Even with travel in its restricted state, we touched base with our French friend, collaborator and natural dye artist, Isabelle Ormiéres. Founder of I DYE FOR U, we enjoyed our rendezvous with her on a rooftop this summer where she taught us to dip dye cotton masks in marigold and madder before her move back abroad. We spoke on post-election vibes, dreams of dye houses and indigo farms and bringing Brooklyn with you when you leave it. And for a moment, by a phone screen’s eyeview, through a window of classic style set in Isabelle’s new apartment, we saw Paris.
M.PATMOS: You are finally settled! From where are you speaking to us?
Isabelle: I finally found a place in the 13th arrondissement, which is on the southeast side of Paris, in a lovely place called La Butte-aux-Cailles. It’s an historic place but still very alive, there’s a lot of bars and everything but I’m kind of away from that, so it’s quiet. There is graffiti and street art everywhere — there’s no wall not taken. And there is this very poetic woman, her name is Miss.Tic, she must be in her sixties or seventies now, and she was one of the first graffiti artists; when I was a teenager she was big. Her poetry is written everywhere with stencils that she makes and they’re so recognizable. She lives around town so there is plenty of her work around and everywhere I walk I find a new one. I love it. I love it here. It’s a blessing I found a place.
M.PATMOS: Love that. There’s a wealth of street art in New York City these days too, on the sidewalks, on the plywood covering boarded up stores. People must need any outlet to express themselves these days, especially with the election and the protests. Pent up frustration.
Isabelle: Stress and frustration. But I mean you must be on a cloud of joy with the election result. I was here in Paris, we were suspended by the results. And then, that explosion on Saturday after the announcement...
M.PATMOS: It was exciting.
Isabelle: There’s hope.
M.PATMOS: There is hope.
Isabelle: So, this is my little place, I’m going to show you. It’s a very typical one.
M.PATMOS: Oh, it’s perfect! Hard not to miss Paris now.
Isabelle: I’m still missing some lights and things like that. I sleep on the couch now because I still don’t have a bed. The funny thing is that when I went to buy a bed like a month ago, the guys were telling me, “Oh, we’re out of stock you know, French people bought beds during quarantine.” So that will have to wait. Here’s the little kitchen.
M.PATMOS: That’s a pretty big kitchen.
Isabelle: Yes, it’s really nice compared to what I had in Brooklyn, do you remember? But I’m not dyeing in this one because I found a place for dyeing, a studio in Montreuil. It’s an Eastern suburb, really nice, it has a Williamsburg or Bushwick kind of spirit — a lot of artists.
M.PATMOS: It must feel so good to be landed. You will be missed in Brooklyn. What was it that first brought you to the States?
Isabelle: So, I came to New York for family reasons, I followed the father of my son. He was coming to partner with his cousins to create a fantastic store called Kisan. Kisan was a concept store that was opened in SoHo on Greene Street. It was a bountiful place in a sense that you could find a DVD, you could find CDs, you could find books, you could find jewelry, you could find beautiful clothes. Everything was curated so exquisitely; it was just a very special place. I took it as an adventure. There was no intention of coming and working in the fashion industry. I was a documentary producer, so I came very late into fashion. But yeah, I came to New York and was immediately in love with Brooklyn. I fell in love with the community vibe. I felt you would walk in the streets and people were smiling at you, they were saying, “Hi.” Neighbors were saying “Hi.”
M.PATMOS: Not something usually attributed to New York.
M.PATMOS: In what sense?
Isabelle: I feel we have different stages in our lives: First we’re dependent, dependent on our parents. Then we find our independence when we leave the house and find roommates. And then there’s that other stage that I feel is kind of autonomy, where you name yourself. You start giving yourself, not credit, but a sense that you can really do something. There’s a bigger dimension to life, which I think is freedom and, for me, Brooklyn was that door opening unto freedom and giving me basically the space to explore. I started everything new. There was no one around telling me what to do. I feel that my discovery of indigo is part of this big dimension.
M.PATMOS: It must be somewhat overwhelming to start over in a new place. How did you find your bearings?
Isabelle: Even if you remain vulnerable because you don’t have your grounds, it is still very empowering. I found the feeling of community to be really strong in Brooklyn and first that community was around the school for my son. He was part of the Dual Language Program, this program in New York City public schools that exposes children to other languages and gives them the opportunity to learn with natives from that language. And so my son was in the community of that class, which became very strong. I was also impressed by the fact that parents are so much a part of the school process — I would go every week to work for the library. So this kind of community vibe started with the school and then I realized it was much bigger than that and it was really a spirit of the neighborhood; a spirit that I loved. From there I started working with the Invisible Dog (Art Center) where we would do a screening once a month from a beautiful selection of movies. It was a cineclub and after the screenings we would have discussions. I really embraced that. I worked as a preschool teacher for a little French program that a friend of mine had created a few years ago in Boerum Hill, called the Language and Laughter Studio; a really nice little school. And then I started teaching art classes and theater classes. I started working at Kisan. So I was kind of a butterfly, working here, working there. But, I was not working as much as when I was a producer, so it was different. I had to find my new pace.
M.PATMOS: How did you discover indigo dyeing and what do you love so much about it?
Isabelle: It was totally happenstance. One summer — it was the first summer I was staying in New York because every summer I would always come back to Europe. But that summer, I rented a lovely house in the Catskills and a friend of mine came to visit. She came with a magazine called Kinfolk — beautifully made, so simple and minimalist — I loved it. She brought it because it had a story about Japanese culture and about indigo. We were interested, so she bought one of those do-it-yourself kits and we started. We did it for an afternoon, I had an old t-shirt that I used. And I’m telling you, I saw the process happening and I’m like, ‘This is magic.’ I was hooked. I wrapped the t-shirt with rubber bands and put it in this kind of blue/green bath and pulled it out and it’s yellow and it’s turning blue. And the more I left it in the air it turned even darker. I dipped it again and it was even darker, I mean the whole process… I was mesmerized, I was totally enraptured; I fell in love. I kept thinking about the magic and what was behind all of that. And so I was reading about it a little more and I did it once on my own after that. Then I met Liz, Liz Spencer (The Dogwood Dyer). She’s a guide, in every sense. She has a knowledge about dyeing that is so thorough and it’s always humbling to see. That’s what I love about the natural dye process, how humbling it is. It’s a connection with nature. You’re never disappointed, it never fails you. You try a color and even though it might not be what you want, you can put it aside and then come back to it. Don’t think it’s a failure, just put it aside and dip it in something else — mix it with another color. Don’t throw it out thinking you didn’t get where you wanted to get. I think in that sense it’s very humbling because you may have a certain idea of what you’re going to get but nature does the rest. What I love about the process also is its ability to feed and nurture your sense of wonder. There’s something about each time I make an indigo vat, the experimentations that I’m doing, I love the colors. I’m surprised by how beautiful they are, by what each bath is giving me. There is not once when it doesn’t make me happy. And it’s every day — that suspended time where you wait and then unfold the fabric; it’s magic.
M.PATMOS: That’s beautiful.
Isabelle: You can think of it as mystical. When it comes to my favorite dyes, indigo is of course my lover, then madder. If I had to betray indigo that would be with madder and I’m only at the beginning of discovering what it does, and what I can do, and the range of colors I can get from a purple to an orange.
M.PATMOS: And madder root has been used since ancient times to make red, right?
Isabelle: Yes, people have been using it for centuries. At the Met in a very small room, I don’t know if it was a temporary exhibition or not but it was about textiles, and there were only four or five pieces hanging. They were maybe, I don’t know, 4,000 years old. And they were incredible and faded, but had been preserved very well under glass. Those people did the same thing that we are doing now to bring out the color and the whole emotion of the fabric. It’s an incredible connection. Before I was doing indigo using chalks and chemicals but, working with Liz, I discovered this old method, which had been reintroduced by Michel Garcia, who is a French dyer, and it’s called a 1-2-3 vat. Basically, you mix your indigo pigment with a fruit sugar and an alkali — so that could be ashes — usually dyers are using calcium hydroxide, but it can be any type of alkali. The combination of these three things create chemical reactions. When you use actual chemicals, like chalks and things like that, the smell is disgusting and you can see how aggressive it is. When you use natural ingredients, the smell is earthy but the color is murky and brown and yet, what comes out of it is not. Learning this natural process was another step in my love for indigo. And yeah, then I practiced in my kitchen. I started working with other dyes also, but I really dedicated everything to indigo.
M.PATMOS: You’ve done a few collaborations under your label I DYE FOR U, including with M.PATMOS. When did you feel like you’d practiced enough and found the confidence to share and eventually sell your work?
Isabelle: It was three years ago I think, I had started working for KES, which was the first designer to give me their dresses to dye. I worked with silk, it was incredible; little projects, never anything big. So, I did some scarves for her that were selling like crazy. I was managing one of her stores so I could see how people would react and it was so interesting. Then for myself I made maybe fifteen or twenty cotton scarves and I put this little picture of them on Instagram saying, “Ready to put it out there.” I don’t know what exactly made me do that, but yeah, I felt I was ready. I had the feedback from the customers coming back and saying, “I live in my scarf, I love that it’s natural and that it can change over time.” So I felt, okay, I am ready to share now. When I posted the picture, Marcia (Patmos) immediately wrote that she would love to have my work in the store. We had met at Kisan, her line was carried there and she was one of our favorites. When Kisan closed, it was very sad for all of these designers. It was a free-spirited place, not corporate like a department store; it was one-of-a-kind. So after that Marcia and I kept in touch. It took a little time, but after a few months she offered that opportunity. I came to M.PATMOS with thirty scarves for an afternoon and we sold twenty-five! So it started on such a happy and uplifting note. And then she offered me a collaboration with her where I dyed these beautiful, gigantic shawls that she made. She really went strong last year with the dyeing and we did this trunk show in the fall and then this past spring and summer this collaboration about the t-shirts and sweatshirts; I think this was my favorite. When I returned to Paris, I left most of my tools and pots with the M.PATMOS team. I loved their enthusiasm and how they totally embraced the process and since it’s really about passing something on, it felt like my things would be in good hands; it was perfect. And I hope it is something they continue because then not only is it about creating a unique design but giving it a unique color, which I feel makes an item even more special.
M.PATMOS: What made you decide to move back to Paris?
Isabelle: I felt it was time. For a few years I started thinking I should come back and work towards my other dream, which would be creating a dye house and a farm in Ibiza and getting closer to my family. New York, I felt like, there was this money thing all the time — there was always this pressure about money. You work, you work, you work and in the end I felt that here in Europe I could really make something out of this I DYE FOR U brand. I had two shoe collaborations going here already, so with the projects that were happening I felt okay about coming back. My son is also coming to study for a year, so that made it easier for me. I felt I had the best from New York and from Brooklyn; until the end it gave me so much. But a few days ago we were sitting here and we were having dinner and suddenly I just started crying because I’m not in Brooklyn anymore. It tore me up. But I’ll be back. As soon as I can, I’ll be back.
M.PATMOS: There is definitely a strong appreciation of Brooklyn culture in Paris.
Isabelle: Yes, that’s why I said when I left, I really want to bring Brooklyn with me to Paris. It’s with me and it’s really what I want to create here too. For example the collective that I’m part of now, it’s a lovely place called Studio Albatros in Montreuil where you have studios of sculpture, engravings, you have guys who make those beautiful masks for Carnevale, costume makers, costume designers; it’s a lively place. So I have been able to recreate what I loved there and this was literally in the first ten days I was here. I found that studio. So there was something about the universe telling me yes, this is it and this is where you’re going to bring what you have with you: Your Brooklyn.
M.PATMOS: So what is coming up next for you?
Isabelle: Now that I have the studio, I want to work with this shop, A Vintage Touch. They have a space in the flea market, Les Puces de Saint-Ouen. The idea is to offer a service where customers would buy vintage jackets and denim from them and then ask for it to be dip dyed or tie-dyed, whatever. But with the quarantine, we’ll see. I’ve also been working on masks, very simple ones that I buy at the pharmacy — they’re certified and cotton, like t-shirts, very nice to wear. So, I dye those and my friend sells them in her store. And my sister, she’s a young creative spirit and finished her studies last year at Eindhoven, the school of art and design. She now works for Hermès in a department of research and materials so she’s in the experimentation field. And she came to the studio and we decided to do a little collaboration that we would call the Sisters for I DYE FOR U. I showed her how to steam dye and she just loved everything. When you steam dye, it doesn’t take that much water so the colors are even stronger. We found this stock of old workers’ jackets and pants and we’re going to make sets. So this is what’s happening for now. I would really like to do workshops and open a training center for people who are unemployed or searching for a different direction to their lives. I also met this woman, she’s kind of a social worker who works with kids that are in very difficult situations, and she wants me to come and do an introduction at a school. So if I can teach some classes, I would like that too. And Ibiza will come a little later. Now that I’m here, I have to set my foundation here, so that I can then go to Ibiza. Ibiza would be freedom.
M.PATMOS: Can you share more about the Ibiza dream?
Isabelle: I had a vision that I could grow indigo and have a farm. I would like to even grow other tinctorial plants to really create a dye house. Farming I think is what would help make it more accessible. If we don’t have to import indigo from India or from Africa, if we had our own indigo in Europe, things could be dyed locally. Dyers have been disappearing, it’s very niche. But having more dyers here would be incredible. Could you imagine? Everything would be hand-dyed, nobody would have the same clothes. Even if we cannot do everything, we need to at least try to go back and do what we can naturally. It’s part of that sustainability direction in every sense: Sustainability in fashion but also in the way we live and the way we act with the local communities. It’s coming, but it’s slow.
M.PATMOS: For other artists who may be reading this, what would you say about the importance of consistent practice and about accepting that not everything is going to come out perfectly because, with dyeing especially, the beauty is in the imperfect, isn’t it?
Isabelle: The constant practice — you can read, you can watch whatever you want but doing it imprints your practice differently in your memory. When I first started working with madder, I couldn’t get a red. On certain fabrics, I would get just a touch of red, but not consistently. And then I understood it was because there was not enough calcium in the water, so I would have to add a tiny bit of calcium carbonate and the color would shift right away. So now I know. Except in Paris, the water has so much calcaire (limestone) that I don’t need to add calcium carbonate. It’s so temperamental. You know, add some acidity and play with the base and the pH and just try and try because you learn from all that. If the mordant takes more to a certain part of your fabric, then the color is not going to be uniform; it’s all these little things. The constant practice is what makes you better. Dyeing requires flexibility, patience and time. Anything done well takes time and I think we’re not in a world which allows for that. I think in this crisis with the pandemic, there’s a real emergency now to slow down in our thoughts and in our expectations. And what is interesting is also to accept that failure can be something that you can honor. You learn from your failures and you shouldn’t even consider them failures because they’re always going to bring you somewhere else. And don’t be afraid to put the work out there. Sometimes I feel I’m not legitimate but at the same time I think, I should just share. The community of dyers is very open, we help each other. Of course, we all have our ways, call it secrets maybe but when you share with someone, it’s just even better. And that I learned in New York — we can fail, we can improve each other, we can express ourselves. One voice is as important as the voice of anyone else. It’s one of the good things you have in America.
M.PATMOS: We’ll take it.