We all have that one piece of clothing we absolutely adore, but can’t wear anymore. Like that white t-shirt that has yellowed from too many washes or the precious silk dress that got ruined after a few many hours on the dance floor. And for those pieces, Cara Marie Piazza is ready to perform emergency surgery—of the sartorial sort.
Armed with gently used flower petals and food scraps, Piazza gives a second life to clothing with her intricate natural dyeing practices. One of her most in-demand services, is also the most romantic, catering to brides, who package up their bouquets and ship them to Piazza’s Brooklyn studio to be preserved in the form of a custom silk slip dress (or really, any item of their liking). Piazza imprints the fabric with the blooms, resulting in a sentimental and wearable memento from their special day.
Beyond reviving tired threads for die-hard fashionistas and newlyweds, Piazza also teams up with big names in the New York fashion scene, including Eileen Fisher and Eckhaus Latta, working with the designers to specially develop sustainable dyes for each exclusive collaboration. Throughout it all, she maintains a clean lifestyle that’s not only encouraging, but also poetic Instagram fodder. Here’s how she does it all.
I’m a natural dyer and I guess you could say I’m an artisan of sorts. I work with different designers and artists to naturally dye their fabric for them—that can be anything from doing a small run of t-shirts to working on larger canvases or artist's projects. I partner with designers and also make custom pieces for private clients and I teach what it is that I do. I like to partner and collaborate with different chefs, florists, and art galleries, too.
The natural dyeing story.
I studied textiles at the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London and they really bash it over your head how toxic the fashion industry is. My senior year, a practitioner came in and taught us how to dye with onion skins. It set me on this path to teach myself everything I could about the process, so I bought a bunch of books; I bought India Flint’s Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles and Jenny Dean’s, Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes. I realized that I could partner with different restaurants, and I got started dyeing with food waste because I didn’t have time to grow my own dye garden. I decided that I really wanted to work with waste and started figuring out how to make a viable dye and sustainable dye alternative.
I started taking the food waste from Reynard at The Wythe Hotel. I was quite lucky that if I wasn’t taking their waste they were composting it anyways. What was wild was finding out the amount of food that’s wasted by restaurants, because items weren’t pretty enough to go out, like bruised avocados.
All about the blossoms.
Right now, the biggest waste stream that I work with is flowers. Basically, all my florist girls at Fox Fodder Farm, David Stark Design, and North Fork Flower Farm have me on speed dial and will call me after an event. The truth is, all those flowers go in the garbage after a party or a wedding. A lot of companies will break down in a sustainable way and there are some really great programs, like Repeat Roses, that will pick up the flowers and reuse them for nursing homes and things like that. After a recent wedding I was left with nine garbage bags of peonies. And I’m still working through that haul...I got those flowers about six months ago.
I dry the flowers, because I don’t have the storage facility to freeze them, which is the other way I could keep them. Drying is a lot more sustainable and luckily my roof is quite large, so I can just bake them up there in the summer.
I do everything from hand-painting, if someone wants something very artisanal, to bundle dyeing, which is the flower dyeing. I also do shibori, which is basically the Japanese way of saying tie-dye, solid dyeing, and I do different kinds of surface treatments. I’d say there are six to ten different techniques that I do. One of the most sustainable things you can do is give your old clothes a new life and I provide that service.
What is sustainability—to you?
It's hard, it's a daily battle, you know? Not to doubt my parents, but I didn't grow up in a very sustainable household. Not because they didn't want it to be, but it just wasn't necessarily what they knew. When I moved to [go to] school in London, my roommates were very eco-friendly and they just cleaned my act up. I was around 18 when they were like, “No more plastic Coca-Cola bottles! You're disgusting, stop it!”
My personal definition of sustainability is trying to live in a way where you’re creating as little waste as possible. And if you are creating, you're treating everyone along your supply chain as ethically as possible. That's really important and sometimes gets left out of sustainability blogs, but how we treat each other is just as important.
Any piece of clothing that's made new for under $100, just know that someone along that supply chain is being taken advantage of. That fact really freaks people out because they're like, “How are we supposed to do things in a cheap way?” That's when I say: learn how to do it yourself! Figure out different ways you can upcycle your own garments, or buy vintage and actually dye them. That's one of the reasons why I teach, because not everyone can afford my clothing.
So save all your onion skins! Onion skins on silk is a great way to dye all your old things a rusty brown. Or you can add a little rust water and it will turn a beautiful green. The thing that's crazy about natural dye is that there are so many different variables that go into the color; everything from where the onion was grown to when it was harvested, if it's orange or pink. It can all affect the color.
Natural dyes are good for...your soul?
Synthetic dyes are not only toxic to your body, but also toxic to the environment. When we wash our clothes, we’re washing off lots of toxic microfibers, which are then washing into the ocean and then the fish eat them and then we eat them. It’s this terrible, closed circuit system. When you’re working with natural dyes, you’re not putting that synthetic trash in the ocean.
Plants also have healing properties. We used to get our medicine from plants and pharmaceutical medicines are made with plants. So, for me, that kind of started piquing my interest in herbalism. I’m not an herbalist, so this is not medically sound. Disclaimer: I’m not treating anybody! Just through my own self-healing and looking into different processes, I discovered that there are certain preparations in herbalism called poultice making, where you steep your herbs in fabric and you place them on wounds or you place them on your head for colds and you absorb the plant’s medicinal properties.
If you’re wearing clothes that are dyed with those same properties, I feel like you can absorb them. Even visually, I think naturally dyed clothing is more pleasing to the eye. When we have phone screens and TV screens and everything is high-definition and aggressive, it’s nice to have a palette cleanser, something that’s calm and not flashy. If you like flashy, we can get you that, too!
Okay, tell us about your closet!
I wear a ton of my friend's brands. Currently, I'm working on a new collaboration with Samuel Snider, so I'm wearing his clothes all the time. I buy a lot of Caron Callahan, too. She makes really beautiful clothes for adult ladies who look good. Creatures of Comfort [ed. note: RIP], I love them and I like Casey Casey and Pipsqueak Chapeau. I also loved working with the brand Eileen Fisher, she's committed to sustainable systems and creates elegant pieces for all women.
If it's going to be an investment, I want pieces that are super, duper special that I can keep forever like Maison Margiela boots. And then, I shop a lot of vintage. Front General Store in Dumbo is where I do the most damage, but Raggedy Threads is great and Stella Dallas I love.
To keep your clothing around longer, don't wash them that much. I know that sounds gross, but it's true. Washing is what kills them, especially washing them on high heat. If you can be bothered to hand wash, that works. Also, when you're washing naturally dyed garments always use pH neutral soap, because natural dyes are affected by acids and alkaline. The detergent from Uncommon Goods and Seventh Generation are pretty good and The Laundress has a really nice smelling one, if you're trying to be fancy with it.
Busy days happen. How do you deal?
Breathing and pausing. I'm working really hard as I get older to not be reactionary and I think just understanding that breathing is actually a thing you can do when things feel stressful. And grounding myself, by simply looking at my feet. I also keep dirt in my pockets sometimes, when I'm being real weird. And I have stones everywhere.
I also pray every morning and every night. It's not necessarily a religious thing, it's more of a gratitude thing. I make sure to thank whatever my higher power is for giving me whatever it is that I've got. Then I do this thing called the Love-Kindness Meditation, where you pray or send wishes to someone you love, someone you're indifferent to and someone that's irritating the shit out of you. And it honestly changes my whole thing.
I also eat bacon, egg, and cheeses every now and again from the bodega. I don't know, sometimes you just have to do it.
What are your other food habits?
I try to eat as many veggies as possible. When I'm cooking at home, because I'm kinda cooking with color all day, I try to keep it super simple. I do a lot of stir fries and roasted veggies. That's my thing when I'm cooking: something super veggie heavy.
I don't really eat meat at home, but cutting it out entirely is honestly the truest way to be sustainable. I am a good ol’ Italian girl, and I need a little bit of meat now and again. So I try to only eat it out every once in a blue moon.
Let’s talk beauty.
My friend Elsa de Berker works at The Nue Co and is also an incredible health coach, and one day she turned to me and was like, 'What are you doing?' And she fixed a lot of my health issues that were going on. She's been incredible.
I'm obsessed with these incredible women from upstate who have this company called Good Fight Herb Co. They made this label on this Wildgather Oil by hand and it's actually a Post-It! Lauren Giambrone and Mandana Boushee are the women behind the brand, they are these incredible herbal mamas upstate. I took a course over the summer at their school called Wild Gather. Getting in the garden and working with their plants and just creating medicine and food and nourishment from literally what they had right there was mind blowing.
I also use Calendula oil from Buly 1803; it’s good when I get eczema. Buly is in Paris and it's the most gorgeous apothecary in the world.
What about makeup?
For makeup, I put this Rose and Jojoba oil on my face from Nature & Cosmetique, that I also found in France. Then I use BareMinerals Bareskin Complete Coverage Serum Concealer and Lash Domination Volumizing Mascara and occasionally I'll use some red Nars lipstick, like I am today. That's pretty much the only un-eco thing that I use. You have to have one thing!
Fashion utopia time. Tell us about yours.
It would be a spa with a geodesic dome design, like a Buckminster Fuller heaven that misted you as you walked in and had infrared saunas. And it would clothe you, but it's all sustainable and there was also a dye garden community space and everyone felt super welcome there and size didn't matter. Oh my god, it would be like Amy Schumer in I Feel Pretty. Basically, everyone would be gorgeous there. Everyone is happy and everyone feels good. And there are duvet robes!
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Words: Dena Silver
Photography: Angela Datre