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Malia Mills

Malia Mills

by Rakhee Bhatt

The veritable godmother of bra-sized swim separates, fashion designer Malia Mills has been championing body positivity well before the phrase turned into the phenomenal movement we see today. After a former college roommate approached Mills in the early nineties to create pieces for the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, the designer discovered that the industry was packaging bikini tops and bottoms in the same size to be sold together rather than as individual separates that could accommodate the differing figures of all women.

It was through her futile endeavor to find two-piece swimsuits that made sense to a woman’s body that Mills decided to start her own line of stand-alone separates, ones substantially engineered with the tailored appeal of lingerie and constructed from varying colors, prints, and textures that could seamlessly be mixed and matched. More than 25 years later, Mills has built an inclusive empire laid upon the foundation that women should feel empowered to celebrate and love themselves wholly as they are in order to boldly march forward into lives of greatness. Indeed, Mills’ inspiring vision and design aesthetic has found fans in celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Amy Schumer, Ashley Graham, and Busy Philipps.

Here, Mills tells us why she wanted to design a swimwear line that encourages women to fully embrace their unique selves, the fundamental importance of getting to know your customers, and why it’s necessary to just “suit up and seize the day.”

Q & A with Malia Mills

You are a pioneer in fashion and body positivity long before it became a movement. What inspired you to take that angle with your swimwear line?

I thought it was absolutely insane that I had this incredibly diverse group of friends and family across the country and they weren't represented in the media. Seeing yourself reflected in messaging is powerful – all the beautiful women of all shapes and sizes simply weren’t there. If people don't see themselves, the message becomes very exclusive, not inclusive and empowering. Our love thy differencesTM mission, mantra, driving force was born out of the shit talk that surrounds swimwear -- get beach body ready, as if women weren't ready right then and there. Pear shaped, apple shaped, thick thighs... the language describing women and the "don't wear horizontal stripes" rules and regs were just so demoralizing. It was really visceral for me, the feeling that we needed to radically change the entire swimwear experience -- from the way it was made to the imagery, the try-on experience, and the language around it. Instead of this anxiety wrought moment, we needed to change the swimwear experience inside and out. Body positivity was only the beginning -- we needed to drive home the message that worrying about the way you look was a non-starter. Suit up and seize the day.

Why is it important for you to be in direct touch with your customer? How does it affect how you create and design?

One summer, we had a sample sale in our office and it totally changed our business. A really diverse group of gals came to shop -- they had read about our fit and fabrics and separates in the press. We saw when gals were putting on suits that a-cup gals were trying on d-cup tops and feeling super bummed -- the exact opposite our entire reason for being. At the time, we were in about 150 stores around the world, from Barneys New York to Harvey Nichols to the Aman Resorts -- and we realized that the best way to wow our customers was to sell our collection in our own stores where they could get help from super knowledgeable sales gals. That way they wouldn't grab the wrong styles or sizes and feel like shit -- which is how we feel when we try on something and it doesn't fit us. We remind gals all the time when something doesn't fit that it's the style that’s wrong not the body! So, in 2000 we shut down our wholesale business in favor of opening our own stores. Being in such close contact with our customers is tremendously valuable -- we learn so much from the feedback we receive from them. We fit each suit on a diverse group of fit models, but the opportunity to see how suits fit and make adjustments, whether it's as small as tightening a strap or as large as having gals come to our studio and work with our patternmaker in personal fit sessions, is invaluable. We want to make sure that customers leave feeling like their most badass selves. The personal connection and the feeling that you're having this incredible fit experience -- as if you're in your own home with your best friend -- is the foundation of how we built our business.

Did you ever face any pushback from the fashion industry as you worked to make it more inclusive?

It's complicated. What we were asking stores to do wasn't as easy as just buying the line, we were asking them to effectively double their SKUs by buying swim separates. The smaller stores -- Big Drop on Spring Street, Abbe's Place in Philadelphia -- were more equipped for it. They totally got the complexities of styles and sizes and the fitting nuances that are difficult to manage in massive department stores. Bloomingdale's understood that it was all about the consumer and we were the very first collection of swimwear separates sold at Bloomingdale's in the early nineties!

Describe the moment when you realized that making swim tops by bra size was necessary.

In 1990, I was working as a design assistant at Jessica McClintock in San Francisco when Julie Stern, my college roommate called me up. She was working on the swimsuit issue at Sports Illustrated. She said, “I know you’ve always been mad about swimwear -- this sounds crazy, but you should make us some suits for our shoot.” I left work that day and visited every store in SFO that sold swimwear and that’s when the light bulbs went off.

In the stores I saw same sized tops and bottoms clipped on one hanger. I could fit none of them -- tops too big. Or, sometimes I liked the style of the top but not the bottom. I thought this all just seemed insane. I couldn't imagine having to buy my lingerie as a same sized set and really believed if that was the case there would seriously be rioting in the streets. Plus, I didn’t find fabrics or colors or prints or simple silhouettes and subtle details that looked like my clothes. Et voila -- the aha moment that day in the City by the Bay -- to create bra-sized swimwear separates engineered to fit like lingerie, cut from fabrics with textures, colors and prints like the clothes in my closet.

Tell us about #lovethydifferences TM

Love thy differences TM was and is a call to action -- to stop the shit talk and get on board with this revolution. Our first catalog was really where we started to see the message hitting home with people -- it was palpable. Eighteen years ago, we photographed 27 women for our first catalog. All ages, ethnicities, sizes, shapes -- the response was incredible, both from our mavens as well as from the media. CNN, ABC, The View -- the media was talking about what we were doing and the message we were sending. Love thy Differences TM was a way for us to clearly spread the message that when you put on a swimsuit that celebrates the rockstar you are, there's nothing you can't accomplish. "A picture is worth a thousand words" never rang truer than when we expressed our love thy differences TM love with these images.

Do you feel as though the fashion industry has become more inclusive since you started your line? What more can we be doing to push the conversation forward and make lasting change?

For sure -- I think the conversation has changed dramatically over the past few decades, and the way we have the conversation has changed.

I was in our Southampton store a few summers ago and I was helping to fit a gal. and each time she would come out of the dressing room there would all manner of dissing her ass. And we kept trying different styles and does she want more coverage or less or a higher leg or a lower leg or a different color or... and after a while I grabbed this gal by the shoulders, and I said "you have got the change your ass attitude. It's no big deal if you get a suit here or we can point you in the direction of some other brands but no amount of me jumping around and telling you that you look awesome is going to change the way you see your ass. And time's a-wasting -- the sun is setting, and you need to get to the beach and into a margarita."

It was a pivotal experience for us because the whole point of our business was to empower gals to stop the bitching about our bodies so we could free up our brain power to do incredible things, but rather than stop the shit talk we were in many ways enabling it by jumping around the self-deprecating comments. We were inspired to re-think and re-up our training, to keep the warmth and the good chi and the knowledge, but to dial down the niceties and to amp up the no bullshit. It's just so valuable to have someone who calls your B.S. and says, "let's rock." Kind of like my friend Carla who has her own take on our mantra -- she says, “'ef thy differences -- just get me into a new suit!” She’s moved beyond the body positive dialogue entirely into a place of “let’s get out there and get it!” Very powerful indeed.

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