Skip to main content

Suited to a "T"

When Emily Li Mandri ’09 found herself contemplating life after Hopkins during January of her senior year, she considered going to graduate school for art history or possibly getting an entry-level job in the arts. Neither option seemed right at the time. Then the idea struck her: “Maybe I can make something.”

So the art history major who had long hand painted T-shirts for friends as gifts, rented a booth at Hopkins’ Spring Fair for $100, taught herself how to silk screen, and spent about a month working in her off-campus apartment screening colorful images and geometric patterns onto 30 shirts.

Li Mandri showed up at Spring Fair on a Friday thinking she had enough stock for three days. She was wrong. The $30 shirts sold out within hours and she found herself silk-screening around the clock to keep up. By the time the fair ended on Sunday, the exhausted undergraduate knew that she hadn’t just made a bunch of shirts, she had made a business—and her company, Natty Paint, was born.

Today the company is booming. Li Mandri expanded to three fashion lines, including one featuring vintage clothing that she tailors and silk-screens, and a line of contemporary original designs. Her label, named as a nod to the nickname for Baltimore’s National Bohemian beer and the 18th-century term for “fashionable,” is available at a number of small boutiques across the country and worn by performers including Rye Rye, MIA, and Animal Collective.

The self-taught seamstress and fashion designer relocated from Baltimore to Brooklyn, N.Y., last year and spent this winter working on an original 36-piece clothing line that includes such items as a wool bomber jacket embellished with a gold foil design that she hopes will be available in stores like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, and Urban Outfitters come fall.

“Silk screening has definitely been associated with crafty clothing, but that’s not what I’m going for,” says Li Mandri, 23, who just started an MBA program at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “I’m looking to be high fashion, to make things that will be taken more seriously than just a whimsical T-shirt. I want people to see my clothing and think it’s unique.”

Li Mandri, who minored in entrepreneurship and management, Italian, and psychology, gives a nod to Baltimore’s vibrant arts scene for helping to foster her creativity and credits Hopkins for teaching her how to channel and develop her interests.

However, she admits her non-traditional fashion background comes as a surprise to some. “People see what I’m doing and think I’ve been to school for fashion and I’ve been trained to do this,” she says. “Then when I explain that I taught myself, and I went to an amazing school where my education helped me be driven and keep myself busy and manage my time. [Then] they see how my ambition translates really well into what I’m doing now.”