Words by Danna Gonsalves | Photography by Carmen Del Prado
The moment I stepped inside fashion designer Mariton Villanueva’s studio, I realized how out of place I felt. I had never been to an artist’s studio before, much less one that belonged to a fashion designer, and one as incredibly talented as Mariton. Yet, there I was, awkwardly clad in generic monotone. I watched as she moved woven baskets out of the way and sported her very own naturally-dyed pieces. She was completely in her element.
You could tell that this was a woman in love with nature. And I loved everything about the small, homey nest we were in. There was so much coherence and intertwinedness, just like nature in its very essence—from the photographs of indigenous Philippine plants, handwritten notes, and design sketches, to the colorful textiles, and the lingering scent of tea or perhaps, boiled leaves. All these were inviting, but Mariton's appearance and her presence drew me in, too.
As a fashion designer, she started very young, and still is at 23 years old. Bonding over cups of coffee and Indian takeout, we also savored her story and that of her sustainable clothing brand, Himaya.
This outfit that you’re wearing right now...one of your own designs?
Yes, it’s one of my designs. This polo and these pants were dyed using avocado leaves and mahogany bark, and this material is fashioned out of deadstock cotton. I actually made this polo for my boyfriend during my graduation back in 2019. These pants were also the ones I wore to my graduation.
Is it true you learned all about natural dyeing from Abra province?
Yes from Namarbar, Abra. But actually, what first sparked my interest in natural dyeing or plant-based dyeing was from attending this workshop with Louisa’s World of Patterns, around four years ago. I immediately thought the craft was cool. When I learned it was actually possible to create colors and patterns for clothes using plants, I wanted to practice it for myself.
Did you have a mentor or was it just pure research?
Most of it I learned through different people and workshops, but I also do my own research. You can find a lot of materials and resources online now about it. As for my mentors, there are three people I usually run to when I need guidance. I usually ask my questions from Kuya Jun, the dye artisan from Abra, but there’s also Sir Jaff, who is an expert in weaving natural fibers. He’s based in Aklan, and he’s been in the textile industry ever since he was a kid. There’s also Ate Joy from NTFP (Non-Timber Forest Products). She’s the one who taught me all about Philippine Indigo and the communities that specialize in Philippine Indigo. When I have questions about how to get this specific color from this specific plant, I ask them, or I also look into my own resources, including a natural dye book we have from the Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI).
When you first started out with natural-dyeing, did you envision that it would grow into a business?
Well, Himaya started with my graduation collection [Ritmo ng Paglikha] back in 2019. And I think from there, it just unraveled and kept developing after. I kept experimenting with designs, but I also felt like I was guided along this path anyway since I was already in fashion school. The business side of it kind of poses a challenge for me because I’m not so business-oriented... I still have a lot to learn about it.
How is the business? Does it practice sustainability throughout its entire process?
Well, right now, Himaya is run by a one-man team. But whenever I feel that I need help in getting the materials, like in harvesting the leaves and other dyes, I always ask for help. As of now, Himaya mostly receives requests for custom-made pieces, and depending on the design, it can take around a week to a month to make. I don’t get a lot of orders all at once, so the packaging and delivery are easier to manage. For packaging, I use the excess fabrics from the pieces, and for deliveries, I usually hand them over one-on-one. I have done some collaborations, and I think for those, they try to make use of cassava too. Of course, it can’t be helped that we still use Mr. Speedy and [other couriers] for deliveries given the pandemic, but for me, Himaya’s sustainability really starts with and is centered on the materials used for the pieces. I always make sure to use whatever is locally-sourced or whatever is abundant in nature around me. Himaya is also still a very young brand. Eventually, I’m sure we’ll figure out ways to become completely sustainable in our process.
Wow, that sounds laborious!
It is, but it’s still a process that I definitely love. Sometimes, my family will find it strange that I have to do a lot of the work myself—like harvesting the dyes, cutting the fabric, stitching it up, etc. But I just explain that it’s a process I enjoy and that it’s part of the whole concept of slow and alternative fashion. For me, the most important parts, especially with making clothes for other people, are in knowing exactly what materials you’ve made it from, and in practicing creating with intent. By the time my family sees the end product, they give very positive reactions naman.
What sparked your desire to promote sustainable fashion?
I was drawn to the idea of sustainable fashion because growing up, I’ve been exposed to the other side of the fashion industry. Mass production. I have a family member who’s in that business and since I was studying fashion design, I was always going to their factory and would always be talking to the sewers and pattern-makers, asking them to teach me. Being there, I already saw the practices that I honestly didn’t think were okay. Unethical practices...morals and values that didn’t seem right. As a human, you would seriously be bound to notice that there was something wrong with how the sewers and workers were treated, and also, you’d see the huge wastes of fabric, which was [and is] so normalized in the fast fashion industry. That was where my interest in sustainability or alternative fashion started. My thought back then was that there had to be some other way for fashion to thrive, in a way that won’t harm people, or in a way that wouldn’t add to any more of the harms already existing in the world.
So it’s in wanting to help people, as well as nature.
Do you think sustainability is where the fashion industry is headed?
I think so, yes. Although I can’t speak for the majority yet, a lot of people are already beginning to embrace sustainable fashion or fashion that is made very thoughtfully. It’s probably going to take a while because we’ve been practicing fast fashion for so many years and we’ve done a lot of damage. But, I think the fashion industry is already headed towards changing things.
What do you think is the solution?
The solution really begins with everyone—with our mindsets when it comes to clothing and our very lifestyles. Wanting to know how things were originally sourced and asking the question, ‘Is this thing really worth the damage it caused?’ It really starts with our mindsets and our awareness, realizing the big effect fast fashion creates on our surroundings, and going beyond the idea that clothing is just something that can be easily made or disposed of. Honestly, for me, that mindset is one of the more harmful things that the fast fashion industry did to us, besides the environmental harms.
I can see now why others like to refer to you as a “warrior for nature.” Besides Himaya, how else do you express love and respect for nature?
I think you can respect nature just from what you do every day, with what you consume every day, with your lifestyle, your practices. I try to be more mindful of what I consume, and how I live out the concept: ‘You grow what you use, and you use what you grow.’ Sustainability is such a big thing so I try to apply it in my life step by step, just taking it slow. I try to learn composting, and I also like to plant. For me, it’s really in the small choices that you make, being mindful of the long-term effects, and maximizing whatever resources you already have at home.
Do you apply this same concept with Himaya? You use what you already have?
Yes. I use whatever’s around because it’s more efficient and because that’s really the spirit of natural dyeing. As much as possible, you try to use what you have that’s around. It’s very easy to find natural dyes in the Philippines anyway. You can find them everywhere: in banana leaves, mango leaves, even ‘yung mga balakid. But part of the spirit of natural dyeing is also in supporting local communities.
You also source from local communities then?
I do. It all depends on the colors or the dyes I’m looking for. If I want a specific color that comes from onion skins, for example, we can gather from our home, but if I need a big batch, I can ask for the ones that they usually just throw away at the palengke. Some dye sources I also get from communities in Sablayan, Mindoro, like with the Philippine Indigo. I also get some from Abra.
Speaking of Philippine Indigo, I heard that it’s not just a source of color, it has other uses, too?
Yeah, some traditional dyers like to say that some plants have medicinal properties and that if you embed the plant pigment onto a piece of clothing, the medicinal properties could be absorbed into your skin. I’m not completely sure if it’s true, or scientifically correct, but it’s a nice concept in its own way.
I guess there’s never a shortage of things you can learn. Would you consider yourself a master of plant-based dyeing already?
No, haha! Actually, I feel like I’m still very young in this craft. Natural dyeing is such a beautiful tradition that there are still so many things you can learn from it. Almost every day, I feel like I learn something new from the practice. Either a new dye source or a new way of keeping the color on the fabric, or possibly a new mordant or fixative. Since natural dyeing is a mix of art, science, and nature, there are already so many things to discover, just from the combination of those three things.
What would you say is the most memorable feedback you’ve received on your creations?
Most people are usually just really happy or amazed at the concept that the colors are derived from plants. Sometimes, I also get messages from people who thank me for what I do. But the response I appreciate the most is when other people want to learn it as well: the practice itself. When they discover that it’s possible to make patterns and colors like these from plants, they become very interested.
The fact that others want to learn the practice behind Himaya doesn’t bother you?
No. I try not to feel that way. I don’t know if it’s human nature, or if it’s in our psychology as humans that we feel threatened whenever someone replicates what we do. For me, the only way to keep the craft alive is only if it is shared. And there really is so much to learn with natural dyeing that you can’t learn everything just on your own. The art and the practice can only really thrive through community, and by sharing with others—having another person learn something new so that they can share what they’ve learned, so then you share knowledge with each other. That’s how the process and the practice of natural dyeing can continue to grow.
That’s really wonderful and very telling of your intentions. I’m curious, is there a designer that inspires you?
I’m inspired by Patis Tesoro. From the stories people tell me about her, she’s also the one who spearheaded the initiative to bring back and revive the craft of natural dyeing in the Philippines. It’s also the reason why we had it as a course in PTRI. I’m inspired by her love for Philippine clothing, and her love for sustainability. I think she even practices permaculture at her house.
You’ve also been using your platform to revive this traditional art form again. Do you think more people should support plant-based dyeing?
Hmm...It’s hard to say that more people ‘should’ be buying this specific product. I think, instead of asking people to outright support, more people should be exposed to the craft. It’s always nice to hear that more people want to learn about it because generally, I feel like everyone can explore how to do natural dyeing on their own.