March 31, 2021

An Interview with FSAD Alum Malia Mills ’90: On Inclusivity, Innovation and Empowerment in Women’s Swimwear

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Designer and Founder of Eponymous Label, Malia Mills. Courtesy of Britt Kubat.

Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, a mecca for swim and beachwear, Malia Mills ’90 graduated from Cornell University where she initially enrolled in Design & Environmental Awareness. After spending a semester at La Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in Paris, she discovered that her passion was fashion, and more specifically, swimwear design. She finished her undergraduate degree with a major in the Department of Textiles & Apparel, known today as the Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design (FSAD). In 1991, after working in San Francisco as an assistant designer for Jessica McClintock, Mills moved to New York City, where she soon founded her eponymous swimwear label. A waitress at the Odeon — a trendy downtown hotspot — by day, and a designer by night, Mills turned her apartment into a studio and production center, where she cut and sewed swimwear samples with the fit of lingerie. Malia Mills swimwear, which celebrates body inclusivity and empowerment with its attention to fit, comfort and high-fashion aesthetic, pioneered an untapped market and galvanized industry attention, and has since expanded to cover-ups, draped dresses and rompers, blouses and trousers, in addition to swimwear. Within just a few years, Malia Mills swimwear was available through wholesale distribution at over 125 specialty stores across the globe, from Barneys New York and Neiman Marcus to Aman Resorts. From Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to The New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily, Malia Mills has been featured in numerous publications and is now sold exclusively at three Malia Mills in New and four in California. Renowned for its edgy, luxurious styles, local, women-focused production and “Love Thy Differences” as the brand motto, Malia Mills has opened an inspiring dialogue on inclusivity and fit innovation in swimwear. 

How did you first get into swimwear? 

When I was at Cornell, I did a project on swim during spring break. I grew up in Hawaii so swimwear had always been a huge part of my life. A bikini was a huge right of passage. It’s something I wore when I wanted to feel like a grown up. Upon graduating, my friend and roommate from college was working at Sports Illustrated — she remembered the project I did in school and said I should design some swimsuits for the magazine. That was really the impetus for my first collection. 

Where did the idea for bra-sized swimwear come to fruition? 

Malia Mills “Raquel Top.”

I was in San Francisco at the time when my friend called — I left my job that day, and on my way home, I went to every store that sold swimwear. 8000 light bulbs went off. The same top and bottom on one hanger seemed so bizarre to me. It seemed odd that lingerie was so fit-specific, but in the swim department everything was one size. When I told people I was making swimwear, the first thing everyone would say is “Ugh, I hate swimwear, I’m too fat, I need to lose weight,” but really swimwear is about getting out there with your friends, celebrating a day off, having fun. Swimwear is transformative, it’s sunshine, it’s water, it’s freedom — but that’s not what I was hearing when I heard people talking about swimwear. That was really the inspiration for me to make swimwear that made women feel liberated out there without many clothes. 

Please tell us a little bit about the process behind starting your own company. How did you build your initial collection into a whole business?

Malia Mills Body Revolution.

I was working out of my apartment, making patterns and sewing samples, and was working as a waitress at night. I found factories in New Jersey, where I still produce today. It was a source of inspiration for me to really go out into the marketplace, talk to factories, build connections with the families behind the production. We work with domestic family-run factories: these family run factories are truly incredible places, as well as a tremendous source of pride.

We are so lucky to have this amazing team and to go on this extraordinary journey together.

it’s been very special to grow up with them. Parents pass their factories down to their kids, or sometimes the parents are still running the factories after their kids grow up. It’s really incredible to grow up with this amazing family dynamic — there’s such a commitment to expertise and artistry and so much love goes into their work. There are negative connotations associated with the word factory in the media today, but factories come in all shapes and sizes, and these family run factories are truly incredible places. What we’re making is what we call 99 hands. There are so many people involved, from the screenprinter, to the grater, to the cutter, to the UPS guys. You really rely on an orchestra of people to meet deadlines and get garments to consumers. We are so lucky to have this amazing team we went on a journey together

Have you seen change over the course of your career when it comes to women in the workplace? 

I do, change is always happening. Sometimes it’s three steps forward and eighteen steps back, but it’s change nonetheless. And sometimes the steps backwards encourage us to double down on what we’re driving towards. It’s the fuel that makes us work even harder to initiate change. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process as a designer? 

Malia Mills “Summer of Love” bottom.

My design process is very chaotic. When you’re running a small business, you’re wearing many hats, constantly jumping between your left brain and your right brain, between critical and creative thinking. My professor, taught me that design is fundamentally about all the senses we have. I feel very lucky to have been introduced to her. I try to use all five of my senses all day so that I can get in tune with how I feel. Design is much more than how the object will look — it’s so multidimensional, and when you hone your senses, you have this ability to find these free moments where all these different ideas you’ve had over time come together. 

How do you hone your senses? 

When I want to design a new swimsuit top, I don’t necessarily sketch or drape it every time. My process is a combination of so many little things and experiences. Design is a process: you’ll go down some roads and come to a dead end very quickly. For me, design involves reading a lot and writing a lot and trying to listen and see things. For example, I met one designer who always turns her garments backwards, and that informs a new understanding of its comfort, design idea, concept, how it could be better. Using all your senses means you turn things inside out, upside down. Design is not just a linear process. It’s messy and complicated, and you need to be unafraid to be wrong in order to get it right. 

What are your defining values when it comes to craftsmanship and production? Could you tell us about your Course of Trade nonprofit initiatives? 

We’ve been incredibly fortunate throughout our journey, so we feel that it’s important to give back as much as we can. It’s not just money — it’s also time and expertise and all these different factors, so over the years we’ve been focused on various mostly women-focused initiatives, from Girls Inc. to supporting local chapters of school events. It’s been very joyous to participate in small but powerful ways. About five years ago, our Production Director Libby, who is also a Cornellian, came to us and said she wanted to start a factory — we had just moved to BK and had an incredible new space. She founded Course of Trade, which is dedicated to teaching women in New York how to sew. We produced and sold bags, which paid for the scholarships of the next students down the line. It’s been an amazing experience to empower our students economically, and we are grateful to have a teammate like Libby who tells us what she wanted to do and how we could make it happen. 

What other prominent gaps in the swimwear industry do you hope to tackle?

Course of Trade trains newcomers at Malia Mills (Courtesy of Women’s Wear Daily). 

I believe it is important to use your senses to get a feel for everything out there and address them as you experience them — to listen to and understand other people’s experiences. The swimwear industry has tremendous opportunities to think about how we define sustainability — it goes far beyond the types of textiles you use. The industry is an incredible tapestry of people with an incredibly diverse skill set and there needs to be the utmost respect for every person along the way. The industry is often presented as the designer or the brand and then the business as a separate entity, which is a disrespectful way of looking at it.

Guiding brand mantra: “Love thy Differences.”

With all the transparency available nowadays, it is important to see that you can’t create a garment without the contributions of everyone. You can’t have a designer without a salesperson in a retail location who creates a warm and inviting place for the garments, or all the hands creating each piece. It’s time for people to see the humanity in fashion — it’s a force that is really coming to light these days. By virtue of that, we have a lot of great creative minds coming to the surface with opportunities to express themselves. This will continue to yield more movements in how a swimsuit should feel, how it should look, why we should invest in it. The notion of sustainability is actually a catch-all because it’s a little bit shoehorned into a circular idea, but it’s deeper and broader: understanding the complexity and depth of that alone will yield not just new businesses but also some very interesting roads to travel down in the future.

Livia Caligor can be reached at lfc55@cornell.edu. Images courtesy of maliamills.com.

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