The shift to fast fashion has overtaken our ability to adapt to a sustainable model. In solving this problem, some of Africa’s traditional sustainable fashion practices could play a role. There are eco-friendly and sustainable brands like Mayamiko that use traditional practices to make their brand eco-friendly and sustainable while at the same time support women and grow the community in Malawi. They recently launched their latest collection Kusintha. You can now purchase through their website.
We had the opportunity to speak to the charming, passionate and knowledgeable Paola Masperi, Founder of Mayamiko.
Your brand name is so unique. Can you briefly explain its background?
Although I am originally from Italy, I have been traveling to Malawi for work since 2004, and thus, have managed to establish a long-term relationship with the country. I have a background in digital innovation and development, but always had a passion for fashion due to the influence of my grandparents who were tailors.
Growing up in a home where our grandparents’ handmade clothes for us made me understand that pieces of clothing tell stories about who you are as an individual. Even though I have always been around fashion, I had never considered it as a career. Nonetheless, I did several work projects in Malawi until 2008 before I began my professional journey in the fashion industry. I had the opportunity to interact and create a strong connection with women leaders and work with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Women Leaders while undertaking digital technology for education projects. I developed the idea of sustainable and ethical fashion after interacting with people from diverse fields while undertaking and pushing the projects together. Additionally, I recognized and relate to a lot of things in Malawi from my childhood after the back and forth movement from the country to the UK and Italy. Besides, the fast-fashion exploded during the same period. The combination of these experiences challenged me to develop innovative and creative ways to present fashion. Therefore, together with the late Honorable Kate Kainja, who was Minister of Women and Child Development at the time, we started a nonprofit campaign that supports women by training them to tailor and sew.
This is one of the skills that the women wanted since it is flexible and they could either do it in a workshop or factory. We also partnered with Teveta, the accreditation body for vocational training and started teaching a six months’ module for tailoring and sewing. After a few years, we realized that the level of skills the graduates came out with was very high. Therefore, we juggled the idea of becoming a cut make and trim (CMT), which is essentially a production workshop for other brands, but it wasn’t well suited to our setup. The next step was thinking about how we could turn this program into something that generates sustainable income and ensures a positive impact for the women we work with. Therefore, we decided to start our own label. We started very small with tests, and as things developed, we progressed as a brand; 6 years later, we have sold in over 50 countries
How can you describe your journey in the sustainable movement? (Botanically dyed fabrics and Salvaged silk)
The African attitude towards fashion is very sustainable in itself since most designers do not waste fabric. They utilize the excess ones in various products such as hair accessories or bracelets. People have always valued materials and avoided the culture of waste since they mend old clothes. Currently, the only difference with sustainable fashion in Africa is the availability of a working structure around it, from a design perspective. We put extra care to limit waste by ensuring that they use the entire fabric by cutting exact design pieces and patterns. In case there is any fabric left, we upcycle and turn them into mops, fillings for mattresses or doormats. There are also some pieces that we turn into reusable sanitary pads for girls. Therefore, we have a real kind of commitment to not wasting anything, starting from design to production. Furthermore, we are now looking at the end- life of the product to see if we can take garments back and help people amend them. We are also working on ways which to extend the life of a garment after it has been sold by making them more valuable. Indeed, we are looking at the whole ecosystem to help with sustainability as we want to help people mend, resell and even rent out clothes.
Moreover, we have completed several projects using upcycled silk and wool; you have to be very creative in terms of how you use the fabric. The other thing that we are working on is using botanical dye. Currently, we are doing a collaboration project with a company in Sri Lanka that has a similar ethos to Mayamiko. They have developed ways of working with food waste to obtain natural dyes. I think this is something that was happening in the past in Malawi, but that is no longer the case. We would like to foster this collaboration further so that we can start using natural dye to promote the sustainability and eco-friendliness of the fabric.
You stated that most of your outfits have an encrypted QR Code that tells the story of the apparel and the artisan behind it. Tell us more about this.
The garments have unique QR codes that clients can scan to access the story behind each garment including where we bought the fabric, where it was cut and sawn and how it was packaged. For example, we work with a social-impact company in London that does the packing and the shipping for the website. They also train and employ people with learning disabilities. The QR codes direct the clients to our web page where you understand the story behind the garments. We want to show that there are so many people working behind the scenes. We also want people to understand that there is so much effort behind every garment.
Do you always have specific customers in mind as you design your apparel?
When I think of a collection or a design, I think of longevity. I ensure that I create garments that will not go out of fashion quickly. My approach is to go for something that is always evergreen. I make garments to last and work across seasons. For instance, you can even wear them over summer or winter. We have also tried to reduce the use of zips because they are quite limiting for everyone and even when it comes to people with disabilities. We use elastic-like wraps and ties to make them more adjustable.
What feeling do you want your clients to experience after rocking Mayamiko Designs?
We used COVID to take a step back and think about the brand messages; there has always been a feeling of joy in the clothes that we made for our customers. Our brand phrase is “Made with joy”; that is how we want people to feel when they put on our garments, and also that is how we want the people who make our garments to feel.
How do Europeans react to your African-inspired fashion designs?
They love them. At first, I was a bit worried since when people travel to a place and buy something locally then take it back home, it always reminds them of that place; but, since no one else is wearing them, they are not usually confident enough to wear them. However, everything turned out quite the opposite since people from Europe, Asia, the US, Australia tend to buy our products a lot. I think it is because the designs are quite universal. I also think that since the cuts and the shapes are very simple, it easier to pair the clothes with anything.
Who are the celebrities that have rocked your beautiful designs?
One of our strategies from the beginning was partnering with up and coming artists. One of the first collaborations was with a talented musician call Yadi from London. Particularly, we do not focus on whether the artist is small or big since it is about collaboration. Over the years we also worked with Lily Banda, a singer, song-writer and actress from Malawi who is now internationally recognized (you must watch The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind if you haven’t yet!). Also, recently we were fortunate that the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle wore one of our dresses for the 2019 royal African tour on the first day when she landed in South Africa to visit a girls school and women empowerment projects. This was a meaningful moment, not for the design, but since she chose to wear it for a specific occasion, talking to girls and women about their power. To this day, we still have people who request for the Dalitso or as others refer to it as the ‘The Meghan Markle dress’!
Which is the most favorite and the most memorable moment for Mayamiko Designs?
The most favorite moment for Mayamiko is receiving feedback from our clients, especially those who wear our garments to special occasions such as weddings and graduations. The fact that they choose to wear us for memorable moments makes us feel quite special.
The second one is when we created a partnership with Hlupe, one of our managers in Malawi; she now co-owns the factory and owns a local workshop. This was such an important moment because it meant building something long-term.
The third one for me is when staff start their own successful and thriving businesses. I treasure personal growth and development for all employees or partners working with Mayamiko.
Social Media has enabled people to copy your designs. How do you deal with them?
Although our designs are fairly easy to copy as the shapes are simple, I do not get too upset about it when it occurs. Moreover, I am designing the clothes so that they are at the maximum appeal and the greatest number of people enjoy them. I must admit that it is annoying, but in some way, it means that people enjoy your designs; imitation is the best form of flattery. The important thing is I will always remain a step ahead of the copycat. While they rely on copying, I have the creativity and the drive to grow my brand and team. Nonetheless, I would advise other designers who have unique designs to protect them with copyright.
What are most of the challenges you have encountered in the fashion world?
The main challenge that I encountered is that I learned on the job since I never went to fashion school or trained as a designer. I am a determined and precise person, hence, I wanted to understand the garment-making process and how to improve it. Obviously, for me, there was a steep learning curve and I was lucky to have that foundation of learning from my grandparents. I think a lot of designers struggle because the garment technician skills are not taught in all fashion courses, unless you do a specific module about garment construction.
The other challenge is that fashion moves so fast and many people buy a lot of cheap garments. Therefore, it can be difficult when you come in with a price that is a little bit higher. To compete on a completely different level, make the garments well, focus on the quality and educate your consumers.
The last challenge is sourcing materials. Malawi has a history of textile production in the past, but, now there is very little left locally. Hence, it has been quite difficult to rely on fabric that comes from outside as it limits us from planning ahead.
Tell us about the fashion industry in Malawi and the second-hand sector.
The fashion industry has definitely changed in the time that I have been here. There are a lot of second-hand markets called Kaunjika. This is a ‘bend-down’ market where you can find mountains of second-hand clothes. What I noticed starting from about 6-7 years ago is that young cool kids have embraced the local textiles and traditional fashion in a very creative way. I think in some ways social media has been really helpful because it has made traditional wear cool again. Besides, teenagers tend to pair them well and make them funky.
The local industry is not huge, there are some internationally recognized name such as Lily Alfonso, and there many young upcoming designers, so it is vibrant and growing.
How has COVID-19 influenced the way you do business, are there any innovations or strategies that you have implemented to maintain business operations?
COVID has impacted us in many ways starting from the supply of fabric, especially due to the closure of many borders such as Tanzania and Zambia where we buy our fabrics. We normally source through a cooperative of women traders who were massively affected by the pandemic. Therefore, our commitment has been to obtain materials from them as much as we can and work within the limitations of what is available.
The other aspect has been the lockdown since we had to close all the schools and our trainees could not train with production workshops for several months. Initially, we tried to implement social distancing safely in the workshop by spacing everything.
However, as things got worse, we realized that it did not feel right so everyone started working from home. We had a system where our production manager moved around distributing fabric to the cutters and then to the tailors. The manager would also go around the villages where the tailors lived and collect the pieces to ensure quality control. This worked for a little bit, but then the feedback we received from tailors was that it is hard to maintain social distancing in the villages. Therefore, we later decided that it was safer for our tailors to come to the workshop where we can maintain a safe social distancing environment.
I think that the biggest challenge was when we stopped fashion production, but we started making masks to donate to the community. We also worked on medical scrubs and other protective pieces of equipment that were within our capability of production. Since it was a real kind of restructuring, I think the lesson is agility.
We have a very strong network in Malawi and our local partners were able to change and shift quickly. We are small and so it was easier to become agile and change. Nonetheless, you can’t constantly sit still, you have to observe as the situation evolves and make the right choices. The priority was keeping people safe and brainstorming ideas that would contribute positively to the community.
Talking about technology do you have physical stores or do you conduct all of your business online?
No, currently, we do not have physical stores. We sell in Malawi through our partner Mayamiko by Tatenda; essentially, it is an offshoot of Mayamiko, managed by Hlupe, who has taken over the local workshop operations so that people can come in with their own fabrics, choose from our collection, and have pieces made for them and buy direct. Furthermore, we have focused on pop-ups in Malawi, UK and Italy since it is a good way to build the community and receive direct feedback about products, without having the overheads of running a shop.
Actually, having 95% of our operations online facilitated a smooth transition during the COVID-19 pandemic.