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UA: Did you go to school for fashion?
MM: At Cornell I studied everything from scuba suits, chemical warfare helmets and clean room garments to couches, car seats and tents, lingerie, ready-to-wear and evening gowns. At La Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne in Paris, I learned how to sketch, hand-sew buttonholes, tailor a collar and create price no object couture garments. How lucky I was to have had two totally different and completely complementary educational experiences.
UA: When did you begin Malia Mills?
MM: At the start of Malia Mills, I thought it was crazy that swimwear was sold as same size sets. If our lingerie was sold the same way there would be rioting in the streets. So in the Fall of 1990, I packed up my pick-up truck and drove to New York City from San Francisco. I was working as an assistant to Jessica McClintock at the time. She was an amazing mentor. I could not have started the business without having learned so much from her. I got a waitressing job at Odeon and started making patterns, cutting and sewing in my apartment, serving up steak frites by night and engineering swimsuits by day. The concept was to design swimwear as an extension of our street style with a killer fit to bring out the vixen within. Love thy differences™ is our mission, our mantra, our driving force. In 1993, we officially incorporated so we celebrated 20 years last May. It continues to be an incredible, amazing, challenging and inspiring adventure.
UA: What is your advice to up-and-coming designers?
MM: Tenacity, tenacity, tenacity. Sally Frame Kasaks, former CEO of Ann Taylor, said it so well: ‘’It doesn’t take a genius to build a business. It takes someone relentless enough to go back at it again and again.’’
UA: How did growing up in Hawaii influence your design sensibility and have you always loved swimwear?
MM: As a kid in Hawaii, swimwear was part of the daily uniform. Looking back, there were many prescient moments. My mom forbade my older teenage sisters from wearing bikinis, so you can imagine how they howled when I pranced into the living room wearing a lemon yellow bikini with plastic yellow rings (a gift from our neighbor when I turned 8). I was in heaven. When I moved to New Hampshire at 13, I arrived at the town pool and donned my freshly unpacked favorite suit—a hot pink surfer girl super high cut monokini type maillot and found the rest of the swimmers in speedos. In an instant I experienced how a suit so right in one place, can feel so very wrong in another. There is an amazing amount of emotion surrounding swimwear—it’s an incredibly inspiring business to be in.
UA: What does your company’s motto, “Love thy Differences,” mean to you?
MM: Way back when, we photographed all of our different styles and sizes in our collection on 28 different friends from my waitressing days: our first employee and her best friend, a mother and her daughter, a gal I met at our sample sale, my sister/business partner Carol who was 8 months pregnant, etc. All of the women were stunning and fierce. The photos were incredible, inspiring, liberating, powerful—truly worth a thousand words. We narrowed our choice of motto down to three. In general, women are way too hard on themselves. No more so than when they slip into a swimsuit. It’s our mission to liberate women from feelings of inadequacy. When we stop trying to change the way we look and we embrace, celebrate, love thy differences, we liberate ourselves to lead fierce, fabulous lives. Women have extraordinary brainpower, and all too often too much is wasted on nagging negative thoughts about the way we look and ways to change. Love thy differences is our rally cry. Choose to see the beauty that is you, get out there and carpe diem. Hell yes you can.
UA: What is the relationship between the designs of your swimsuits and lingerie?
MM: We engineer each top to fit a specific bra size, from AA to E cup. We cut our bottoms in sizes 2 to 16 to show off a range of shapes as well—from more curves to less. Choice is incredibly liberating and in our stores we strive to give customers the freedom to find the top and bottom that fits both their shape and their style. There is no stopping a gal when she’s in a swimsuit that looks rad and fits beautifully. So we fit and fit and fit, again and again and again, to get each style just right.
We make a few styles of lingerie but we’ve expanded most with our ready-to-wear collection. Growing our business is exciting, challenging, and super gratifying. We wanted to expand our collection to go from city to beach and back again. We’ve got all kinds of silhouettes—dresses, tunics, pants, shorts, jackets and blouses, all of which are designed to layer up and down and to wear multiple ways. They’re a little bit tailored, a little bit tousled, badass wash ‘n wear styles. It’s been extremely inspiring and a total blast to work with new fabrics and to develop silhouettes so different from our swimwear, yet with the same signature style, fit and sass.
UA: Are there any differences between what East Coast and West Coast women want to wear to the beach?
MM: Equally fierce and fabulous. Don’t be fooled—the women on both coasts love to wear black.
UA: Where is your favorite beach?
MM: Where the water is warm, the sun is hot, friends are plentiful, and cold beers are just a reach away.
UA: How can women style your swimsuits so that they can be worn from summer into fall?
MM: Let me count the ways. Nothing makes us happier than when a woman comes into our store, lifts up her shirt and shows us her swimsuit top worn as a bra or flashes us her swimsuit briefs worn under a flirty dress. It’s happens a lot. We design each style to stand on its own and our customers are truly limited only by their imagination. Our swim- and our ready-to-wear collections are designed to be worn 12 months a year—it’s all about layering up and layering down.
UA: Who and what are your current inspirations?
MM: I draw inspiration from as much as possible. I scratch out ideas and stock-pile images whenever and wherever I find them. My bag is littered with scraps of paper and small notebooks scribbled with sketches and notes. It’s not a glamorous process by any means. Rare is the long block of time to design, so I try to seize inspiration whenever it strikes.
We just moved our World Headquarters to Sunset Park Brooklyn. Now, with a new commute and a new community, inspiration abounds.
UA: Do you have any favorite items from your current collection?
MM: Tied for first place in my closet are our Gemma Jumpsuit and our Enchantress Dress. The weather has been particularly erratic in NYC recently and these beauties are as easy to rock with kick-ass boots as they are with strappy platforms. Our Gemma is particularly rad layered over our black velvet Guinevere Top, warmed up with a cashmere sweater, floppy knit cap and chunky booties.
UA: Your business is something of a family affair. What are the challenges and rewards of working with family?
MM: I am the baby of six kids. My sister Carol and I run the business. Sister Sue, a teacher in Portland, Oregon, helps us in our stores during the summers. Sister Betsy hosts swim salons in her home in Tacoma, Washington. Brother Jay, a lawyer in Tacoma, provides legal expertise. For all business related matters—from private label opportunities to return on equity analysis—brother Peter is our go-to guy. Our Dad ran his own perfume and suntan lotion business for 20 years in Honolulu so dinner time talk always involved design, marketing, selling ideas and more. Our Mom came up with the name “wicked wahine,” [Dad’s] best selling perfume that he was always proud to say “put six kids through college.” The biggest challenge may be for my boyfriend of 14 years because he has to listen to my sister and I talk about business 24/7.
UA: Could you describe your single most rewarding achievement so far?
MM: Yikes, that’s tough. The last 20 years have been an extraordinary journey and one we are grateful for on a daily basis. Warranted or not, we’re always finding reasons to uncork a bottle of champagne.
Nurturing a small business is very gratifying. It’s a privilege to work with an incredible team of smart, hard working, dynamic women (yes, men as well, but we’re mostly women) …it is definitely a high point whenever we have the opportunity to grow our team.
UA: What are your goals for the future?
MM: F and G cup bikini tops. We’re fitting some rad shapes on fabulous, full busted gals—bring on summer.
UA: What do you like to do in New York City during your free time?
MM: Walking the city is an all time favorite. New York City has, hands down, the most diverse street style on earth. Also, Christian and I eat out way too often. We are currently on the hunt for the best burger in each Borough. We love to have friends over for dinner, but they would all agree that I am a terrible cook. I can unwrap a fine rotisserie chicken and pour a mean glass of wine.

Really, New York City serves up spontaneous magic 24/7—all I have to do is roll out the door.
 
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give good chi by giving
at malia mills we feel a strong obligation to make the world a better place. In our own stores and our new york studio we tell women every day that we need not be a certain size and shape to feel beautiful. we shout “love thy differences!” from the rooftops - and we hope this empowers women everywhere.
beyond our own work, we asked ourselves what we could do to pay forward our hard-earned dollars, and thus formed the malia mills charity initiative. we have chosen three organizations- one local, one national, and one international. each one committed to helping women, and pledged a monthly contribution. what these people are doing is inspiring – they harness extreme initiative, new strategies in technology and the amazing power of the human spirit to affect massive change for women.
through your awesome support of malia mills you enable us to fulfill our mission to revolutionize the swimsuit experience, to encourage all of us to “love thy differences” and to support women and local communities in america and beyond.
thanks to you – hell yes we can!

the new york women’s foundation
the new york women’s foundation, empowers and engages women from all walks of life through the power of collective action – a model of women helping women right here in nyc. nywf uses research, grants, education and activism to make strides in three major areas - alleviating poverty and providing economic justice, working towards safety and anti-violence and health and reproductive rights. foundation grants are primarily initiated by women in the communities they are funding, and often support women-lead grassroots organization working to lift up the most underserved of new york city’s women and girls. hell yes!
learn more at nywf.org

girls, inc.
girls inc. was started in new england during the industrial revolution to provide support to young women who had migrated from the countryside to search for opportunities in the textile factories. what a long way we have come, and what a long way we have to go! girls inc. is founded upon the inspiring girls bill of rights, (somehow not included by our forefathers as an addendum to the original) which proclaims, amongst others, “girls have the right to prepare for interesting work and economic independence” and “girls have the right to accept and appreciate their bodies.” programs address issues such as involvement in math, science and sports; teaching literacy and economics; preventing drug abuse and teen pregnancy; and promoting health and escaping violence. the majority of girls inc. centers are located across the united states in the most low-income areas and provide a weekly average of 30 hours of after-school, weekend and summer activities to girls of all ages.
thanks for an outstanding year! in 2013, malia mills donated over 3000 swim separates to various girls inc. centers across the united states – spreading our love thy differences love to girls in california, pennsylvania, illinois, florida, texas, and new york.
learn more at girlsinc.org

kiva.org
kiva allows any of us to micro-finance small businesses in other countries. Donors can give as little as $25 a month. together, small donations accumulate and help real people across the world grow their small businesses into larger ones, stimulating the economy and making a better life for those impoverished.
marie in el salvador is raising money to run a small grocery store and needs to restock her supplies. blanca, in paraguay, has already had some success selling handmade bedspreads but would like to increase her inventory to hammocks and sheets. kiva bonus? when the company you supported thrives, your kiva loan is paid back, and can be reinvested to keep giving.
learn more at kiva.com