want to learn how to lead using your core values? Now is the perfect time to explore MCAD’s fully online MA in Sustainable Design program!

Denise DeLuca / Former Director

Denise DeLuca is the Director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program. She was co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, which was illustrated by MASD alum Stephanie Koehler. She also teaches with the Amani Institute.

Denise’s previous roles include Education Director for the International Living Future Institute, Project Manager for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute. Denise is a licensed civil engineer (PE) and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and groundwater interactions.  In addition, Denise is a Biomimicry Fellow and a member of the Advisory Council of The Biomimicry InstituteBoard Member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), on the editorial board of the Journal of Bionic Engineering, and an Expert with Katerva. Denise is based in Oregon.

contact:  [email protected]