Greensboro business expands minds with vibrant color

by Jordan Green

Jillian Reich, a platinum-haired entrepreneur dressed in an ankle-length tie-dyed skirt and whose eyes flicker with a playful light, rifles through a cardboard box of T-shirts radiating vivid colors. She wears a bent barbell through her pierced eyebrow and a star of David necklace. The small office, whose desk suggests managed chaos, doubles as a showroom with racks of garments and boxes of samples competing for space.

There’s the Zen Tricksters shirt with the whale screen print and a blotchy spiral of color; the Surry Central Eagles shirt with the Dobson school colors, yellow and blue, radiating like a dazzling sun; and small shirts for B’nai Shalom’s two day camps: bright primary colors for the Indigo Star Camp, and a soothing blue-purple combination for the Little Star Day Camp.

Then there’s the shirt Reich’s company, Dye Nation, produced to help Lilly Pharmaceutical to promote its new diabetes medication, HIIP, or human insulin inhalation powder.

When people think about tie-dye and drugs, the FDA-approved variety might not be the first to come to mind. The shirt slightly tweaks the hippie image, featuring a screen-printed image of a Volkswagen bug blazing a peace sign, and announcing, ‘“We’re HIIP: We inhale.’”

Dye Nation’s swirls have also been marshaled to sell Cialis, the erectile dysfunction drug marketed by Lilly.

‘“They ordered a big batch of shirts, and they asked for yellow and aqua colors,’” Reich says. ‘“Later I saw their TV commercial at Super Bowl and there was a big yellow and aqua swirl in it.

‘“I knew Bill Gates was going to be wearing the shirt, but they wouldn’t tell us where,’” she adds. ‘“We don’t know what they’re doing with our shirts.’”

Today, two of Reich’s employees, Kristi Davis and Dana Hart, are dyeing tube socks to fill an order for a knitting company that contracts with major league athletic teams. The production work takes place in a softly lit backroom where folding tables, washing machines, dryers and metal shelving compete for space in a shop situated in an industrial stretch of one-story brick buildings south of the airport.

The deep blue dye squirted from long plastic bottles leaves organic bands around the shaft of the socks. The socks don’t quite approach the intricacy and vibrancy of the T-shirts, which burst with color in mesmerizing patterns. There are the cosmic radiating spirals, the sublime washboard with its texture suggesting skeletal bones or layers of sedimentary earth, the ‘krush’ pattern that suggests the blotchy night of a Van Gogh painting, and a handful of other combinations.

Reich’s husband, a business and marketing student at Guilford College, sometimes produces custom designs of guitars, stars of David and peace signs. These are not the company’s stock in trade. The tie-dye process is one of pleating, twisting or scrunching fabric, securing it with rubber bands and clothespins, and squirting it with different colored dyes before putting it through multiple washes. The custom shirts are produced through roughly the same process, but with substantially more attention to detail.

A majority of Dye Nation’s business is wholesale these days, but Reich also plies the retail trade.

‘“I actually tend to stay away from the music festivals,’” she says. ‘“People are going to listen to music, to drink and party. They didn’t bring a lot of money to spend on clothing. They might buy a CD. I like the arts and crafts festivals. People are going to try to get matching mother and daughter outfits. They love it when they find those kinds of things.’”

A graduate of UNCG’s psychology program, Reich fell into the tie-dye business through a combination of opportunity, and love of the community that congealed around the Grateful Dead before guitarist Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. She worked for a store that had a tie-dye setup in the basement and took some shirts to her first Dead show.

‘“The first time I saw my first Dead show I was selling shirts in the parking lot,’” she says. ‘“After Jerry died, I had to decide: is this what I want to do with my life?’”

On April Fools Day, Dye Nation will hit its eight-year anniversary. When her husband completes his degree, Reich says he’ll take over the business and she’ll go back to school to pursue a master’s degree in education.

‘“Before we were married and had kids we’d go on the road for three weeks at a time,’” she says. ‘“We’d dye morning, noon and night to get ready. Every weekend we got invitations to new shows.’”

She laughs about the business that has led her from the psychedelic traveling communion surrounding the Dead to commercial relationships with athletic and pharmaceutical companies.

‘“If more people wore bright colors we’d have less Columbine situations,’” she says. ‘“You don’t see miserable people wearing bright colors. I kind of relate my tie-dye business to my psychology degree in that way.’”

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