Alumni Spotlights

Natalie Dickerson, B.S.’13: Sharing an Ancient Art with the World

February 25, 2020 by Lisa McMahon

Natalie Dickerson with the Hmong women in Vietnam.

Natalie Dickerson with the Hmong women in Vietnam.

Natalie Dickerson, B.S.’13, came to Niagara University to study hospitality and tourism management, planning to someday work for a prestigious hotel and travel the world. But it wasn’t until after she graduated that she found her true calling.

After a few years working in hotels, first for the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C., and then for Raffles in Dubai, U.A.E, Dickerson took some time off to travel throughout Southeast Asia before returning to her hometown in Fairport, N.Y. When she arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam, the second country on her five-month journey, she met a woman named Tina, a shopkeeper whose merchandise caught her eye because of the colors and quality of the fabric with which it was made.

Dickerson learned that the fabric was hand crafted by the Hmong women who lived in the northern mountains of Vietnam.

“At that moment, I knew that I wanted to learn more about the process of Hmong fabric making because it was beautiful and I was fascinated by it,” she recalls.

With Tina’s encouragement, Dickerson traveled to the mountains and met a Hmong woman named Lan, who introduced her to a Hmong village. When she got to their village, Dickerson says that she was intrigued by the vibrant clothing they were wearing and the centuries-old techniques they used to create it.

That’s when Dickerson began to consider launching a business built around repurposing the Hmong women’s fabrics into statement accessories.

“It kind of started as a ‘what if’ type thing. I just really wanted to wear something of theirs because their fabric is so beautiful, but I knew I wouldn’t regularly wear their heavy traditional clothing in the U.S.,” she explains.

She continued thinking about the logistics of starting a business as she resumed her travels through Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. At the end of her trip, instead of returning to the U.S., she flew back to Vietnam. She stayed with a Black Hmong family, who showed her how they cultivate hemp (grown for textiles), and taught her to cross stitch, make designs using the batik method, and indigo dye fabrics they produce.

Dickerson began to design items using that fabric, and partnered with six Hmong women to create the merchandise she now sells through her company, Natalie Rae New York. Her first item was a tote bag.

“I went based off my taste, my experience being a woman, and what type of accessories I use daily, what was most functional and esthetically pleasing,” she says. “The tote bag is probably the number one bag I used in college and through life going to and from work.”

After producing her initial inventory, Dickerson returned to Rochester, where she launched a website and planned her marketing strategy, which included participating in festivals or art shows a couple of weekends each month. She made her first sale in late 2017, at the first show she participated in, which was held in a small community center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Encouraged by the positive response, she did shows throughout upstate New York and in New York City, where she recently relocated. This past holiday season, she participated in the Union Square Holiday Market, “which was a huge step for me and for the business,” she says. Her merchandise, which now includes a variety of bags and some home décor items, is also available in several stores. She recently became a member of Artists & Fleas, a marketplace with New York City locations at Chelsea Market, Soho, and Williamsburg. Customers can also make purchases online at www.natalieraeny.com.

When she is not operating her sales booths, Dickerson returns to the mountains of Vietnam for about three months each year to purchase fabrics and materials and work with the women in making her products. She believes that consumers’ increased interest in women-run businesses and sustainability will support Natalie Rae NY and hopes that, in the future, she can expand it into a global sales enterprise so that she can bring the culture and ancient techniques of the Hmong tribe to the rest of the world.

“We hope, in our own small way, it can help to keep alive some of the traditions and crafts of these enduring people,” she says.

 

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