Sublime: What inspired you to create an ethical and sustainable clothing brand?
Malaika Haaning: A little bit of everything, I guess. Sustainability has always been important to me, in every area of my life. Growing up, I was taught to save water. Then I began recycling everything I could and avoided plastic packaging. Professionally speaking, in one of my construction classes at Parsons [School of Design, New York] we were asked to create a garment but with no cutting or sewing. Basically you had to make a garment from a piece of cloth draped onto a dressmaker’s dummy. Creating the Zero Vest made me wonder, ‘Why waste fabric if you don’t have to?’ A regular pattern wastes 30% of fabric for each garment made! In the same class, the professor challenged us to create textures and develop new techniques. I wanted to experiment with unconventional materials. I was tired of seeing plastic bags literally flying around in New York, and thought there must be a way to use these bags as fabric. I worked for weeks to develop the technique that converted plastic bags into the beautifully textured pieces we now use as garment embellishments and jewellery.
S: How did you go about setting up your company, and what problems did you encounter, if any?
MH: A store in Los Angeles wanted to buy my Zero Vest after I went into their store wearing it. I was just browsing; I hadn’t even started MALAIKA at that point. I began with a business plan, a draft of my idea. Initially I launched my company offering just two garments: the Zero Vest and our Lopsided T-shirt. I wanted to minimise waste by producing just a limited range of designs, but I soon realised that was going to be impossible, so I expanded the line. I didn’t suddenly change the fashion industry from day one.
S: Your collections are asymmetrical and futuristic. What’s the inspiration behind your design approach?
MH: I’m always looking forward, trying to imagine what the world might look like and what we might wear. Our planet is changing, faster than it should. Climate change is happening, and we have to adapt to it, to focus on sustainable living. We don’t know what the world will look like in 100 years, or if the world will even be here in 100 years. ‘Aliens’ might just be a metaphor for our own existence. When we approach a design idea, we always have sustainability in mind. We ask ourselves, what can we do to make each piece as sustainable and ethical as possible? Our design process is a combination of draping the garment to see if our vision is possible, and then finding new techniques to create the silhouette.
S: How is your company contributing to a more sustainable world?
MH: Our biggest focus is on creating zero waste garments. We are also starting to create garments using sustainable fabrics such as Tencel, organic GOTS [Global Organic Textile Standard] cottons and bamboo. We produce everything locally and source 95% of our fabric from the US or Canada. We constantly challenge ourselves to develop new design techniques and create more sustainable silhouettes to limit waste. We aim to lead the change in the fashion industry, which is the second most polluting industry in the world, and would encourage other designers to consider using sustainable design techniques too.
S: Could you tell us a little more about MALAIKA’s tree scheme?
MH: We want to improve our environment, and planting a tree is a great way to do it. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and other harmful gases from the air, and release oxygen. One large tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for four people! The project we support is called The Canopy Project, which restores tree cover and does conservation and repair work in rural areas on six continents.
S: Do you see ethical clothing design and retail gaining more recognition in New York?
MH: There is certainly a move towards buying ethical clothing, and there is an increase among consumers in considering the impact of fashion on the environment. Climate change is a big part of that motivation, but also people are becoming more health-conscious and environmentally friendly in general.
S: What would you say are some of your favourite fabrics?
MH: That’s a tough question! I love medium- to heavyweight fabrics. One of the fabrics we use for our Fremtids Coat (available from September) is 100% American-produced cotton with a beeswax finish. What I love about it is the way the fabric changes over time as it becomes softer with wear, but you can also see the fine lines in it. Another fabric, or leather, is ‘pineapple leather’, a textile we are using in our new collection. I can’t get over the fact that it’s made from pineapple! The texture is a bit uneven on the surface, but thick enough to keep the wind out.
S: In your opinion, what are the advantages of making a collection with ECONYL fabrics?
MH: ECONYL is beautiful, strong and durable, and it drapes really well. It’s also important to us to support brands who have sustainability at the heart of who they are. ECONYL’s goal is to save fish and wildlife. They make their thread from recycled fishing nets. When fishermen have finished using their nets, they usually throw them in the sea, where fish and wildlife get trapped in them and eventually die. ECONYL specialise in gathering nets from the ocean floor and processing them into yarn. We had to find a way to work with their fabrics and support their mission!
S: Is there a MALAIKA collection for men?
MH: We would love to design a menswear range! Right now we offer our Zero Vest in one size, for men, and there are a few more pieces coming up in future. There’s a large male audience interested in our pieces, and we are trying to cater for them.
S: Finally, what is the secret to having the perfect capsule wardrobe?
MH: Focus on your design strengths, and be true to your personal aesthetic and ethics. Stick to your guns!
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