I met Malia Mills while standing at an airport luggage carousel. Her silver hair was so beautiful and unlike most people who get all uptight when complimented by a stranger, she replied with what I’ve come to understand as her “hell yes!” attitude. Malia is a fiercely energetic, entrepreneurial woman whose good energy is pervasive. She founded the swimwear company, Malia Mills in1993 and has appreciated every moment of the ride. If you haven’t ever owned a Malia Mills, suit, you must.
Her “hell yes” includes a holiday gift for us all — 20% off with the code thegroove20 at Malia Mills.
First of all, where did the genius idea for “bra-sized swimwear” come from? Was anyone else doing it or were you all alone? Was it a battle to get buyers to carry so many sizes?
It seemed insane to me that swimwear was sold as a set — with the same size top and bottom clipped to one hanger — since none of us are built that way. I couldn’t imagine having to buy a denim shirt every time I picked up a pair of new jeans. Lingerie made so much sense — each style engineered to fit a specific bra size and a variety of bottoms to choose from if you needed one. but for sure this idea wasn’t born out of thin air — here’s the long-winded version.
I grew up in Honolulu where swimwear was our daily uniform, each new swimsuit like a rite of passage. My mom forbade my older sisters from wearing bikinis thinking they were too bare. She finally relented when our neighbor gave me a yellow bikini for my 10th birthday and my sisters howled in protest. At 11 my tween dreams came true when I bought a long-coveted bikini from the trendy swim store called Splash in Waikiki. My mom took me to pick out my very own bikini when I turned 12; the tops were all too full for my flat chest. But I was on a mission to make one mine so I picked out a baby blue and pink striped set, took it home and hand sewed a seam through the top to remove the shape. Prescient, no?
The swimwear education continued in Paris where I met Maryvonne Herzog, who made custom swimwear out of her apartment. We bonded over my passion for swimwear and my very shitty French! Fast forward to 1990, where I was working as a design assistant at Jessica McClintock in San Francisco when my college roommate called. She was working on the swimsuit issue at Sports Illustrated and 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.
I spent the next two weeks making patterns and sewing suits for a long shot at Sports Illustrated. Lightning struck when Jule Campbell, the then Editor in Chief of the swimsuit issue, called me at work and said, “We love the suits and we’re taking them on our shoot.” I hung up the phone, got up from my chair, met with Jessica McClintock and gave my two weeks notice. She asked me what I was going to do and I said, “I’m driving to New York and I think I’m going to be a swimwear designer.”
Unlike so many designers, you have managed to stay independent and focused. How? Did you have any business mentors?
WhenI started the business I read tons of books about companies I admired — Sony, The Body Shop, etc. — and came across “Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big” by Bo Burlingham. It was a seminal book for me and this spirit still guides us each day. I continue to be inspired by the thoughts of Sally Frame Kasaks former Chairman-CEO of Ann Taylor, who said, “it doesn’t take a genius to build a business, it takes someone relentless enough to go at it again and again and again.” We are very fortunate to have an incredible team to nurture and grow our company and an extraordinary community of mavens who have supported all that we do for these crazy amazing 25 years.
We had tons of support from the get go — Big Drop on Spring Street, Abbe’s Place in Philadelphia and Bloomingdale’s were the very first stores to carry our collection. Kal Ruttenstein, the fashion director at Bloomingdale’s, totally got it and we were the very first collection of swimwear separates sold in their stores.
Your business is women-run. Are there any female-specific management challenges?
Building our sister-owned, self-financed small business is an emotional, complex endeavor with all sorts of ups and downs and twists and turns. It requires continuous reflection and improvement. We’re grateful to work with such an inspiring group of go get ’em, guts ‘n glory gals.
Do you have any advice for our over 50-year-old friends about being comfortable in a bathing suit?
Don’t waste one more minute — slide into a swimsuit with gusto. Run and tumble into the water, let that mascara run, love the salty skin, the tangle-haired mess that is a joyous day spent in a swimsuit.
You do such a good job of building suits that women love. And especially grown-up women. I’m not certain, but as no one avoids change, has your own body changed and have your designs changed along with that personal influence?
Wow, yes, for sure so much change over the years! Body, mind, spirit and more… all of it influences our designs. Since the beginning our fit models have been friends, family and mavens we meet in our stores so working with a diverse group of gals in different stages of their lives is in our DNA. We learn a ton from the feedback we get. We’re always testing — new shapes, new fabrics, and new finishes — to create silhouettes with a magic combination of fit and kickassery.
What is your process for design? Does it start with color or shape or something else entirely?
My design process is quite messy, with numerous starting points and a lot of stop and go. I take tons of snapshots of colors, textures, shapes, jot down ideas and stockpile them in my bag. Sometimes an idea comes from a gal I meet in our stores who describes a dream silhouette (and the style is named after her, sometimes she’s even our fit model). After sketching and draping and pattern making and sewing with our team we most often find the design in the fitting — it’s during our extensive try-on sessions when we see how a style moves on the body and how the combination of fabric and cut feels physically and emotionally.
Some of us have a new post-menopausal bust line and the tummy to match. Is there a silhouette that is most flattering?
There are tons of silhouettes to choose from and what it really comes down to is fit — not just how the style shapes and supports but how does it fit your vision. In our stores, we can experiment with different styles for each gal and we focus less on each “body part” and more on how the suit makes you feel — from the top of your head to the tip of your toes.
How long did it take you to come up with that gorgeous red color? Why is it so flattering?
We work with a mill in Europe to develop our custom colors — the inspiration can come from a zillion different references that we find — this particular red came from an old piece of ribbon. Our team works with their team and there is a ton of back and forth until we get each color to the place where we dig it — add more blue, less yellow, more black, less white… the color of energy, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire… who doesn’t love red?
Now that I’ve used the word “flattering” twice, I’m wondering what that means to you?
I think flattering, while a lovely word, is actually very limiting. Our “love thy differences” mission 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 was just so bizarre. It was really visceral, the feeling that we needed to radically change the entire swimwear experience — from the way it was made to how it was sold and the language around it.
You are a whirling dervish of inspiration — what keeps you moving so fast?
It’s all about the village!
Do you swim?
Oh, hell. Yes! At 13, we moved from Hawaii to New Hampshire. On the very first day of 8th grade, I met Frances — she asked me if I wanted to go hang out at her house after school. On the way there we ended up jumping into the Connecticut River with all our clothes on and have been bffs ever since. I think swimming is one of life’s great joys.
If you had a superpower, what would it be?
To gift everyone with liberté, égalité, sororité!
If you had a warning label what would it say in BIG letters?
BEWARE: UNAFRAID OF WINE, FEMINISM AND A MESSY DESK.
What’s the alternative to never ever wearing a bathing suit again (only sort of joking)?
Banish the thought and carpe swim…!