Imagine you are a college student with limited finances around winter break and you really want to get your roommate a gift. Emily Li Mandri, the designer of Natty Paint, found herself in this situation as a senior at John Hopkins University.
She decided to buy her roommate a sweatshirt from Forever 21, however she wanted to add a special touch to the garment. Li Mandri decided to paint a design onto the sweatshirt based on a collage that she made .
When the holidays came around, the John Hopkins alumni gave the sweatshirt to her roommate and she loved it. Li Mandri decided to trade in her paint for silk screen prints.
“I started silk screening because I was hand painting things and taking too long,” Li Mandri said. “I went to a store on North Avenue and one of the guys that work there was a screen printer and gave me a lot of advice. I looked at YouTube videos, brought a few books, and built my own studio in the apartment I was living in.”
From there, Li Mandri participated in the Hopkins spring fair in April of her senior year and made a lot of profit from selling Natty Paint t-shirts at the fair. When she graduated in May, she found herself at a crossroads between Natty Paint and an internship at Baltimore Museum of Art.
“I graduated in May 2009 and I ended up with an internship at the Baltimore Museum of Art,” Li Mandri said. “It was only part time, it wasn’t a full time position. So, I decided okay I can do that and work on Natty Paint at the same time. The internship ended. I know the market right now isn’t good for hiring. I was applying for jobs and to be honest, I just want to do Natty Paint.”
Once the John Hopkins alumni decided to make Natty Paint her main focus. She branched her line into two parts: T-shirts and vintage.
“For the T-shirt, I just order a T-shirt from American Apparel, then I silkscreen it,” Li Mandri said. “The vintage is much more complex because a lot of times we alter the vintage. Then, we silkscreen somewhere on it, sew in a tab that says Natty Paint vintage and it’s ready to go.”
Li Mandri got the idea for silk screening vintage from a visit to Federal Hill after spotting an ad on craigslist for the need to have local designers featured in their boutique.
“So, I went in and brought some T-shirts and [Shabdiece Esfahani, owner of Diece Boutique] was like do you just want to go in the back of the warehouse to get some vintage so I could do silk print on it,” Li Mandri said. “I took some pieces home. And [Esfahani] told me to bring it back within a month. I brought it back the next day because I was so excited. I ran with it.”
Sometimes all it takes is one event or one visit to a place to inspire a designer. Natty Paint is continuing to grow as a business. Li Mandri is ready to make the switch from a local phenomenon to a national phenomenon.
“We are about to go on a Natty Paint tour for three weeks,” Li Mandri said. “We are going to start in New York, go to San Francisco, and then, Los Angeles, We are just trying to get our stuff in stores. It’s about to get pretty exciting.”