Exploring Shades of Water With Maria Elena Pombo

Perfumed and sweet, a floral scent fills the studio of designer, Maria Elena Pombo. It is the smell emitted by the hundreds of avocado pits that she has collected from restaurants and ground into a fine powder. Concealed by the silky green butter of the avocado fruit and hidden in its seed, is an unexpectedly bold dye. Avocado pits yield a range of light pinks and potent reds when steeped in hot water. Using avocado dye as her primary material, Maria Elena has created Fragmentario, a delicate, approachable fashion line and series of workshops that subtly center on environmental circumstances, cultural history, and her personal experience.

“It is so beautiful, it is so feminine, it is so simple,” people tell Maria Elena when they first see Fragmentario. With a background in engineering and having worked for major fashion houses, the collection is designed with clean lines and is beautifully tailored. Beneath the dreamy and light appearance of the garments she creates layers of deep exploration. Maria Elena explains that her choice of dye “is not about the pink, it is about the avocado.” The root of her affinity for avocados can be traced back to her childhood in Venezuela where her family had their own avocado tree.

The history of this fruit is as politicized as the borders it crosses; the manners in which it has been grown, traded, and consumed have always been contentious. “This is a very passive way of saying  let's think about it. It is so inoffensive,” Maria Elena explains of the impetus for her work.

As part of a presentation of her latest clothing collection, Rosa Terraqueo, a group of women marched and danced through the A/D/O atrium clad in simple silk garments dyed blush, rust, and dusty rose. Clouds billowed from large glass vases containing a mixture of dye and dry ice. At one end of the room, an array of bottles displayed a range of waters collected from around the world. A designer working like a scientist, Maria Elena’s line of naturally dyed clothing  is also a systematic cataloging of the chemical reactions avocado pit dye has to waters from around the world. Avocado pits are her fixed variable and water is the changing one.

While working with avocado pit dye in a series of workshops across Europe, Maria Elena began to notice dramatic differences in the colors produced from city to city. In Paris, the dye was coming out bright red and the artist’s skin felt terrible. Paris water is filled with minerals that makes the PH basic. Intrigued, Maria Elena started to experiment. Adding baking soda to the water caused the dye to go red, while lemon juice or anything acidic turns it a yellow. People began bringing her water samples from as far as the Dead Sea and New Delhi to experiment with. She keeps notebooks of fabric swatches dyed with each type of water, and indexes the chemical reactions in fleshy hues.

In this scientific tone, Maria Elena leads workshops as if they were laboratories, in which Participants are encouraged to explore the medium by experimenting with different compositions of water. At her  A/D/O workshop, Maria Elena’s pupils selected different waters to boil on Bunsen burners and created their own booklets of swatches to document their findings. New Delhi water made the avocado dye glow red. The salt-saturated water from the Dead Sea disintegrated both the color pigment and the fabric. Her workshops all focus around a narrative. For example, the use of turmeric and annatto is a vehicle for introducing the topic of colonialist spice trades. “Ultimately,” Maria Elena says, “I want people to want to make things with their hands. I want to promote people to challenge ideas.”

Maria Elena Pombo is open and curious in a way that inspires exploration and discovery. In her studio, onion skins, safflower, and wood sit neatly in baskets and jars waiting to be mixed into dyes. Buckets and buckets of ground avocado pits sit next to a broken food processor that they defeated. Material experiments are constantly brewing.

In a moment when the fashion industry is contending with its negative environmental footprint, this careful attention to the essential elements of clothing stands out as an example of an an unusually mindful practice. In her own words, “I [have] a sustainable frame of work but I think everyone should in this day in age. If you are not taking this into consideration what are you doing?”

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri

Images by Robert Bredvad and Maria Elena Pombo.