On the pelvic bone-revealing cut of the bottoms: "If you can be out in public and this area that is always covered is suddenly bare, that's pretty great. Whether you're curvy or not curvy, it's cute. And because you're so low in the front, you can cut the cheek up a bit and you won't have that grab in the back."
"We still get gals in our store that we're not fitting, and it's crushing. As hard as we try, there's always going to be someone else that it's not quite right on. But that's the fun of it. There's always something new to do and no shortage of new ideas because of that."
On her trademark low leg opening: "Leg lengthening is evil."
"Color has always been something we take a lot of pride in as a point of difference. This is our brightest season to date."
"I was hugely influenced by Claire McCardell. We are still today, for example, using only black and white thread. It's this idea that to have a great impact, you don't need a lot of stuff, you just have to think cleverly."
On early controversial patchwork bikinis: "When I first started I asked fabric stores for samples, and made bottoms out of those. That's why there's so little to it."
"I love making patterns. My class at The Chambre Syndicale ultimately taught me, especially in swimwear, a 16th of an inch actually means a lot."
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Malia Mills

Inside a swimsuit design studio in the heart of NYC's garment district

by CH Editors
on 18 August 2011

"Save the Garment Center" urges the sign in the middle of swimsuit designer Malia Mills' garment-district studio in New York City. Haphazardly stuck in one of the many racks of patterns that fill the workspace among rolls of fabric, sketches and other evidence of a busy design hub, the sign reads like a battle cry for the eponymous 20-year-old line. Mills, a poster child for what it means to live and work as a fashion designer in the city, built her brand over the decades through a combination of grit, ingenuity and her vision of making great-fitting suits for women.


The journey for Mills started unconventionally at Cornell University, where she studied apparel design, constructing everything from scuba suits to skirts. As a supplement to the problem-solving skills the program instilled, she learned the art of tailoring at Paris' renowned school for haute couture, The Chambre Syndicale. Once landing in New York, a long road of alliances and luck helped get her where she is today. Landlords that let her go without paying rent for six months, the Tribeca restaurant where she waitressed that let her use their office, and a mentor in Theory founder Andrew Rosen all helped the business grow into the 10-store-strong label that it is today.

malia-mills-thread.jpg malia-mills-seamstress.jpg

But of course the real backbone of Malia Mills is design. While education gave Mills the highly technical background needed for such a challenging garment, the founder traces her aesthetic to two pivotal childhood experiences with swimwear. Her first bikini, a lemon-yellow number received for Christmas in 1976, followed by a hot pink two-piece that stood out among the Speedos of 1980, helped define a look for women that's as much about style as it is about function.


The sensibility has to do with the kind of thoughtfulness that goes into good design. On our recent visit, the designer jumped up to pull out a college assignment on fashion designer Claire McCardell, who Mills cites as a huge influence on her approach. McCardell's philosophy of "honing your senses" is advice Mills still gives to every new hire.

To pull it all off, Mills credits the "massive luxury" of being in the Garment Center as a key factor that "truly facilitated the growth of the business." Her tops-by-bra-size approach and goal of fitting almost every body type means she has to be completely hands-on throughout the entire production process. "What we're making is such a tactile thing," she explains. Even the smallest discrepancy in yardage can make a huge difference in fit.

See more of the designer's early stylings, current collection, and more in the photo gallery.

by Karen Day and Ami Kealoha

Photos by Karen Day

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