YOU DIY TIE-DYE DESTINATION
Colorado Wholesale Dye Corp. can give you all the supplies you need to make your own tie-dye products, including the know-how. This is the story of how they became tie-dye experts.
Tie-dye and head shops are one of the best combinations of all time. They go together like peanut butter and jelly or bacon and eggs. Sure, they can exist without each other, but they’re much better when they’re paired together.
That’s something that Steve Lee knows very well at this point. He’s a tie-dye expert and the longtime owner of Colorado Wholesale Dye Corp., one of the top dye suppliers in the country for the past few decades.
He isn’t the guy you go to when you want to buy a tie-dye T-shirt. Rather, he’s the guy you go to when you need top-of-the-line supplies for your own creations. Even if you’re a smoke shop owner looking to make your own tie-dye items to sell and have no experience.
“I think a good market for me is these mom-and-pop head shops,” says Lee. “A lot of head shop owners are fairly creative people themselves. Say a shop owner doesn’t know anything about tie-dye but says, ‘Hey, that’s interesting, I want to try that.’ You can. You can make something good, even from the beginning.”
Lee has been in the tie-dye business since 1983. After more than 30 years, his clientele is all over the spectrum. Some of his customers have been buying dyes from him weekly for 25 years, people who take what they make and sell it in shops and at festivals. Others are curious rookies whom he helps complete their first tie-dye project.
Colorado Wholesale Dye Corp. imports dye, blends, packages it then sells it in bulk. This isn’t cheap stuff, either. It’s the best possible dyes, what veteran tie-dye artists use. If customers need things like chemicals or T-shirts and dresses to dye, they have those too. But it’s not just about taking orders and shipping out packages, one of the things that makes Colorado Wholesale Dye Corp. successful is its willingness to help novice customers who want to learn the art.
“My headline has always been ‘make your own tie-dyes — we’ll show you how,’” Lee says.
And he says that, because he himself didn’t have a teacher. The origin story of his company and his own tie-dye experience goes like this: Lee was a Deadhead in the late ’70s. At one concert, he wanted to buy a tie-dye in the parking lot but the price tag was $15 and he thought that was way too expensive. Especially in that age.
“Why in the world,” he thought, “would I buy a tie-dye for so much money when I make it myself?”
Or so he thought. It turned out that the tie-dye community was actually quite tight-lipped and making his own tie-dye wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought.
“It was actually a big secret at the time,” he says. “Anybody who knew how to do it or where the dye came from, they wouldn’t tell you. I had to do a lot of research.”
Lee didn’t get discouraged, though. He started digging around for information — remember, there was no Internet back then — so that meant a number of trips to the library. Around 1984, when he was in his early 20s, he’d figured out how to make tie-dyes and he thought he could there was an opportunity to do even more.
“Since it was all such a big secret,” he says. “There weren’t a bunch of companies out there that sold dye. I saw the niche. I saw the opportunity.”
Back then, Lee had his sights set on working in music. He was managing a record store at 21. But since he was a self-described “hustler” back then, he decided he’d quit his job and open his own record store. And since he knew about tie-dye, he’d actually use the record store for two purposes.
“We’d sell music out of the front door and dye out of the back door,” Lee says.
Originally, the company was called Grateful Dyes, a nod to his affection for The Grateful Dead.
The two businesses worked for many years, nearly 20, until he grew sick of the record-store life. Luckily, he got out before the Internet really crushed music retail. Instead, Lee focused his efforts on the tie-dye business.
Eventually, the dye business became Colorado Wholesale Dye Corp. That was important, Lee says, to let people know what the company actually specialized in, even if the Grateful Dead had been the band that originally got him interested in tie-dye.
These days, business is steady at Lee’s warehouse and showroom in Littleton, Colo. He jokes that almost every year someone talks to him about how “tie-dye is coming back.” He just laughs. For him, it’s never gone away. Sure, it’s not the biggest market in the world, but Lee says his customers are loyal and his products remain in-demand.
“We have a really good customer base, really good loyal customers,” Lee says. “It’s just been a good steady growth. We’re solid in our niche.”
Most of his customers, he says, are artisan types who work on their own. They buy materials from Colorado Wholesale Dye Corp., make their products and hit the festival circuit. But there are also the smoke-shop folks, who he aims to connect with because his product is so entrenched in the culture.
For instance: The company does an annual 420 Tie-Dye Cup, in which tie-dye artists send in their best work. Colorado Wholesale Dye Corp. then collects all the entries, judges them and puts all the entries online so its followers vote for the best work. Last year, they handed about $4,000 worth of prizes.
Steve Lee and his love for tie-dye love have come along since that Grateful Dead show back in the day. His story is proof that tie-dye never really goes out of fashion.
And neither does his business.
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