Vintage Souls founder Dani Brown takes us inside her family business, where everything from stylish sweatsuits to "Black Panther" capes are custom-dyed.
Welcome to Factory Tour, where we take you inside the manufacturing facilities of our favorite brands to reveal how the clothes we buy are actually made. Next up: Universal Wash and Dye in North Hollywood, Calif., which has been servicing designer labels, streetwear brands and movie studios for 30 years and is also home to Vintage Souls, a high-end streetwear brand founded by the owners' daughter.
Self-described valley girl Danielle Brown grew up in the apparel industry, but never foresaw starting her own clothing brand, particularly not in the middle of a pandemic. From the outside looking in, however, it almost seemed inevitable.
Nearly 30 years ago, her parents opened what is now Universal Wash & Dye, which quickly became a go-to resource for Los Angeles's many denim brands, including early-aughts staples like True Religion and Rockstar. (Washing and dyeing are what give denim its feel and color.) Not unlike Brown's, the dye house's expansion involved a little bit of luck — or confusion, depending on how you look at it.
"My mom started getting business from TV shows, movie sets and wardrobe thinking that we were part of Universal Studios," explains Brown. "She didn't even know we had an avenue in that industry." A thriving new division of the business was born. Today, her mom, Margo Brown, oversees all the custom work for film and television, including projects for Marvel Cinematic Universe franchises like "Captain America," "The Avengers" and "Black Panther," as well as tour costumes for stars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.
It was also mom who helped the business navigate its way through the globalization of the garment industry, which saw brands moving their manufacturing — including dye work — overseas to developing countries in an effort to reduce costs. "What [my mom] realized was that, in China, they don't really have the same capabilities to do novelty dyes," says Brown. "My mom started to get more into that niche and that really expanded us."
On the fashion side of the business — overseen by dad, David Brown — current clients include Nahmias, Gallery Dept. and, since October of 2019, Brown's own label, Vintage Souls.
A few years before that, Brown was set on forging a different path in the fashion world — entirely separate from her family enterprise. In 2012, she launched her own online boutique. It took off initially, but after a few years, mounting industry competition led to a decision to close shop. Until recently, she's helped run the family business full-time, overseeing sales.
"I think being on the service end my whole life, I've always seen firsthand how difficult and challenging this industry is," she says. That brought about some hesitance when it came to starting her own brand, but eventually, she got "tired of constantly designing for other people."
"I was like, 'You know what? Knitwear, I've never really done it, but I think I could figure it out with all the connections that we have through the dye house,' so I just took a shot at it."
If only because of timing, it's hard not to connect Brown's story to the ongoing "nepo baby" discourse: There's no doubt that growing up with a family-owned dye house was helpful in her being able to make clothes, but it wasn't enough to fund an entire brand. Vintage Souls began as a small side hustle using special wash and dye techniques to manipulate the look and feel of vintage T-shirts, and selling them as one-offs on Instagram. One day Brown decided to design her own shirt from start to finish, including a custom graphic with the phrase "Souls on fire" in rhinestones. This is where the luck came in.
"I had no sales, it was just a little thing I was doing on my Instagram — and Free People emailed me. They were like, 'We're interested in wholesaling your items,' and I was like, 'There's no way.'" The buyer apparently saw the "Souls on Fire" shirt on Instagram, saved it, and then a week later a coworker came into the office wearing it. "She was like, 'It was just too coincidental, so I had to reach out to you.'" The retailer launched a small test order of shirts that sold out in one day.
From then on, Free People was crucial part of Vintage Souls' growth into a full-fledged brand — especially after Covid-19 hit just a couple of months later. The retailer wanted to support small, women-owned business and asked if Brown was still able to produce. By manufacturing protective masks, Universal Wash & Dye managed to stay open as an essential business.
From there, Brown grew the brand only as much as its Free People profits would allow. "I just started creating basic pieces. I started with a jogger, then a crew neck, and a hoodie..." — all loungewear pieces perfect for the sedentary 2020 lifestyle. In October of that year, the brand launched its first collection, which caught the attention of Fred Segal, who bought into the brand, allowing Brown to make her first hire, a production manager.
Three years later, Vintage Souls is a three-person team working out of an office attached to Universal Wash & Dye and Brown is transitioning to focusing on Vintage Souls full time. The campus-like operation is, for the most part, as scrappy and unglamorous as any 30-year-old factory you might come across, with the exception of a few aesthetic touches that are likely Brown's doing, like a pink front gate and a sign with the tagline, "We will dye for you."
While the facilities themselves might not all reflect the casual glamour of a cool apparel brand like Vintage Souls, they literally make it possible for such a brand to stand out — through innovative washing techniques, unique dye development and much more. Keep scrolling to see what happens inside Universal Wash & Dye, and some of the novelty designs it produces.