Everett’s Zentek Clothing Company arose from a near-death experience.
Several years ago, Janice Kajanoff almost lost her pet bulldog, Butchie, to heat exhaustion. So when she learned of a space-age fabric that can control body temperature, her first thought was “Oh my God. Dogs!”
The fabric warms or cools its wearers via sewn-in phase-change materials, substances that store and release energy.
Developed by NASA to protect astronauts, phase-change materials play a key role in the construction, refrigeration, HVAC, textiles and electronics industries.
They are used, for example, to control the temperature of drug shipments to hospitals and to keep homes at comfortable temperatures.
But Kajanoff had a different vision. The former professional clothing designer devised a process that integrates phase-change materials into a growing line of clothing products — for both canines and humans.
She began with dog vests, for which she patented a design, then added mats and a cooling canine quick wrap.
Now there are vests for people, as well as bedding, shoe insoles and blankets.
“We started it kind of innocently. You can kind of say we tested it on dogs,” Kajanoff said. “We knew they needed it.”
Taking a page from Nike’s marketing book, Kajanoff targeted the four-legged superstars of agility trials, professional discus, fly ball, dog shows, and search-and-rescue missions to be her advertising models. She soon realized her creations had broader applications.
One night at a restaurant, Kajanoff fell into conversation with Adrian Laprise, a retired military engineer and mine operator, who would become her chief operating officer. Laprise urged her to expand into the medical and emergency management fields.
“When those women died in Florida, I was extremely upset,” Laprise said, referring to eight residents of a nursing home who perished from overheating in September when the home’s air conditioning failed. “If they had one of our vests or blankets, they’d be alive today.”
At a November dog show, Laprise sold a vest to a Monroe woman with multiple sclerosis. Since the vest moderates body temperature, he explained, it will lessen her chances of having tremors.
Phase-change materials essentially regulate heartbeat, Kajanoff said. Zentek products can warm and cool wearers in temperatures ranging from -30 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Zentek is angling to negotiate contracts with FEMA and other government agencies. It has also sold vests to Boeing employees at Paine Field, who work in humid summer temperatures at the top of hangars, and has a few small wholesale accounts. Eventually, it might branch into retailing.
Kajanoff, a widower who grew up in Okanagan and majored in clothing design at the University of Washington, started Zentek with private funding. In the company’s first year, 2007, it had revenues of $13,000. For 2018, Kajanoff is targeting $1.5 million to $2 million.
She moved the operation — herself, Laprise and eight contract sewers — from Seattle last year when Colleen Wyllis, founder of Emerald City Textiles, offered 1,000 square feet in her Everett warehouse. Zentek is currently hiring in-house sewers.
“It’s inspiring what she’s come up with, and how hard she works,” said Wyllis, a dog lover who does volunteer search and rescue. “She’s really pretty brilliant.”
Kajanoff, who has a new dog named Teddy Bear, imports phase-change fabric from Europe, adding insulation and waterproof fabric to fashion various Zentek products.
She’s developing new vests for hunting, fishing, and rowing, and experimenting with different materials such as Gore Tex and Mylar.
Meanwhile, she and Laprise rigorously travel the U.S. dog-show circuit to market their products.
“I don’t believe in retirement. My hands are always busy,” Kajanoff said. “I live from passion. I have always been lucky enough to do my passion.
“My husband died 12 years ago. When your partner dies, you realize you’re mortal. You ask, when you’re on your deathbed, will you be sorry you didn’t do this?
“My answer was yes.”