When María Elena Pombo was starting out as a young NYC designer, she followed a traditional design route. After graduating Parsons she spent years working for Michael Kors and other NYC-based designers. Experimenting with natural dyes (a foundation of her Brooklyn-based line Fragmentario) was an accident, but after much hesitation and skepticism, María Elena became a huge advocate for natural-dyes.
Now, only a few years later, and with many workshops under her belt, a debut collection that launched in May, and another on the way in September, the designer and I sat down to discuss the re-emergence of natural dyes in design and the inspiration and history behind her art.
What was your training like at Parsons? Was it more of a classic approach or did you experiment with naturally dying fabrics there?
The classes themselves were really traditional. They were very heavy on pattern-making and draping. I did a lot of experimentation, but mostly on my own. I didn’t learn about natural dyes until later. When I had just graduated I was helping my boyfriend at the time with a line of bags. He wanted to make bags inspired by vintage workwear. When we went to the fabric store to buy fabric, he didn’t like the colors they had. He mentioned we should dye it.
He had recently read about people using nuts and onions to dye fabric. At first it didn’t sound appealing to me at all and I just dismissed it, but then I started to be curious and get into research.
It was kind of an accident — he brought it up and we worked for a while on a project called Native Outpost. It was always supposed to be the both of us but it was his creative vision. Personally, I feel as though it is hard to negotiate creativity. It’s easy to support someone’s idea and let them take the lead, but negotiating the lead is hard, as is staying true to the original idea at the same time. I continued to support him but kept thinking, How can I make this my own? At the time, I had started taking classes at the textile arts center and liked the idea of combining workshops with a brand component and doing commission work for other people.
From there did you start designing a collection or focus on the workshop component of it?
I started designing a collection in the beginning with the idea to launch it after a year or so. Doing a collection requires a lot more work and resources than doing workshops. I started working on Fragmentario full time in 2017 and showed the collection for the first time in September.
We are seeing more and more brands return to natural dyes, why do you think there has been a return to this old method? Why did the industry turn away from this in the first place?
Natural dyes use plants, minerals, and even insects. Everyone used this because it was what was available. Around 150 years ago, the first synthetic dye was made. When this was found, it became much easier to use dye, as dyeing with plants takes more time.
There are many factors that may alter the color; hard water (in LA) makes color more vibrant, while soft water (in NY) makes the colors come out softer. If the plant grows in an area that is very dry, the color is more intense. Onion skins from Arizona are so intense and beautiful, while onion skins from New York are not so vibrant.
It is interesting but complicated to scale. It is more expensive dying with plants and natural things.
A big reason colonizers were so excited when they discovered America, was that they discovered all these new things that could be used to achieve color. Cochineal, an insect that’s native to Peru and Mexico can be used for a very vibrant red. Before, in Europe, they had to use a long recipe to achieve the same color.
When synthetic dyes were made, it took over very fast. When I started learning about natural dyes five years ago there was barely any information or classes, so I had to teach myself. Now I see more people doing it. This transition makes sense to me.
We are so hyper aware of food, so being mindful of what we are dyeing our clothing with seems like a really natural next step.
Do you think more designers will start using natural dyes? Is this the direction that fashion is going towards?
This practice is more prevalent in leather than in textiles. In the leather industry you will find people being more transparent about it. It is a superior thing almost, vegetable tanned leather as opposed to all the other chemicals that they use. In fashion I see a lot more brands doing it now — not many big brands — but I am starting to see it more and more. I think this trend will continue to grow. In the next five years I can see bigger brands collaborating with designers that are already using natural dyes. However, I don’t think it will grow at the same pace as fast fashion.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your collection and work?
I draw inspiration from the process and materials itself. For example, the avocado that we use to dye the fabric was a huge inspiration to me because I am from Venezuela myself and we eat avocados all the time; I had a huge avocado tree in my house before I moved here. It has a different connection with me. I am interested in an idea and then I work around it, so for this collection it was all about working around the idea of the vegetable. I even started to become interested in avocado consumption. The data is crazy — in the 90’s Americans were consuming one pound of avocado a year per person, and now it’s six times more!
For my next collection I’ll be focusing on water and how it produces a different color depending on a variety of factors. To prepare, I had friends all over the world send me samples of water so I could use it.
How has being Venezuelan influenced your work?
Something I started focusing on about a year ago is the idea of a “circular economy,” which is very prevalent in Venezuela. There is no institutionalized effort for recycling, but we have a culture of passing down clothes or furniture from one generation to the next (I still have an Adidas jacket I “inherited” from my older cousin when I was 15).
All the fabrics I use for Fragmentario’s collections are acquired via vendors that resell surplus fabric from NY-based designers who need to offer new fabrics season after season.
When I was starting to work on the collection, I considered using organic fabrics, but then thought about how these new organic fabrics need to be made, which in turn, uses many resources and brings more things to the world. Using surplus, organic or not, is giving a second life to these fabrics that already exist but have just been forgotten in a roll, which is sad because they are unused and of very high-quality.