Throughout her 50-year career at Cornell, S. Kay Obendorf MS ’74, PhD ’76, professor of fiber science and apparel design in the College of Human Ecology, worked to make laundry a science. Now, with her help, Human Ecology alumnae Lindsey Boyd ’98 and Gwen Whiting ’98 are working to turn laundry into an art form.
While formulating their natural detergents, Boyd and Whiting—who left New York City fashion careers to start their business, The Laundress—sought Obendorf’s guidance and expertise on textile science. The three innovators met up for one intense weekend in 2002.
“Our crash course with Kay really nailed the foundation of our products,” said Boyd.
“There was only one person in the world, literally, who could really assist us to make that happen,” said Whiting, “and we are so lucky Kay was willing to work with us—for the love of science.”
Obendorf, who retired from Cornell in June, dedicated her research career to applying rigorous science to laundering, fabric care, and textiles. She encouraged the two alumnae in their venture and helped develop their understanding so they could make good decisions while formulating their products.
“The Laundress combines science and design in a unique way, illustrating the many opportunities possible through entrepreneurial activities,” said Obendorf.
Whiting said Obendorf’s guidance got them to think about their formulas and taught them to educate themselves. Still, the two reach out to their mentor with an occasional question.
“We are nerds,” said Whiting. “We want to know as much as possible, which is evident in how we speak to our customers, too. We teach first, then give them a solution.”
Through an eco-friendly line of detergent, fabric care, and home-cleaning products available at a flagship Manhattan store and online, The Laundress aims to “bring back the lost art of doing laundry,” according to the company website, which features a detailed Q&A forum and guest blog posts by celebrities, including musician John Mayer and Heejae Kang, CEO of Korea-based retail company UTG.
To honor Obendorf’s role in launching their successful company, as well as her dedication to teaching and her innovation in research, Boyd and Whiting have endowed The Laundress and Kay Obendorf Fund for Inspiring Innovation. The fund will support an annual lecture by fashion entrepreneurs to inspire students to pursue their passions and advance the fashion and textile industry through entrepreneurship. The gift was announced by Alan Mathios, Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology, during a September 8 symposium marking Obendorf’s retirement from Cornell.
“The mission of the college is to improve lives by exploring and shaping human connections to natural, social, and built environments,” said Mathios. “Innovation and entrepreneurship are at the heart of shaping these connections, especially as we discover how fashion can intersect with our well-being, including our physical health and our emotional health and sense of identity.”
Obendorf was surprised and honored to learn of the lecture series at the symposium. She believes that bringing lecturers to campus will allow students of all Cornell’s colleges to see, by example, how they might create and innovate.
Boyd and Whiting said entrepreneurship is in their DNA, and it was encouraged by their time as Human Ecology students. They aim, through their gift, to expand opportunities for students.
“We want to support others along their path,” said Whiting, “pushing the envelope of the motivated and zealous students, providing them with skill sets and knowledge that they wouldn’t find in the classroom, in a textbook, or on the Internet.”