Cara Marie Piazza
Cara Marie Piazza, flower child and owner of Calyx, is a cheery designer out to make clothes with intention. All her garments have been lovingly hand dyed by Cara in her artist studio in Brooklyn, using leftover flowers from florists, foraged goods and spices. Calling her creations intimates is as apt a name as it could be; she is closely and intimately a part of the imprint on the pieces and the essence of the brand comes from Cara herself. We had the chance to see her beautiful space, adorned with flowers, spices and dye splashes as if it was straight out of Pinterest. Chatting about the power of flowers, sustainability and green washing, we got to know the face behind the renowned brand.
So how did you come to start doing natural dyeing?
It feels like forever, but I guess it’s not that long when you think about it. I started actually when I was at Chelsea, so I dedicated my thesis to it.
What did you study?
I studied textiles. Initially I wanted to be a jewellery designer but then I kinda realised I didn’t necessarily wanna go to school for the profession I wanted to be. I learned jewellery on the side, I wanna learn something I know nothing about and then I ended up just loving that.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m working with a few different designer clients and I am currently dyeing my whole collection to put online. I’m also working on different projects where, I have a service where I take bride’s wedding bouquets and flower arrangements and after the wedding they send them to me and I make them a robe or whatever they want, so it’s like a transformation service. It’s been going really well, people really caught on to it cos I think brides get upset when their flowers go to the garbage after the wedding so this is a way to eliminate a bit of trash and have a memento forever.
I see you as a natural dyeing pioneer in a way, it almost seems like you’re a scientist.
It’s funny I always joke about how if I had known in high school that I would be doing this, I would’ve paid so much more attention in chemistry. I act a little bit more on intuition, kind of like when you’re cooking and you just know the sweet spot of when the food is gonna come out right. There is a science and an exactness to getting the same colour every time, but it’s pretty much due to you taking really good notes. And then knowing the ingredient and just understanding how the PH of the water affects the dye, different variations in the heat of the water can affect the colour of the dye, how long you cook the colour. So it’s kind of just mitigating all these different variables.
So how did you learn all that?
I taught myself, I read a lot of books. The first book I picked up was India Flint’s Eco Colour, she’s really, I’d call her the actual pioneer. She’s incredible, she coined the term eco colour and she does a lot of retreats and really awesome natural dyes. I found her but and I was just like oh my god, you can really do this. So I taught myself from her book and a lot of trial and error, finding old natural dye books in weird bookstores and then it kinda just came to me.
Was it this specific book that got you into it or what first intrigued you?
I guess in London at school they teach you a lot about how the fashion industry is unsustainable and how it’s very toxic. I always wanted to work in the industry but I had a real moral guilt with it at the same time, and there were these opposing forces, like how am I gonna grapple with the two, the paradox of the whole thing. My final year they brought in a woman who came and taught us how to naturally dye with onion skins and I was like okay this is cool. Then serendipitously I came home, I was doing a press internship with a jewellery designer here and one of her best friends Audrey Reynolds naturally dyed her collections. I was like woah, this is awesome, people are actually doing this, this could be something and then I was just like addicted from that point forward. Went back to London, got all my dye pots out it was like this is it, this is what I’m doing and I’ve been obsessed ever since.
Would you categorise yourself as a sustainable fashion designer?
I mean I don’t like to be put under labels but you could define me that way. It makes me sad that I have to be defined that way, I feel like that shouldn’t be a label cos it should just be inherent in the business. For me it’s more like that’s a bummer, that you have to point that out. I think you also have to be careful cos a lot of brands are greenwashing now, which is literally just like putting the labels green and saying that they’re eco, it’s a big issue. But at the same time collaborating with big brands like that is always a step in the right direction, so them taking baby steps is better than taking no steps at all.
my garments are going to change over time, but the point of owning one is having something you feel was made with intention
Obviously if they’re doing something concrete it’s always good, but I’ve seen a lot of campaigns where you don’t really see any change from their part.
It’s just marketing which is an issue. You know, that’s why my clothes are so expensive, a garment if it’s sustainably produced in New York, it can’t cost under 700 dollars. Which is insane, mind you I’ve found a way to get them down, my range is between 260 to 1200 dollars for something that’s handpainted but that’s also why I teach because not everyone can afford that but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to dye your own garments yourself. Eventually I’m gonna offer a kit so you can do it at home.
So right now you’re doing like intimates.
I kind of like just came up with that name. I didn’t make that name up, but that’s what I thought was the best to describe the garments that I produce. So it’s bras, pieces like my slips that you can wear at home, then we have these wrap pants that are good as PJs but you can also wear them out. So it’s basically sexy comfort wear.
Where do you source all your materials?
I work a lot with different online providers, with the amount of indigo I use I couldn’t grow it all. I work with websites like botanicalcolours.com, they’re a natural dye provider, then I also work a lot with different florists so after their events they will let me like look through their compost bins or they’ll drop off big bags with all the leftover flowers for me. Then I work with some flower farms that are in the NYC area, spice markets, I go foraging, my family has a home in the north of Long Island so I go up there. If it’s a plant I’ll boil it and make a heart out of it, maybe I’m a little masochistic I don’t know, not really!
And the clothing?
I make them all myself, so I design everything and then I work with a pattern maker who’s based in NYC in a sample making studio, so everything’s produced in the city. My fabrics are all organic cotton, some of the silks are not organic but they are all sourced ethically and I also work with vegan silk for my vegan customers.
Do you personally like making by hand, is that an important aspect of your work?
Completely yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever outsource the dyeing, I think I always wanna have my hand on everything that I maker. Being able to work with the plants in this kind of way, I find very therapeutic, it’s kind of like a meditation almost. I’m hilariously not the best cook, so this is my form of cooking, I don’t know. I feel like my hand needs to touch every piece.
It’s nice to know that someone has lovingly created what you’re wearing.
Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it, we’re so removed from our clothes now that I just wanted to provide a service where you feel like your clothes are respected, and they have a chance to live a longer life. My garments are going to change over time, they will take on an older appearance, they’ll fade in certain places, but I guess the point of owning one is having something you feel was made with intention.
Could you describe any techniques that you use in dyeing?
I work with a bunch of different techniques but I do a technique called bundle dyeing which is basically rolling up the fabrics with flowers, it’s a steaming process, so that’s how I get a lot of my floral patterns on my clothes. Then the other ones I use are something called colour extraction, where I basically cook the dye out of the dye stuff and then immerse the garments, kind of like I was cooking clothing and that’s what creates the solid colour on the cloth. Then I also work with different shibori techniques, which are kind of the binding pattern, fancy tie dye. I do ombre a lot as well.
How do you feel about techniques and making by hand carrying on?
I think it’s very important, goods shouldn’t be made to self destruct which they are. Before the industrial revolution you bought a jacket that lasted you your whole life. Merchants were people who created goods that lasted forever and then you could take the goods to be repaired, which is a great way of doing it. I think this need of consuming more and throwing things away kind of killed craftsmanship because I guess when something is disposable you don’t think about it. I don’t think your clothes need to be disposable. Besides supporting my local designer friends I try and wear my own stuff, I buy vintage pieces because we don’t really need to make anything again. Which I should not be saying but it’s true. If you are going to be purchasing something it should be something that you know can last a lifetime. When something’s made slow it uses a lot less resources so just having that interaction with the thing that’s made, I think those things have a better vibe. You’re also preserving culture at the same time, and tradition. For me everything is about the story, that’s how we communicate with one another, you can communicate through clothing, you can communicate through textiles. Knowing exactly where it came from and having a relationship to the craft person or the area that it was made, I think helps preserve that story and tradition. Without that we all feel like we’re floating alone sometimes.
Do you employ anyone else at the moment or are you thinking of making the team bigger?
I just brought on a very dear friend of mine who’s now my operations manager, and handles all of the math things that give me a heartache. We actually met at a Parsons course when we were 17, and I did all of her artwork and she did all of my math homework. It’s really sweet that now 12 years later you turned it into a real business. I have a team of really awesome interns that pop in and out, I usually have students helping me with the day to day, eventually it would be great to bring on a full time assistant.
Where do you see your brand going in the next 10 years?
I’m definitely moving into the homeware sector and then also expanding my online classes, I’d like to be able to offer a full course set. Right now I teach about one online course a month and one in person class a month. Eventually I’m gonna offer a course where you can tune in one day a week and if you can’t make the class you can purchase the recording later. Where’s the world gonna be in ten years. I kinda wanna keep taking it slow, releasing new collections when I feel like it, eventually I would like to move into a brick and mortar space where you can come in and hangout, have a little dye bar going.
Where does Calyx the name come from?
Calyx is the part of the flower that holds everything together.