Cara Piazza is one of those people whose irrepressible enthusiasm seems to burst forth no matter the moment or topic of conversation. It’s little wonder: the New York-born, London-educated designer has crafted a life for herself that centres around the good things in life: from her flower-focused, bespoke hand-dying projects for a number of your favourite brands to her own captivating range of undergarments that places genuine sustainable production at the forefront of everything it does.
We caught up with Cara to discuss, amongst other things, the changing face of florals in fashion and how her ethical convictions reflect the times we now live in.
How did your work come to be focused on textiles and natural dyes? Did one arise from the other?
I've always been fascinated with material and form. I knew from a young age I wanted to pursue a career in fashion, yet was always concerned with how I would enter the workforce in a sustainable manner. I studied Textiles at the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London because I wanted to absorb all the knowledge about working with and manipulating fabrics, while keeping the option open to explore textiles in a fine art context. In my final year I took a workshop on natural dyeing and the seed was planted (no pun intended). I knew then I would dedicate my career to the medium.
Have you always been interested in botanicals and flowers? How did it come to be such a central part of your work?
Always. Growing up in New York City doesn't offer you the most extensive education in flowers and botanicals, but I was obsessed from a young age with how nature seemed to find its way through all the trappings of the concrete jungle. "Urban phototropism", is what I like to call it, where the weeds and plants find their way to light through all the cracks in the sidewalk. From a young age I collected florals and drawings of plants and would fill my notebooks compulsively with dried flowers (or city weeds…). And as a confessed brown thumb, I tease that I act as a hospice for plants - where they go to be ushered into a new form of existence... Like a Vanitas painting, I like to play with them when they are transitioning out of this world.
You’ve worked with a diverse range of great designers and artists - what does the process involve when working on collaborative pieces or commissions such as these?
I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked with such an inspiring and open minded range of designers. All of my clients understand the variations of natural dyes and embrace the scope of variation they can produce. I begin by showing designers a range of swatch colours in varying fabrics alongside the different techniques I can achieve. These include, but aren't limited to, Shibori, Ombre, hand painting and wood blocking. We then assess their inspiration, and ideas and begin the developments for the technique that is best suited to their tastes. Then comes curating the colours they would like to produce and designing recipes based on what dye stuffs are in season. I try to keep each project different for each designer so it becomes a bespoke creation therefore unique to their collections. The techniques may be similar but working through creating new ones is what keeps the job so fluid and interesting.
You also produce your own range of beautiful hand dyed undergarments, Calyx, which is prefaced on your site by a ‘manifesto.’ Could you tell us a little about this and how the line fits into your overarching work and ethos?
This manifesto is the core of my ethos towards sustainable design. I believe that when a garment is imbued with a story the customer treats that piece with love and respect, and it becomes an heirloom. Before the age of computers, garments were mended and worn with love for generations and I hope my customers treat their Calyx pieces with the same conscientiousness and care. I will release pieces once a year or seasonally as I see fit, I want my customer to feel valued and believe they’re creating collection of pieces that will last them a lifetime. Pieces that will appreciate with time.
The Calyx Manifesto reads as follows:
“In the days of the witches, when spells were cast and potions brewed, the sorceresses would soak their undergarments in their magic to hold their incantations closest to the most powerful parts of their body. The most intimate layer between you and the world, your underwear, should be imbued with power, magic and love.
Each calyx piece is hand dyed naturally with locally grown colour, sewn with fair trade silks and manufactured in NYC. The seasons we run on are nature’s seasons, our prints dictated by the petals she grows. Our cuts are classic and can be customised for all shapes and body types. We are here to love your bits. Calyx is your amulet, your personal armour and your secret strength. The first thing you put on, and the last thing to be taken off. Calyx holds you in.
Everything you create is done using sustainable and ethical means of production in New York. Once you’ve committed to such a practice, how do you go about making it both actually happen and viable from a business perspective?
I produce all of my hand dyed pieces in New York, in keeping with my principle of reducing carbon emissions. By keeping my production runs small, making my price point higher, my pieces become more archival. In order to reduce costs, I collaborate with other designers to machine dye their collections naturally to reduce costs for them and offer natural dye solutions on a larger scale for designers who need to accommodate larger unit runs.
Do you think people are more attuned to ethical/sustainability issues now and willing to embrace it in the clothes they buy? Why do you think this is?
Yes I believe this is the case, or at least in the circles of makers and creatives that I know. Climate change is apparent and causing adverse global effects. I like to think we’re entering a time of the “Pragmatic Hippie”. We can’t deny we live in a consumerist society run by capitalists; so consumers are trying to purchase more conscientiously and to reduce their consumptive habits by purchasing goods that are made well, last longer and reduce emissions. By purchasing garments that are naturally dyed you are intercepting every dollar spent on synthetic dyes which pollute eco systems, cause disease and are extremely harmful for the environment and water supply. Natural dyes are also far more subtle to the human eye and given a world filled with screens and electronics - I find them a beautiful eye vacation, that reduces anxiety.
Flowers have always played a role in fashion but there definitely seems to have been a marked shift in the way they are used. More and more designers such as yourself seem to be using them in interesting and provocative ways, rather than just as a shorthand method for ‘prettifying’ garments. Does this ring true for you? How has the perception of floral designs and flowers changed in recent times do you think?
Flowers evoke romance, longing, yearning and I believe evolved to be beautiful to assist humans in helping them reproduce. They’re full of sexual symbolism and are mini metaphorical microcosms. I feel flowers use me to be honest, I am borderline obsessed with them and I think truthfully they’re the ones in control of how people use them. I believe their use in fashion is shifting as more and more designers are understanding the necessity of biomimicry and merging green and eco- technologies with fashion. New chimera’s of flower arrangements are being birthed with the advent of “#metaflora” , the new sculptural / found object meets minimal floral trend that has emerged on Instagram, creating hybrids of flowers and repurposed materials. I think now with social media the floral trend has created these amazing flower starlets who use flowers as a form of art, like my friends Brittney Asch of Brrch Floral, and Taylor Patterson of Fox Fodder Farm. Flowers have become an artistic medium in their own right.
Do you have any particular favourite projects that you’ve worked on recently?
No favourites! I love them all, each project provides a different challenge to be solved and lesson to be learned.
And anything upcoming that you’re particularly excited about and able to tell us about?
Some, but they’re actually top secret! Let’s just say you might be able to read it… ;). I am very excited about the new season of Calyx I will be debuting in October in Paris.
Do you send flowers as gifts? Why do you think they can make such good gifts?
I send dried flowers with all my packaging. And will always send flowers on special occasions to my loved ones. Each flower has it’s own personality and can be matched to suit the recipient’s tastes. Different coluors have different moods and are perfect to customise as gifts.
Do you have a favourite flower?
I tend to go through phases of flower appreciation, and currently the bearded Iris is top on my list. I love a flower that gives a good finger stain and she is producing a beautiful blue at the moment.