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Adult Swim: In Conversation with Malia Mills

Adult Swim: In Conversation with Malia Mills

by Rakhee Bhatt

A Discussion on Body Positivity and Female Entrepreneurship with Malia Mills, Lesley Jane Seymour and Susan Hyatt

Designer Malia Mills has been celebrating body differences for the past 25 years, championing women to embrace themselves through her revolutionizing collection of bra-sized swimwear separates, read-to-wear clothing and accessories. Her brand’s mantra and mission, Love Thy Differences™, is at the forefront of every item and image created, notably on display at the company’s new Soho store in New York City.

On a recent evening, Mills celebrated the opening of the shop by hosting a discussion on body positivity with Lesley Jane Seymour—the former editor in chief for magazines such as More, Marie Claire and Redbook and who is now the founder of CoveyClub, a virtual platform to connect women and support their dreams—along with Susan Hyatt, a master certified life and business coach and author of the new book Bare, a seven-week guide to transforming your body and life. Together, the three discussed the changing landscape of body positivity and how to create lasting acceptance for everyone with the following as our most motivating takeaways.

Adult Swim: In Conversation with Malia Mills

“Companies no longer have the grip that they had,” says Seymour during the panel talk. “One of my first jobs was working for Vogue. I worked there for nine years, and in those days—this is the eighties—they told you, ‘Your hair is going to be here because Linda Evangelista cut it, and it’s going to be this color, and your skirt is going to be here,’ and you just said okay. So, maybe as those things are breaking down, we can move that conversation.”

“What we realized is that because we weren’t shutting the conversation down, we were actually enablers for the first 10 years of our business because we would talk around it,” says Mills, recalling a particular experience with a customer who talked negatively about herself while trying on swimsuits in her Southampton store. “We would always say just change the conversation, but we never actually called gals to the carpet. It was very clear to me that the swimwear experience needed to be changed completely because we’re taking all that bad energy, all that negative talk, and we’re carrying it right out of the store. It’s keeping us all from our true potential because all we can think about is that, ‘I’m not worthy the way I am.’ We have so much valuable brain power—women are extraordinary—and we waste so much time trying to change who we are.”

“When the younger generation hears and sees women standing up for themselves and making brave decisions to lead by example, it’s extraordinarily powerful.”

“That’s a good way to keep us from rising up,” says Seymour. “It’s an old distraction thrown out there to keep us from manifesting who we are.”

On her path towards becoming a certified coach, Hyatt encountered the same obstacle with her clients. “I started weight loss coaching and what I noticed is that I could help women lose weight, but there was a lot of deep heavy lifting to do inside,” she says. “I could help them lose the weight, but it was never enough. It was a moving shell game of ‘just five more pounds.’”

“The change does happen one gal at a time,” says Mills. “When the younger generation hears and sees women standing up for themselves and making brave decisions to lead by example, it’s extraordinarily powerful. We see this in our dressing rooms all the time. Women really talk a lot of shit about themselves. You have to remember who is listening to you.”

“Thought work to me is really the solution because culture is changing slowly,” says Hyatt. “You need to make sure that what you’re feeding all of your senses feels uplifting until you’re strong enough to the point that you can scroll [social media], look at the Kardashians and understand that you don’t have to look like that to be okay.”

After the panel, we caught up with Mills to talk about the 25th anniversary of her company, her advice for other female entrepreneurs and the shifting landscape of fashion advertising.

Q & A with Malia Mills

This is the 25th anniversary of your brand, congratulations! What do you envision for the next 25 years?

The next 25 years will be incredible. I think because we’ve been in business for so long, we’re much braver in who we are, what we’re really good at and what we hope to do in the future. There’s a nonprofit that just started out of our studio teaching women how to sew and getting them jobs. Our business dream in the next 25 years is to have this beautiful circle of creating, making, selling and giving back as part of a big education program, so that people can come into our business, learn valuable skills and go back out into the world. They can either start their own business or work for somebody else. We finally realized that we’ve been given so much in 25 years and now it’s our time to give back.

You started off on your own and revolutionized the swimwear industry. What advice do you have for other female entrepreneurs?

There was a lot for me to push against. I felt that the language being used for women was really terrible. The idea that you had to buy swimwear as a set was incomprehensible to me. When I would talk to women and tell them that I’m starting a swimwear business, they would say that they hate shopping for swimwear. Understanding that self-depreciation was impacting their whole lives, and to me it was visceral. The swimwear business was a platform on which to be a catalyst of change for women. If I could give advice to women who want to start businesses is that there are many ways to do it and many reasons to do it. But, if you dig deep into your heart about the why—if the why gets your heart racing and beating and you’re so excited—then when all the crazy things come your way you can get through all that. I think also that when the why is so strong for you, and you can speak beautifully about it, then you attract other women who feel just as passionate.

We are excited that you are doing additional sizes and styles for 11 Honoré. Can you tell us more about your experience in developing these products?

For us, as a small business, this has been something that we’ve been trying to address slowly over the years. When we got the call from the team at 11 Honoré that said they would love to provide a platform to expand and try new things, we thought it was such a great opportunity. The cool thing about it was that we learned a lot. The body is a beautifully intricate, amazing, joyous, ever-changing thing, and it was really a privilege to meet women who are size 44F and wear a pant size 22, and to be able to talk to them and listen to them, to try things and run around.

You were the first swimwear brand to use women who are not professional models in your campaigns, and now we’re seeing that shift towards that in fashion advertisements. Do you think this will continue to be embraced?

This has not been from magazines down or from big brands out. This has actually been from the people upward, and I think that’s super powerful. That’s culture changing. I think that social media is complicated, but the power that we have in our phones for people to get out there and speak to the beauty of diversity, that is the best thing. If we all looked the same, thought the same and did the same things, it would be kind of a bummer. When we talk about our mission, Love Thy Differences™, it has grown in its meaning as our business has grown, as the culture has changed and when we went through that election. We may not agree with what’s going on, but we need to be kind in the way we communicate, warm in our disagreements, share our differences and understand how to build bridges. That’s been an interesting topic of discussion within our studio and within our stores.

Is the brand doing any special summer campaigns?

We’re shooting women all the time. We meet women in our stores and at parties, and we tell them to come in. A lot of women have never had their photograph taken and it’s an amazing experience. It can be quite stressful and vulnerable, and it’s not something that they’re necessarily comfortable with. And a photograph is a way we speak culturally about celebrating things. When we see people in photos in magazines, billboards or television, it’s a form of celebration. So, when we get to do these photoshoots every month, it’s a really cool experience for everyone involved—myself included. When we think about the summer, we try to not have it be like, ‘Oh my god, summer is here,’ because then that becomes stressful in and of itself. It is the season of celebration, of rejuvenation. The weather is changing and we’re outside more. We have limited summers on Earth, so let’s make the best of every single one.

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