Plant Matter & What Really Matters: In Conversation with Ian Allen Greer

Anyone who creates a candy swirled collection of natural dyed vintage for us holds a special place. But catching up with Ian and understanding more of the intention behind his work made us appreciate the trade (and the schlep!) all the more. We talked sourcing natural color, how he got into dyeing in the first place and realized our own newfound dream of commuting via an electric Citi bike across the Williamsburg bridge. Thanks for sharing, Ian. Enjoy!

Hearing Brooklyn street noise in the background just brought everything to life for me (currently in LA and missing those sticky East Coast summers in the city). How do you make it all work in what I'm assuming is a tight studio space? Can you take us through the schlep from start to finish?

The summer is definitely sticky and it's definitely a schlep most days! But honestly I love it! It sounds crazy but I really run my business on a Citi Bike. I am obsessed with the electric bikes that give you a little more power in the pedal. You can often spot me zipping across the Williamsburg bridge with more than one Ikea bag filled with vintage fabrics on the basket of a Citi bike.

I am constantly biking from my apartment in Harlem to my studio in Brooklyn in the Garment District and back. It requires a lot of planning and organization.

My studio is cozy but I make the most of it. If anything, it has made me a better dyer and designer. Having to work smaller has absolutely made me work smarter. I also think working within the limitations of my space has helped me grow in a really steady and slow way. I can’t take on huge projects or dye tons of yardage. Hopefully one day I will be able to, but for now I love working small. Slow and steady, ya know?

When did you first start experimenting with dyes and how did you learn about it?

I started to explore natural dyes in college. It sort of came about in two ways. The first being a way for me to reconnect with nature while living and working in the best (and busiest) city in the world. I grew up between Cape Cod and Boston so I was always on the water or on a hike with a very outdoorsy father. I think I was searching for a way to rekindle that feeling. Secondly, I noticed that during my fashion design program at FIT, all of us were shopping the same 3 aisles at Mood looking for fabric for projects and our collections. I really wanted to set myself apart and find a practice that spoke to my larger passion for sustainability and slow fashion. All of the pieces sort of fell into place and next thing I knew I was dyeing 10 yards of silk in my bathtub at 2am for a collection due the next day.

I’ve also always been deeply fascinated by art history. I would go to the Met and see these magnificent paintings with such vibrant color and wonder where these colors came from. So I started researching the history of color and really taking a deep dive into historical fiber traditions. I’m a huge textile nerd. Fun fact: Synthetic dyes have only been around since the 1860s. EVERYTHING prior to the past 150 years or so was dyed with natural dyes. Every piece in the met is painted using natural dyes or minerals, and they’ve stood the test of time. Synthetic dyes are the new kid on the block. 

I love your commitment to supporting a local circular economy. What does that mean to you on a daily/weekly basis and how can others participate in their own way?

When I decided to start my brand in earnest, I knew I had to build the supply chain I wanted to see in the industry. For IAG that means that everything in the collection is made, sourced, and dyed in and around NYC. Supporting the local garment industry in New York City is wildly important, especially post covid. Circularity comes into play through my material and my production practices. Every yard of fabric in the collection is deadstock, post consumer, or vintage. This means that I am sourcing existing fabric that would have otherwise gone to landfill. It’s very boots on the ground. Running around the Garment District and digging in trash bags to find dyeable fabric.

It is no easy feat and I am incredibly lucky to work with some of the most talented and hardworking people in the game. I am so grateful that they have agreed to hop on the bandwagon, changing the ways they normally work to accommodate my production practices. They save all of their scraps for me. They use 100% cotton thread. They reuse pattern paper. And when I come knocking with trash bags filled with scraps, they don't bat an eye when I ask them to patchwork all those little scraps together to create a new garment. Circularity is not for the faint of heart, but in my opinion, it is the most important initiative in the industry right now.

I always tell people that there are countless ways to engage in your local economy. Specifically with your clothing. Buy secondhand or vintage. Repair your clothing. Send your stained clothing to me and I will dye it for you and give it new life. Research local artisans or suppliers in your area. I often find people are surprised by the level of talent and knowledge in their community. 

Pleeease tell us more about this indigo dye vat that you've been nurturing for a year. Is this common to keep the same vat? What are the benefits? Going out on a limb here, but does it have a name?

Oh her! I love her! I never named her but I think if I did I would name her for one of my grandmothers (Marie or Bobby), for their strength and their ability to adapt.

Indigo is so special, it’s pure alchemy. So many cultures throughout history have indigo dyeing practices that date back hundreds if not thousands of years. There are so many different recipes and methods. It’s fascinating. It is a living breathing thing. The vat needs to be fed and warmed and balanced to produce strong, colorfast blues. When you’re constantly dipping and dunking fabric in the vat, the balance of the vat can get thrown off. Rebalancing your vat and topping it off with the correct ingredient is crucial to its longevity.

Pros of keeping the same vat going is that mixing up a new indigo vat is an intense process, at minimum it takes a full day and requires some costly ingredients. Keeping a vat alive isn’t easy but it is very poetic.

Can you think of a natural dye that we're surrounded by and is under-appreciated? 

Natural color comes from everywhere. Some are super special and only grow in certain parts of the world. Some we interact with every single day. A lot of foods and food waste can be used as dye. I love dyeing with red onion skins. I’m often at my local grocery store scraping the bottom of the bin where they keep the onions filling up tote bags with loose onion skins. I get a few weird looks but it’s worth it.

Depending on where you live there are so many species of wildflowers and weeds that have amazing color potential. Some of my favs are coreopsis and queen anne's lace. Oh also on the East Coast, staghorn sumac is an amazing source of tannin!

What's a dream pigment/material you'd like to dye with? If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go? 

Less so a specific material but my dream is to go to India. I think my brain would melt. They are masters of natural dye and block printing. The deep appreciation for how their craft relates to their environment is something I would love to experience.

For material, I would love to travel around France sourcing antique french metis sheets. They are a mixture of cotton and linen and often have embroidery or thread work on them, they dye beautifully. Honestly, drop me in any antique store and I am a happy camper. I’m the guy in the corner knocking over the dish set on the antique dining table to get to the crochet tablecloth underneath.

If your dyes were a sound, what would they sound like?

Okay don’t ask me to explain but…Logwood sounds like really smooth jazz. Marigold sounds like those shimmery golden fireworks that sort of flicker and then gently fall. Indigo sounds like really gentle waves on the sand.

Living in the city I can imagine it might be challenging to forage, do you have a favorite secret spot?

Oh, I always have a pair of garden shears in my backpack :) Probably not the best to say but New York City has some of the best public parks in the world, I will leave it at that…

Thanks for sharing your beautiful pieces with us, Ian! Can't wait to keep up with your work and see where the natural dyes take it. 

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