Christi Johnson Is A Natural Dye Queen Whose Sustainable Fashion Brand Collaborates With Nature
There are so many ways in which designers incorporate sustainable practices into their fashion collections. Natural dying is one that we applaud with high regard as it's very time intensive and we just love this level of accountability and appreciation of not adding more toxic pollution to the equation.
We sat down with Christ Johnson, founder of Mixed Color. With a love for transformation and experimentation, Johnson creates handmade and natural dyed pieces inspired by and in collaboration with nature.
CHECK OUT THE INTERVIEW:
When and why did you start Mixed Color?
After 7 years working in the fashion industry in LA and being wholly disappointed with the way mass manufacturing was done (and the way "ecological" had turned into a bullshit sales term instead of an actual way of running a company) I moved to NYC and started my own line (originally called Made of Dreams) in 2014. The next year, I changed the name to Mixed Color because I felt I needed a name that more directly described my experience in the world and in my design process. As a woman of mixed racial background (my father was African American, my mother is Irish, German, Austrian, and Hungarian) who also likes her design concepts to be influenced by a wide variety of inspirations, at the time of the collections inception I felt that the world of sustainable design and naturally dyed clothing needed more variety. It needed, well, some color, some vitality, life with print and pattern.
Your collection is comprised of natural fabrics - what are those fabrics?
I use mostly silk because I love the way it feels and it absorbs natural dyes in the brightest ways, raw silk being my favorite as it almost feels like a cotton (unlike most silks where the cocoon of the worm is unwound to create long smooth fibers, the raw silk is from the cocoon of a worm who has already busted out, so the fibers are shorter, creating a nubbier fabric like cotton). I also use certified organic cotton, and am currently experimenting with other natural fibers like hemp and linen. Natural fabrics work best with natural dyes, and honestly when I wear polyester it brings out a body stank that natural fibers never seem to do, so it's an easy choice for me.
Why use natural dyes? What are some examples of natural dyes that you use? Where are these dyes sourced?
As the dyer who colors all the fabrics, I use natural dyes personally for my own health in the process. I spent too many years getting risky with boxes of Rit dye, and the time I blew my nose and saw the bright blue on the tissue, meaning the powdered dyes had gotten in my lungs, I knew we were done. This was part of my decision to move to NYC to study at the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn, as natural dyeing isn't a quick and easy process, and at the time it was difficult to find helpful information on the internet. I think there is still a lot of misinformation floating around to be honest, I see lots of websites saying to try beets and vinegar to dye something pink and let me tell you - that does NOT work. Beets are not a permanent source of dye. Save them for the dinner table, and get a book from someone with experience or take a class.
My favorite dyes are madder root, cutch, and osage orange. Oh and of course indigo, but it works a lot better in the summer time when the house is warmer. Madder root gives beautiful deep reds, and there was a belt found in King Tut's tomb that was dyed with madder root. Any dye that is still kickin after 3 millennium is good in my book. Cutch is an Indian dye that creates a wide range of very permanent color, and is also used in Ayurvedic treatments for the skin. Osage Orange grows like weeds and makes a bright vibrant yellow, and the wood chips I used are milled from downed trees. I mostly buy dyes from suppliers that are sustainably minded, though as often as possible I like to grow or forage for dyes (black walnut hulls are a favorite that's easy to find in the fall in NY but you better use gloves, and I've been growing a strain of Japanese indigo that agrees with the climate up here in the Catskills).
Does being a woman of color influence your brand? If so how?
Yes, I think it's influenced everything from the design process to my choice in how the brand is portrayed. I think there's been a strong movement in design towards a more minimal, purist aesthetic, which in my opinion is unrealistic in our current culture and in our lifestyles, more of a reaction to overwhelm than a style sense. I have a saying "nothing is pure, everything is sacred" and as a woman of color with a mixed background with many holes in it, the pulling together of many influences can sometimes feel haphazard or unkempt but then I realize that that is someone else's idea of what design should be. My magic is in the harmonizing of all these different elements. The mixing of different cultural inspirations, plant matter, and new and vintage fibers is a sort of alchemical process for me and the pieces rarely turn out exactly as I had planned, taking many twists and turns and the mystery of experimentation with new techniques frequently dictates their results. This feels like a direct reflection of my own experience and my ancestral history as well.
In the outward portrayal of the brand, I think the all-natural and plant-loving communities in the past have shown up as very white. I hope to inspire and to teach more women of color that a relationship with plants is available to all of us, and that all natural products don't have to be expensive or out of reach, especially when you learn to create those things for yourself. Against my own best interests, I've gotta say you don't have to buy new designer clothes or expensive beauty products to live a sustainable life. Just do some research and you can moisturize without chemicals just like ALL our pretty recent ancestors did. You can use free supplies like birch bark, black walnuts, and sumac berries to color your clothes. Coconut oil, sesame oil, jojoba oil, sunflower oil, all of these can be the basis of a nourishing beauty routine. Hibiscus or licorice tea are tasty and nutritive alternatives to sodas and sugar-filled juice.
Why is sustainability important to you / your brand? How do you engage in an overall sustainable lifestyle?
Sustainability is important to me for a multitude of reasons, because I really do believe the other option of continuing to live and produce with synthetics and chemicals cheapens the value of our lives and all living things, because I have a negative physical as well as emotional reaction to many chemicals in our day to day lives (especially fake fragrances in everything from cleaning supplies to laundry detergent), because I can't knowingly put out into the world things that were produced without ethical standards. The opposite is so clearly in its definition, just not sustainable.
Engaging deeper into a sustainable lifestyle was a huge part of my decision to move to the Catskills, about 2 hours north of NYC. I'm able to have space to garden, raise chickens for eggs, and not commute every day, a decision that requires a lot of sacrifice, a lot of time spent on my knees pulling weeds and picking off cabbage worms, or hiking out in a blizzard to change the chickens frozen water for the third time today. It is easy to glorify this lifestyle but it is regularly hard work and a new set of problems that we're constantly having to educate ourselves in. I understand this is not an option available to many, but luckily big cities like NYC are learning to provide its residents with more sustainable options like farmers markets, composting services, and as always, good ol' mass transportation. It also means I spend a LOT more time in the grocery store choosing the best option for everything, and it means spending extra time doing things like making my own bug spray, or countertop cleaner. It takes more time and effort, but is ultimately so much more fulfilling to be able to make choices in your own life that support the greater good of all lives.