Malia Mills created a thriving business (celebrating 25 years in 2018) doing the impossible–making women feel good about buying a bathing suit. How? By incorporating the precision fit of lingerie with the mix-and-match mentality of creating an everyday outfit. From the beginning, Malia was also a pioneer in celebrating women of every shape and size, an idea the fashion world (and beyond) is still slow to embrace. Today her 10 stores carry her swimwear and ready-to-wear (the best jumpsuits), and are also becoming community hubs where women can get together. Here, she tells TFI how the basement at the Odeon in NYC played a part in her business, the company’s recent foray into education, and why every Malia Mills employee wields a power drill.
What made you get into swimwear? I was born and raised in Honolulu. Swimwear was very much part of your identity. What brand did you buy? Where did you get it? How many did you have? We traded them. It was almost emotional currency, the swimwear thing.
We moved to New Hampshire when I was 13. This was 1979 when, if you can remember, there were all those Cosmopolitan covers with the super high cut one pieces. I show up to the town pool in New Hampshire for the first time in this crazy hot pink thing. Everyone in the pool was wearing high neck, low leg line Speedos. It was like a crushing blow because what was so ‘appropriate’ in Honolulu with my friends was so wildly inappropriate in New Hampshire. Then I studied apparel design at Cornell and I went on spring break my sophomore year with my parents to Florida. Don’t ask me what made me do this but I went to the yellow pages, which makes me sound 500 years old, and I found someone who made custom swimsuits. My mom and I showed up at this gal’s house and in her garage there were a couple of sewing machines and a wall of fabric. Two days later I had this bathing suit. It was like the most incredible experience.
It became very clear over time, any time I would talk about swimwear the reaction was always shitty. Women were like, ‘hate it…hate to buy it…it never fits…it’s such a bummer…I have to lose weight…I’m not tan enough’. There was always an element of, ‘I’m not good enough for a swimsuit’ and that struck me as fucked up. The experience of throwing on a swimsuit and being with friends or family, or on vacation, even just taking an hour to go run into the ocean and belly flop into the waves, what a great feeling that is. I just thought, there’s a disconnect here and that disconnect is beyond swimsuits. I think all of that started to add up to there’s just got to be a better way.
My college roommate, Julie Stern, was working on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue and called me up and said ‘I think you should make swimsuits for us for the issue’. I was living in San Francisco, working at my first job for Jessica McClintock. I went to all the stores and that’s when the ah-ha moment happened. All the tops and bottoms on the same hanger seemed weird to me, the colors weren’t what I normally wore, there wasn’t the simplicity of design I found in my own clothes. I thought, lingerie makes so much sense because I can buy a bra with wire, without a wire. I can buy a crazy thong or a boy bottom.
It was this melding of, it needs to be engineered to fit like underwear, very precisely– you’re getting a 34B because that’s what you are, and that you could buy it like your clothing. You could buy a top if that’s all you needed or you could buy a velvet bottom and a denim top. That you could have this true extension of who you were and what you normally wore, even when you were at the beach or on vacation.
I wanted to kind of make a bridge to all of that in a way that would encourage gals to say, ‘I’m pretty stoked to go put this suit on. I’m really excited to get out there.’
When did you open your first store? We opened the first store in 1997 on Mulberry Street. Prior to that we were all wholesale and then we had another ah-ha moment. We had a sample sale. It was amazing because people came to our shitty little office on 28th street, 10th floor back side, no air conditioning. We saw what was happening at the stores that we were selling to. The customer read about us, that we did bra size stuff, she’d seen the imagery so she was like ‘okay I know you fit all different shapes and sizes’. Then the A cup girl would pick the D cup top and put it on an be totally bummed out. We realized, we could step in and help and say ‘0k tell me your bra size and your pant size, if you want something soft cup or something constructed’. My sister and I looked at each other at the end of the night and we were like ‘we have to try our own store because otherwise we can’t show them all the options they have’. There’s also that sensibility we have that there’s one perfect swimsuit, which is limiting on so many levels. It throws all of the anxiety onto this one solution.
One tiny sliver of fabric. We don’t have just one brand of clothing in our closet. Think of the jeans we have–slouchy, baggy, high waisted, low wasted, faded, not faded, skinny. There aren’t the ultimate jeans so we shouldn’t be putting so much pressure on ourselves to find that one suit.
Can you talk a bit about your imagery? You shoot on all different kinds of women. I feel like you were at the forefront in that area. Why did you decide to do that? What has been the response? The imagery I think was the touchpoint that gave us more conviction about what we were doing. When we first started shooting it was because we needed to do a catalog and we had D cups and B cups, this range of sizes.
We needed to demonstrate not just from a logistical standpoint that we have a D cup top, but we needed to put our money where our mouth was. If we were celebrating these women we needed to show the incredible celebration that is the diversity of women.
We got 27 women together to do the first catalog in 1998. It was gals I waitressed with, their mothers, the gal who was doing the hair and makeup. My sister who was eight months pregnant. Our very first intern and her best friend. It was this amazing array of shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities. When we shipped that catalog the emails started to come in. As much as we got ‘Yay! Oh my gosh! Amazing!’ we definitely got a little bit of, ‘Don’t send that to my daughter again, I don’t want to see tattoos”.
We blew up the photographs and put them in our windows. One night I was working late at the Mulberry store in the back so you couldn’t tell somewhere was there and I started to hear people talk. I heard a female voice say, ‘I don’t understand why they have pictures like this in their window.’ Then I heard the male voice say, ‘But mom, it’s to show that all women look great in a bathing suit.’ I wanted to charge through the glass and give that kid a hug. What it demonstrates is the dialogue we need to have with women is so multilayered. It’s not just about saying kind things about ourselves, it’s about saying kind things about others. It’s about communicating with a sense of curiosity, joy and optimism. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t challenge each other, but not to connect through ‘Oh I had a hamburger, ‘ ‘I did too, I feel like shit,’ or ‘I can’t wear a bathing suit’—that downward spiral that we can often connect with.
Even when we went out to raise money for the business we were largely talking to men. We have amazing men who have supported us and continue to do, but by and large they said to us, ‘You’ve got to use models. I can’t pitch this.’ ‘You’ve got to be shooting this on girls that people want to look at.’ You can imagine the hair on the back of my neck would stand up. I was so angry.
I’ll never forget my brother saying to me, ‘You’ve got to stop trying to raise money, you’ve got to start running your business.’ It was the biggest turning point. Just put your head down, do this thing that you believe in, work your ass off and take baby steps.
Looking back, what was the hardest thing when you started? What came easiest? After I submitted the suits to Sports Illustrated the editor called and said, ‘We love them, we’re taking them with us.’ I literally hung up the phone, went to Jessica McClintock and said, ‘I’m giving you my two weeks notice.’
I drove back to New York where my sister Carol was living and we did my portoflio to be this concept of bra size swimwear. You know typed up, ‘Dear yada yada at Marc Jacobs, you don’t have a swimwear line yet but we have this idea.’ I mailed letters to get interviews at all the businesses that didn’t have swimwear. I was very fortunate because I met with someone at DKNY who said ‘Malia, we aren’t ready to launch swimwear but it’s a hell of an idea and you should really think about doing this on your own.’
My sister was like, ‘What do you have to lose? You know how to make the patterns, you know how to sew the suits so why don’t you just see what you can do with it?’ I called my boyfriend who said, ‘I have a friend who’s bartending at Odeon you should call him, maybe you could get a job.’ I wrote a business plan in the basement of Odeon, while I waitressed.
What I think is amazing about New York is everyone’s here to help you. Everyone’s here to hustle. Everyone wants to say, ‘Oh I know this person who maybe knows that person who can maybe help you with this’. That I think was the easiest thing I found because a lot of people definitely said, ‘I don’t get why you’re in New York, why wouldn’t you go to LA? That’s where the swimsuit business is.’ But I think that aspect of New York, that sort of ‘Wow I’m really interested in what you’re doing and how can I help?’, that’s incredible. That’s a constant I think of having a business in New York.
The hardest thing was trying to raise money. I didn’t have the confidence to say it like it was. ‘We’re starting this small thing, we’re not sure where it will take us. This is where we hope it’ll take us, this is how we think we’re gonna get there.’ I felt that it had to be this precise business plan and I was going to nail it. I think the reason we’ve been able to survive the ups and downs is we have an overarching idea of what we want to do and where we want to go, but we leave a lot of room to take an off ramp. We leave room to say, ‘We tried it and that didn’t work.’ I mean, we had as many as 14 stores at one point and they don’t all work.
When we shut our first store in South Beach, the third store that we had opened, and we’d only been open six months I thought ‘Well that’s it. No one will invest in us now, no one will think we know what we’re doing, they’re all going to think the business is going to hell in a hand basket.’ I was lucky to have read some articles in Women’s Wear Daily about the Gap closing stores. I remember thinking if the Gap closes stores, then I guess it just happens. Sometimes you close a store.
What has been your biggest dud or failure? What did you learn from it? There have been a lot of duds and failures. The humanity failings I think are the biggest, hardest things to deal with. One thing we’ve been very passionate about is to promote from within, we often take people who have never had experience in the role we’re throwing them into, which is something we’re very proud of, but also it’s very easy to fuck up. It’s easy to take someone who’s really good at something and then you put them into a role because they’re demonstrating certain attributes, but in fact they turn out to not be so good.
For me it’s also hard sometimes hard to say, ‘I don’t have it right’ or ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. Can you help me here?’ You want to always feel like you’re moving forward but sometimes to move forward you do have to move backwards. To take note of what’s going on and think how do you get better? How do you get braver? Not everyone is going to like me and what we do. It took me a long time to be okay with that.
I think women want more acceptance on some level. It’s nerve racking because it’s human nature. You don’t want to be in a room where people aren’t interested in you or what you’re doing. We often make an effort to be sure everyone’s on the same page instead of saying, ‘You’re different, I’m different. That’s kind of amazing, let’s be different together.’
Your biggest success so far? Honestly just keeping the business going. It’s a team effort, not a solo mission. I think the grit our team exhibits time and time again is something to behold. But also one of the things that we try to teach everybody who comes into the business is to get them to use a power drill within the first month of working here, because a power drill is a metaphor for so many things.
Seriously, a power drill? Mm-hmm. At the stores everyone has to do things like make sure the mirrors don’t move. So they have to get special screws and drill the holes and think about how much weight can it take? One gal recently called me up and said, “OK, I thought that was totally whacked to be out with a power drill but I realized that my dad always did that stuff and I really didn’t know how. Now I feel I can go home and I can hang a mirror.’ That’s part of what we try to do is remind gals over and over again that we are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: Because I was the youngest of six kids I feel like I always had a safety net. I was never afraid to try stuff.
What motivates you? The naysayers. In the early days when people would say ‘It can’t be done’ or ‘That’s crazy’, or ‘You have to shoot it on different people,’ my gosh there’s nothing like someone trashing the essence of what it is to be a woman to say ‘Don’t you dare dis all the women in your life by saying that we should be photographing our suits on other types of people’.
Best advice you’ve received or advice you would give someone starting out: I was lucky to meet Sally Frame Kasaks after she had left her position [as CEO] at Ann Taylor. She had a quote ‘It doesn’t take a genius to build a business, it takes someone relentless enough to go at it again and again and again.’
A lot of times we think we need to be smarter or we need to be better prepared or we need to have everything lined up. The fact is we just need to take a step forward and start doing stuff.
What’s next? In the last 24 months that’s we’ve become hell bent on education. As we saw what was unfolding in the world leading up to the election and certainly the fallout since has given all of us a renewed sense of purpose. It also upped our fearlessness so we’re braver about what we want to do, how we want to do it and what impact we want to have.
For example, we have interns who are the daughters of our customers and now we’ve become friends with a lot of the customers as a result. We had Girls Inc. come and we had our team spend the afternoon with them talking about job opportunities and how you get a job. There was tremendous take away for our team, there was tremendous take away for the Girls Inc. group.
How do we take this education component and how does that become the defining next move for what we open or where we go? Our stores are essentially open ten to seven, but they’re available 24/7, 365. How do we activate them in the times where we aren’t running the store? We want to give our stores to other people to use, because we’re going to learn so much with what people do with that. I hope it becomes the norm.
Today I feel like do you want to have more of an interaction with a store than it just be a transactional place. Building community–I feel like that’s what everybody wants because we’ve lost in so many ways, being on the phone, being on the computer, working. I also think women don’t recognize how much knowledge they have to share. Imagine if you were to go use a store in the morning for a breakfast seminar and all you did was talk about your experience at Harper’s Bazaar. Imagine what kids could learn. We have such an abundance, how do we share it?
Life goals: To practice what I preach, which I don’t always do.
Daily goals: They probably change every day. Sometimes we have a day and I’m like, nailed it. Feel great. Other days, the sky is falling. To minimize that downward spiral and remember that’s not helping anybody.
Daily rituals: Definitely coffee. The reason I love coffee is I love meeting people at the coffee shop. I love that the gal who’s making the cortado and I can talk about her new haircut or if I have a friend coming I can drop the keys off at The Smile and it will be fine.
How do you unplug? The Sunday New York Times. That’s sacrosanct. It’s built into my whole rhythm of the week. I don’t want to talk to anybody, I want to touch the paper, I want to get the ink on my hands. The whole thing.
Favorite inspirational/motivational reads: I read way too many business things actually. It’s not good.
You don’t think it helps? I think it helps tremendously but I also think it’s really easy to lose focus. It’s a rabbit hole that you can go down, because there’s no shortage of amazing people doing amazing things that you can read about. Sometimes I feel like it would be good for my brain to read fiction. You know, just fantasize a little bit.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: The Ann Demeulemeester jacket I’m wearing was a huge splurge. I remember when my sister said, ‘You work hard, you love that thing, just get it.’ I think it’s paying me now for how often I wear it. Sometimes it’s hard to pull the trigger. We talk to our gals about it often, ‘It’s okay to splurge. It’s okay to be frivolous, it’s okay if it just brings you a shitload of joy in that moment.’ Don’t be paralyzed by that.
Favorite small indulgence: Manicures and pedicures.
Hidden talent/hobby: I can dance the hula. I learned when I was a kid in Hawaii. I have some amazing imagery left over from those days with the crazy outfits.
Scent that brings back memories: I have a visceral attachment to rain on pavement, it remands me of New Hampshire.
Album on current repeat: I’m the last to know about new music. I’m always listening to Def Leopard and bad big hair rock and everyone rolls their eyes.
Lucky charm: I’m too superstitious for that.
Favorite charity: We work with several, Girls Inc. and the New York Women’s Foundation and Girls Leadership . The newest one I met through a friend of mine is I Am That Girl. I met Alexis who started it, she is a pistol. She’s dynamic, very open, a connector, loves to get people together, loves to share stories. What I love about them is they’re a peer based group, so it’s this peer to peer community this being created.
Favorite hour of the day: My favorite hour of the day, which I never experience is sunrise, because I totally can’t get out of bed. If I have to get up early for something, that feeling of dry eyes and the brain that’s saying ‘please put me back on the pillow’–I can’t stand that. However, when I am up for whatever reason and I can push through that feeling and see sun come up, there’s something amazing about that.
Follow Malia: Instagram.