Written by Lynn Levoy | Photographed by Caitlin Mitchell
Rewind to the 1990’s, when a design assistant with a passion for swimwear took on a project that changed her life. Her name was Malia Mills and a good friend asked her to create some suits for the “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit issue. As she ran around stores, checking out same-sized tops and bottoms clipped on one hanger, she realized something. “The tops were too big,” Malia said. “Or I would like the style of the top but not the bottom. I thought this all just seemed insane. I couldn't imagine having to buy lingerie like that. Plus, I couldn’t find fabrics or colors, prints or simple silhouettes with subtle details that looked like my clothes.”
Et voila - the aha moment that snuck up on her. The idea - to create bra-sized swimwear separates engineered to fit like lingerie, cut from fabrics with textures, colors and prints like clothing in a woman’s closet. Fast forward a few years and Malia made her dream a reality. She established herself as a leading swimwear designer providing comfortable, flattering pieces forest women of all sizes. What began with a simple shop on Mulberry Street has become one of the most desirable names in the swim world. But Malia hasn’t stopped there. In a fashion category build around self-doubt and body-shaming, she has become a beacon of strength and truth. Whether through her campaign imagery featuring women all shapes and colors, or her “love thyself” rallying cry, or her programs for mentorship and workplace opportunity, Malia is the definition of someone who is living her truth and providing all women with the tools for social enhancement and positive body imagery. We are so floored by her vision and her work (so much so, we wanted more than anything to be a part of her badass wold, so look out for a A Wild Dove x Malia Mills collab coming soon). In the meantime, read on as she shares her story, her path and her vision for a better tomorrow.
I have personally been wearing your suits since your Mulberry Street location opened. It was the only line then that you could buy a different sized top and bottom, which I have always been. Major Gamechanger. What was the trigger moment for that?
So many dots to connect in the journey to the trigger moment! 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, so they would cover up with baby doll apron tops with bikini bottoms. When our neighbor gave me a yellow bikini for my 10th birthday, my sisters howled in protest. At 11 my tween dreams came true when I bought a bikini from the trendy swim store called Splash in Waikiki. At this point my sisters had graduated to striped knit bikinis from a store called Surfline. My mom took me to pick out my very own 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 sewed a seam through the top to remove the shape.
When I moved to New Hampshire at 13, I arrived at the town pool wearing a racy, high-cut leg, hot pink one-piece and found all the other gals wearing high-neck, low-leg speedos. My first taste of how a suit can feel so right in one place and so very wrong in another. In college I went on spring break with my parents and while they were off playing bridge, I grabbed the yellow pages and found a gal who made custom bikinis out of her garage. My mom drove me over and I picked out shiny white fabric for a twist-front bandeau top and sporty blue and white striped fabric for a bikini bottom. The swimwear journey continued in Paris where I read about Maryvonne Herzog, another gal making custom swimwear out of her apartment. I went over and met her and we bonded over my passion for swimwear and my very shitty French! Fast forward to 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 bulb went off.
The fabrics are amazing, they wear super well and hug exactly you where you need to be hugged. What is the sourcing process like in your fabrics?
Fabric is a key component, but the magic really happens during our fittings. We have a family of fit models - all ages, sizes, shapes and their feedback is priceless. We always challenge ourselves to use all kinds of fabrics - two way stretch, one way stretch, sometimes no stretch at all -- in unexpected ways. From knitted solids to velvets to jacquards, to men's shirting. The way we engineer beautiful fit is with multiple fittings and numerous wear tests. Each fabric has a different hand and reacts differently on the body, especially in a swimsuit where a 1/16th of an inch makes a big difference.
Wow. So technical! Switching gears. Can you tell us about your badass campaigns? How they feature women of all different shapes and sizes? Can you talk through that evolution and brand message?
I was passionate about improving the entire swimwear experience - from how a swimsuit fits to how it makes you feel. It seemed nuts that anytime I mentioned swimwear, most gals would say ugh, gotta lose weight, gotta get tan, haven't worn a suit in years... blah blah blah. So much shit talk! Mostly self-derision with the overall message of not feeling worthy. It just felt totally wrong. So we made it our mission to say, Fuck that. Let's inspire women to love thy differences. Let's free up all that brain power wasted on trying to change the way we look and let's seize the power that comes from saying hell yes to our diverse beauty. Let's inspire gals to channel that energy towards living a kickass life and setting an inspiring example.
So we set out to create swimwear with fit and style to celebrate the rockstar you are. With inclusive imagery, celebratory language and a “no bullshit, we're in this together, the sun is setting let's get to the beach and crack open a cold beer spirit” we strive to share a compelling message with all women and girls. Love thy differences - it's our mission, our mantra, our driving force. It’s our rally cry, our soapbox, our signature anti-venom to shit talk about body shape and self-esteem and swimwear. 18 years ago we photographed 28 women for our first catalog. All ages, ethnicities, sizes, shapes… the response was incredible, both from our mavens as well as from the media.
Love Love Love that. And, in addition to changing the way we see ourselves, you're doing a ton of work in teaching and helping young girls mobilize to be our next leaders. Can you speak to that initiative and the inspiration behind it?
When I started the business I was young and inexperienced and naive but I had a TON of support and constructive criticism and encouragement. So many people sharing their knowledge and experience and hustle. So we strive to give back all of this good chi and to create a company that provides opportunities to learn and sharpen skills, that challenges our team to reach their greatest potential that encourages personal growth and self-reliance. We take pride in hiring for guts and glory and teaching skills - from using a drill to creating an excel spreadsheet. And we are passionate about bringing education out of the classroom and into the real world, to foster easily accessible opportunities to learn and to share the incredible knowledge of our team and our mavens. We strive to operate as a learning center and we host our carpe revolution events for our team to share their knowledge with young girls in our communities.
What do you love most about empowering girls? Do you have one memory or instance when you realized you were making a difference? Why do you think that's so important now?
Empowering is a two way street that's all about teamwork. We are so lucky to have the opportunities to meet so many fierce gals in our stores and in our studio and we are so lucky to do what we do. We've seen an extraordinary show of awesome from women worldwide, in the past year in particular. I read a while back an interview on Lenny Letter with Ellen Malcolm from EMILY’s List, the gal who’s been working so long and hard to get more women into politics. And she had such a great way of describing making change as “sometimes a leap, and lots of times a creep.” In that you always have to keep up the creep or else you fall behind, even after you’ve made a major leap. We must remind ourselves that the trajectory of awesome isn't a straight line and, despite challenges and setbacks, to focus on making positive change, one gal at a time.
Love that. What are you hoping your brand contributes to the swimwear industry? To our culture?
We hope our brand sends an inclusive, inspiring and bold message not only about women and beauty but also about guts and glory, hustle and heart, sisterhood and small business as the engine of communities, cities, states, countries, the world. Shoulder to shoulder, with a sense of purpose, pride and humor, women everywhere are an extraordinary force for positive change.
YES. What are some future plans for the brand?
Our big crazy dream is to create a community-based philanthropic educational retreat compound as a platform for our team and our mavens to use real world experiences to share knowledge and educate women and girls and to foster forward momentum for all. We're also launching our lingerie line soon that we super excited about. It came about because we often heard from our mavens about how they wear our tops as bras and our bottoms under sheer dresses so we took a few of our fave swimwear styles and engineered them as hell yes let’s get this day started lingerie. Soft tulle with a touch of lace, signature seaming for attitude and oomph, retro modern silhouettes to celebrate the feminine fierce! That, and the development of hangover-free wine to assist with efforts towards equality for women worldwide. Investors welcome!
I’m in for all of it. OK so when you’re not designing kickass swimwear and mentoring young women and encouraging all of us to love ourselves and our bodies, what is your therapy?
Sometimes it's wine and a bitch session about the state of the world with girlfriends. Other times it's an unscheduled walk. There are always a ton of reminders of all the good shit and inspiration out there.
What makes you fly?
Cranking tunes -- and dancing our asses off like a bag of rattlesnakes as my Dad used to say.