"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.
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