I sat down with the very charismatic and incredibly warm Cara Marie Piazza to talk about her business and creative process. It was such a treat to speak with her in her dreamy studio among all of her flower and herb concoctions for her dyes. Her passion for what she does is palpable and it shows in everything she touches. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did!
Left: Cara in her studio. Right: Dried florals that Cara saves for use in her projects.
Caroline Z Hurley: Thank you so much for letting us come to your studio. I really do appreciate it. Your space is a true dream.
Cara Marie Piazza: I was excited to meet you
CZH: Yeah, me too! First, I just want to ask where you come from, and what your cultural background is. So can you start there?
CMP: Yes. So I am a born and bred New Yorker. I grew up in Manhattan. I grew up in Stuyvesant Town. I think a lot of people kind of get this idea that I grew up in a grassy knoll somewhere. But I'm very much a New Yorker. I think that that kind of surprises people that I work with.
CMP: I seem like a girl who farms. A lot of people think I'm vegan. None of that is true.
I am Italian American, I think fourth generation actually. Growing up in this city really informed my work because I kind of rebelled against the way that the city treats nature. I was really inspired by the way that nature actually breaks New York, no matter what. The grass and the cracks of the sidewalk, or overgrown parking lots. That was always something as a little kid I was really enamored and entranced with and wanting to surround myself with. So when I found natural dyes in college, the light bulb went off and I was like, this is what I want to do. I became obsessed and then I dedicated myself to it.
CZH: So you've been dyeing since college?
CMP: Yeah, my senior year at Chelsea College of Art and Design. It's part of the United University of the Arts London, like a sister to CSM (Central Saint Martins).
CZH: Did you specialize in textiles?
CMP: I specialized in textiles and the thing about the UK that's amazing is you're very self-driven. You're supposed to pathway into either knitting, weaving, printmaking, or a technique called stitch. But I couldn't pick one, so I actually changed my major every six months and my teachers were completely mad at me, but then my middle year at the end, we took a dye workshop and I was like completely entranced with it. I asked my teachers if I could dedicate my final year to natural dyes. And they were like, if it's good, go for it. So I just spent the entire year experimenting.
One of Cara's silk bundle-dyed dresses sits with various dried florals in her studio.
CZH: Was there a professor or did you teach yourself?
CMP: I taught myself a lot from India Flint books. She is, I would say, the O G of the eco print and dye world. It was one of those things when you kind of feel like you're in the right place, like you started noticing a lot of synchronicities. I found a book that was hers at a bookstore. I kept seeing it everywhere. And, I was finding these medieval texts and reading all these goofy, old recipes and just kind of turned my poor flatmate's apartment into a science lab.
CZH: You're on a path and it's so nice. I love it when that happens. My next question is what was that journey from college to owning a business.
CMP: It was kind of like a snowball effect. So I came home, back to New York and I started work. I actually worked in jewelry PR before that. I was doing a lot of internships and trying to be a styling assistant, trying to be a jewelry press manager. You know, all these things --working in a vintage store, babysitting my friend's kids, trying to make money, trying to make money. It's a hustle. New York city teaches you how to hustle. I started dyeing t-shirts for my friend’s vintage store, the grand street bakery in their basement, in their backyard. They were incredible. They let me teach a dye class there and then someone bought it. And then I also love talking to people. So I started talking to other people, I think I walked into Caron Callahan's pop-up shop at the Wythe Hotel, just started talking to Jessa Blades who's this amazing natural beauty expert. And she called me back the next day and was like, let's make pillows together. And then something came from that. It just kind of turned into this snowball effect of talking to people.
CZH: You know you're on the right path when it just keeps unfolding like that.
CMP: Yes and anytime I wanted to throw in the towel, another job would come in. I was at my rock bottom. I've been exhausted and then, you know the dream job walks in the door and you're like, okay, I guess the universe doesn't want me to stop. It's been a lot of that. And a lot of like trial and error. It hasn't been a seamless path, but it's a labor of love.
CZH: Yeah. And can you talk a little bit about your process?
CMP: So it kind of works in two different ways. I try to offer my clients a very curated way of choosing their colors and their patterns. So sometimes they come to me with just an inspiration and then we'll create the recipe backwards from that. Or other times they're more really interested in the ingredient. And then we work with the ingredient and then create the color that way. It's kind of like cooking. If you've made tea, you've made natural dyes; it's very similar. Typically I would say that someone has an idea or a technique, but then they want me to execute with natural dyes.
CZH: Wow, so cool.
CMP: I'm trying to find a balance between figuring out what the product offerings are, but I think the thing that I've been getting the most joy from -from a business standpoint- the classes, teaching people so that they can then teach themselves. I love it. It's fun. I didn't realize it would be something that I was going to be doing. The therapeutic aspect of it, I was not prepared for. When I was teaching classes in person, I think the thing that I found the most rewarding and also shocking was how many people at the end of class were just sighing and being like, “that was so relaxing.” In New York, everyone comes into these classes so stressed. They're like, “is it gonna look like yours? I don't know if I'm going to do it right! It's going to be terrible.” And I'm like, I'm not grading you, you paid for this class. so enjoy - this is play time. And then, when they think about it like that, being able to have three hours where you're just playing kind of like a child--also with plants-- it's so healing. It's so therapeutic. I'm not an herbalist so this is just from my own personal experience, all of the plants have their own healing therapeutic aspects. So when you're working with them, I think you're just absorbing all of that. Also the ASMR ripping flowers apart is so nice.
Cara bundle dyeing with our Hector Woven Napkins. She uses dried flowers like marigolds and roses to make her stunning dyed pieces.
CZH: I love that. And this might also be a hard question to answer, but what is a typical day for you? Do you have a routine?
CMP: Yes, I'm really into structure. As I get older, I actually love having a routine because I find it helps me be creative. I used to be so rebellious, but now I work really strict office hours because I'm a nightmare if I don't. I really try to be strict, so like nine to like seven o'clock max because you could stay here forever. You know, unless I'm working on my own work, it's like boundaries. But I have to say it out loud because I have to tell myself to adhere to them. And I think also in the fashion industry particularly, there used to be this narrative that if you weren't burning yourself into the ground, you were worthless. That's ridiculous. I'm way more efficient if I have a deadline and I have a certain amount of hours to work. So I wake up; I have a dog, I feed him; start my coffee. I've been trying to meditate every morning. I try to do it for half an hour. Sometimes it's more or less.
CZH: What kind of meditation do you do?
CMP: I just sit; recently I've been doing Kali meditation because Kali takes away everything in your life that's not serving you and you just offer it up. That's my September meditation, especially around the Equinox, let's clear the summer out. But it changes, I also have really, really been into the I Ching.
CZH: I did a whole collection based on the I Ching!
CMP: I have a dear friend of mine who is a poet and an amazing spiritual person who turned me on to the I Ching because I used to read a lot of tarot cards and I moved on from that.
CZH: You did your own readings for people and yourself? Cool!
CMP: Yeah but like something with the tarot shifted for me where I, like, I dunno if I just consulted it too much and I wasn't trusting the universe. And I was like, I needed a new Oracle because I'm obviously obsessed with knowing everything was going to be ok. But I tried to ask the same question in a bunch of different ways, I got the same hexagram three times in a row, which I think the chances are like one 250,000.
CZH: I just got chills.
CMP: I know, which is very scary because you're like, this is actually talking to me. You're like, oh, okay, I'm listening. But, I mean, listening to myself, what am I listening to? Like, what is this, if I believe there is something else just giving us a gentle nudge along but I was like, this is okay. I was like, I heard you, I heard you.
And then what my typical day is like. Then I walk my dog and then head over here together. I have trained my assistant Erin to be an amazing dyer. I realized in the past year and a half or so that if I do ever want this to grow, I have to release a lot of control over the physical work because I can't do everything. I think that's the advice that I would ever give someone that's starting is like, don't think you have to do everything by yourself. Otherwise, there's no way you can get sick; the whole thing goes down. It doesn't make sense. So I've trained Erin to do a lot of the physical work. I’ll be dictating and then watching and teaching her. Now she's in the place where she feels comfortable, where we're taking the recipes and doing that. Then I'm on Shopify or doing all the client relations and then typically around mid-day I start touching the dye stuff that I'm working on and just making sure it's all going well. And it kind of depends on how busy we are at the moment, but it varies. Now that we have a physical space again more clients have been coming in, which has been really nice. I forgot how much I miss that. But often it's a lot more admin than I would like to admit.
CZH: I know; that's the way it is.
CMP: And honestly, sometimes it's nice to sit down and do a little bit. I typically try to do the majority of it on Mondays. And then I try and give myself half of a Friday, just really creative time. I think that's super important-- to fill your own cup.
Left: Often the tools artists use are almost as beautiful as the work they help create; Cara's drop cloth is no exception. It has traces of logwood, indigo, and marigold dyes (shown with our Aquinnah Pillow and Francisco Rug). Right: Cara unwraps a bundle dyed napkin. She steams each bundle-dyed piece to help transfer dyes from the flowers onto the fabric.
CZH: I love that. It seems like you're very structured.
CMP: I would say In the past three years I've been moving towards this. I used to be like all over but, I'm sure as you know, you just can't be like, you can pretend that you can be free and everything falls.
CZH: Totally. Yeah.
CMP: I'm still a little bit zany but Erin, having an assistant--
CZH: Oh my gosh. Yeah. Having someone helping you, I think is the only way to have it really go anywhere,
CMP: Anywhere. And I used to have a lot of unpaid interns, which was amazing, but honestly, after everything that happened last summer, I don't believe in that anymore.
CZH: Yeah. Same. We did the exact same thing. It can’t be that you can only have the internship because you are married or have family help
CMP: Exactly. That was like a big turning point because I came up in the industry being an intern, but that's just because I had the privilege of living with my mom and that also doesn't train you as a business person to value yourself, which I don't want anyone under me to do. It also, I think, tweaks the industry in a bad way where people aren't being properly compensated and things aren’t equal and the fees for our products correct because--
CZH: Totally. Because you're getting free labor
CMP: Man. So that's been a big one and I would like to be fully transparent about that. And I’ve had a lot of people who are wonderful and want to come, but I don't think we should anymore
CZH: Yeah. I know. I also did so many unpaid internships because I could live with my sister who was in New York. But, there's no way I could have sustained myself on nothing.
CMP: Yeah, and that in itself is a privilege and then everyone who's doing them looks the same.
CZH: Right. Yeah, totally. We had a real shift after the Black Lives Matter movement. It feels like everything in our business changed, but in a good way. We're still in the process, but a constant question is: just because this feels like the norm or safe, is this the right thing to do?
CMP: Totally. And I think that's been true even with COVID. From all of my clients that I've been talking to, I think they are all feeling the same way. They're re-imagining their businesses, which I think is awesome. Because then it also carves space for people to get more work. Cause people are a little bit less inclined for, I guess, things to be as perfect or industry standard. Like why, why does it matter? It doesn't matter because the ideas we have about quality control are ridiculous.
CZH: Yeah, totally. Where would you love to see your work live? Where would you love to have it be experienced?
CMP: That's a great question. It's so funny because I think that that answer is shifting for me. I feel really grateful that I've seen it live in almost every single permutation that it could be for a fabric designer. We've done runway, now we've done interiors. I would love to go into movies, I feel like that would be amazing. Set design, dance, performance is something I'd like to dive into a little bit more. Costuming would be really amazing. And then with what we were saying about teaching the classes before, that this practice is so therapeutic on so many different levels, it also could be amazing vocational training.
So I would love for there to be some sort of center or garden or therapy healing, where people can actually come and get trained to do this as a job. That's like the ten-year plan or it's maybe it is a space where different populations can come and just experience it because what I've found is that sometimes natural dyes have this misconception of being highly luxury, which they are in a price point because
Right: A garland of marigolds hangs in Cara's studio. She has relationships with florists who will donate arrangements to her after events are completed. It's one way she has built sustainability into her business. Left: Cara strings marigolds together (shown with our Oaxaca Navy Throw)
CZH: It takes a lot of work.
CMP: A lot of work. But at the same time, if you are doing it on a home scale or instead of people who are coming out of like halfway situations or who maybe don't have opportunities having to go into standard vocation programs, maybe they can work in the arts. Why are those jobs not available? You know? So that's kind of what my brain is thinking about, but I have no experience in the not for profit world...
CZH: Well, you didn't have any experiences dyeing either. And it really worked out. And I do think from what you've said, I sense that you're really spiritual. I mean, so am I-- I think that's like the only way to be a business person. I honestly don't know how people do it without that. They must be superhuman.
I've really had to rely on a higher power to help me through some of this stuff, because I'm a creative and not as capable as a business person in a lot of ways (or maybe that's my shadow talking). I say “Just guide me and I’ll be here”. I appreciate your honesty in that and I am excited to see what happens next for you. I think that center sounds amazing
CMP: Yeah. Let’s throw it out to the universe. There are so many steps to get there, and I haven't figured out what it is yet, but I agree with you. And we're taught so many binaries --that capitalism is awful or money is bad. And then as female identified people were taught money is a hot potato and I'm not allowed to have it.
CZH: But yeah, it doesn't make any sense. It's not binary, like there's too much of that in this world.
CMP: So, I think as a business, I still feel funny calling myself that--
CZH: No, I know, but you are a business woman and also an artist and a creative. I think you can be both.
CMP: You can be all, and there’s space for all of it. And space to try to untangle those binary definitions. I think that’s where we're starting to see the actual revolution taking place.
CZH: Totally. Yeah.
CMP: I don't have to get put into this box. You don’t have to look the way you were told.
CZH: No, no. It can be whatever you want. And also it can be different than what you imagined and sometimes it just happens and you realize, oh, this is what I wanted.
CMP: It's usually way different, just like you said. On that higher power tip, I do think that sometimes my plan is limited. And then the thing that shows up is bigger.
CZH: That's the thing that I’ve been struggling with, envisioning. That’s why it's so important for me to surround myself with others that think big, because otherwise I am happy with where I’m at but I know I’m capable of more. I want to do more. So it’s important for me to know that you can dream, you can dream as big as you want, and even then something bigger could show up.
CMP: And I think we're also taught that that is selfish in a weird way, but it's not because if you actually believe in the law of abundance you would think that like everyone's allowed to have. You having that doesn't mean that like the next person can’t.