“If we want to change something and to be sustainable, we should change this mentality of wearing perfect clothes”

Eleni is a Fabric Research & Development Manager who lives and works in San Francisco. Her sense of fashion is pretty unique, her clothes are a mix of vintage, handmade and designer items and lately she has started to reinvent part of her clothes through natural dyeing.

Here’s her story:

Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood and the way you’ve developed your style?

I am a Greek-Cypriot American. I grew up in New York, outside the city on Long Island, and I remember that as a kid I was surrounded by designs and fabrics. My grandmother used to be a seamstress and maybe because of her – being exposed to that environment – I’ve always had an interest in clothes. Also, I was very tactile and curious about constructions, about the process of making something from scratch, even though I was never a good maker. 

My parents were encouraging me to be studious, to work really hard at school and to find a great job. So finally, when I was going to pick a major, my mom forced me to look at Cornell University. I remember that we had an argument, with me saying that I didn’t want to go there, that I wanted to be somewhere warm and urban. But there I was in that campus, visiting the University, when by chance the guide mentioned a class about Fiber Science – a mix of fashion and chemistry. Suddenly, I became interested and I told myself  – I think that I should do this.

Looking back, I was lucky growing up in New York, where people like to dress up for any occasion. I’ve always had a reputation for being stylish. Maybe that perception from my friends pushed me to constantly experiment, because the way you present yourself out into the world is important.

I was girly until college, wearing all kinds of dresses and skirts. I was petite and I chose clothes that made me feel more like a woman and less like a kid. In college I started to like the idea of studying something that is unusual for many people – Fiber Science and Apparel Design. A material is not just a fabric used in fashion. You can apply it in so many industries, from the biomedical field to packaging. Also, during college I’ve lost interest in fast fashion, and I’ve become really interested in clothes that last forever, in unique patterns, constructions, fabrics, and so on. 

My style really evolved since I’ve moved to California because of a greater presence of vintage, but also because I’ve started to be more outdoors, biking and hiking. Of course, I am still excited to wear a dress on any occasion. 

Another change in my style was related to my job. I used to work at North Face and I was definitely the most girly person in the office. I kind of toned down my style back then, which I don’t think was right, but maybe I was in a way inspired by the outdoor industry and was wearing teva sandals or puffy jackets. 

How do you see clothing now, having a background like yours?

I’ve had some experiences that have definitely changed my perception about clothing. When I was in college, I traveled to India and there I’ve met all kinds of producers, from workers involved in making clothes for mass markets to workers with experience in natural dyeing extracts. 

That trip was eye opening for me and made me realize that I want to own handmade clothes made by artists, because I’ve seen how much love, care, and skills were put into the making process. 

There’s a lot of pressure on fashion and textiles now because of the waste, because of pollution. But people want their clothes to be perfect. If we want to change something and to be sustainable, we should change this mentality of wearing perfect clothes. Of course that you can’t go skiing with imperfect clothes because there’s a risk of being hurt, but on the street you shouldn’t care about wearing items with imperfections.  

Can you share a little bit about your job and how you discovered the natural dyeing process?

What’s special about my job is that I’m working closely with the mills. I know how a fabric is made at the end of the day, but they are the ones that actually handle every detail, the specific processes, plus tons of experiments – the way a fabric reacts to humidity or other conditions for instance.

I was inspired by looking at them and I’ve started to play more with the technical details. So, one day when I was working at North Face, I had this idea of organizing a workshop in collaboration with a professor from California College of the Arts. She’s amazing and she’s the one that introduced me to the art of natural dyeing. 

Recently I made my first experiment. The pants from your project’ photo shoot used to be white with a stain on them. One day I was thinking of playing a little bit with the pants and seeing whether I could give them a dark gray color. I found a park with eucalyptus, I went there to gather some eucalyptus bark and everyone was like – Why are you gathering these?

I used my kitchen to shred the bark, to boil it and then I added an iron mordant to achieve a darker color. I placed the pants in that liquid and I left them in a pot overnight. Then the next day I squeezed the pants and let them dry. This was the process overall. 

Also, I played with avocado pits once because they release some unexpected pink shades. I would love to experiment more with this dyeing process and to make my own things, especially since I collect fabrics at home. You don’t need much: a big pot, a kitchen, some clothes, some leaves and one night. Sounds easy, right? I think the dyeing process is easy if you study every detail of it. It’s also important to do some trials just to see how some colors turn out. 

My next project will involve some prints on the fabrics, and I also want to remake some pillows or blankets for my home through this dyeing process.

Doing that makes me think about my Greek heritage and about my grandfather. He lives in Greece and he doesn’t waste anything. He eats food that is locally sourced, he wears a few clothes and re-uses and re-purposes.

I do try the same lifestyle, but it’s hard not to buy new things, especially when I’m into fashion. At least in recent years, I’ve been following some rules regarding the way I live and consume everything around me. 

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