We believe that ethical production should not compromise the quality and design of the product, rather it adds to its exquisiteness and value. We produce high quality, luxury ethical goods that are unique to the market.
– Paola Masperi | designer Mayamiko | Malawi, Africa
An interview with Paola Masperi. . .
Paola, you are to be commended on not only practicing a sustainable fashion business but empowering a sustainable community. You source from the local market both fabric and production, you design and develop up-cycled collections, with a vision of capturing a global consumer staying true to the African heritage.
RPHill: Tell us about the beginnings of Mayamiko?
MP: I started Mayamiko in 2008 as a charitable project, with the long term view of turning it into a sustainable business for everyone involved, but very aware that it required a charitable mind set to get going: I had been doing work in Malawi and other developing countries and I could see so much potential that could be unlocked by providing education and skills, a way out of poverty that was sustainable and not dependent on aid. Many studies have shown that women’s education has a ripple effect not only on themselves and their family but also on the communities they live in. Couple that with an interest in fashion, the availability of wonderful fabrics and the many artisanal techniques that seemed to be slowly getting lost, that’s how the idea came about!
Because of your deep passion and commitment for a sustainable fashion business, how has Mayamiko contributed in developing that vision?
Mayamiko is based on the outskirts of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Our workshop (the Fashion Lab as we like to call it!) and training center are down a couple of Km of dirt road in the middle of the local community. So we are right in the thick of it!
We run a totally charitable training center, where we provide tailoring and sewing training, as well as embroidery and other artisanal skills to disadvantaged women from the local community.
Often, on top of our syllabus-based course, we host experienced artisans who come and teach specific skills. Sometimes a trainee may be a beginner at tailoring, but may have other great skills. For example recently one of our new trainees showed us some beautiful up-cycled flip-flops made of old tires, scrap leather and local beads. She is now teaching the other ladies how to make them. So you never know where the creative input might come from!
We also teach financial and basic business skills. At the end of their training, our graduates can apply for a grant to get a sewing machine and start their own business activity, or some may want to stay and work with us next door in the fashion lab on Mayamiko. It is very much a mutual arrangement, as everyone’s circumstances are different.
Alongside the training center, at the Fashion Lab, making Mayamiko collections we have three male tailors, a cutting manager and a cutting assistant – both ladies were promoted to those new roles over time. Charity, our cutting manager, used to be our tailoring trainer, and Jane started as our workshop-keeper, then applied for a place in the tailoring course, and then was promoted to cutting apprentice. Jane is a grandmother, while Charity recently got married and is expecting her first baby. We also have a production and QC manager, Carlo, and an operations manager, Emma. So age, gender, and circumstances are varied – but everyone is part of the Mayamiko family.
We then collaborate with other artisans depending on the project we are working on: batikers, dyers, carpenters (we made some lovely carved little buttons recently), knitters, crochet experts, embroiders. There are plenty incredible skills around, and for us it is about taking those traditional skills and interpreting them to make products that are desirable by our lovely customers all over the world.
And of course we have design collaborations with emerging designers who want to produce ethically, small scale and want to know who stitched their clothes, fashion schools, other labels, academic researchers. There’s never a boring day and every experience is enriching in its own way.
You use the local fabric, chitenje, along with other textiles unique to Africa. How available and competitive are textiles and manufacturing in your local market and in Africa as a whole? Feel free to elaborate on the challenges or advantages in sourcing locally.
Africa is a big continent and has a rich variety of textiles, unfortunately some of the artisanal traditions are dying out under the pressure of increasing competition from cheap imports and second hand goods. It is very hard to compete on price. We try to source as much as we can locally – this is part of our commitment to the community. We try to turn this into a feature and make it part of our USP. But it is very very challenging, especially as we grow and require slightly bigger quantities, and of consistently high quality. In the meantime we try and influence the conversation as much as possible, we lobby and we experiment with techniques and materials – but this is a real challenge and we need to work out our next steps so we keep true to our values, our commitment and we continue to deliver high quality products.
Exposure is the key in building brand awareness. A fashion business has many options of exposure. How do you communicate your brand to your audience – fashion shows, celebrity product placement, internet, etc.?
We select influencers who we feel are aligned with our values and our vision of the world. We connect with them via social media and fashion / sustainability event. But also we look at influencers whose style we like, and we try to work together to bring some of our stories to their style choices.
We work a lot online and a good website, SEO and link building are essential. We don’t have a huge budget for product placements, but we work closely with our international distributors to achieve maximum reach.
What more do we need to know about your journey so far in your sustainable practice? What tip(s) can you give to those up and coming designers who are developing a sustainable fashion business?
We have a very honest attitude about our practices. We are not perfect and don’t claim to be, but we always strive to be transparent about what we do. Sometimes we might make unpopular choices (for example: we are unable to date to work with organic cotton – we would love to but our only option would be import in large quantities, and this doesn’t fit our way of working at the moment) but we explain them as much as possible and we constantly try to improve. I welcome feedback and try not to take it too personally when it is negative, which is hard as Mayamiko is my baby. I try to step back and learn. My advice to others would be: choose what matters to you and be loyal to it. You can’t do everything, be everything, please everyone all the time. Stay true to your values and priorities, and stay open minded to review your ways of working as you progress.
I’m sure at the end of a very busy and long day, it must be gratifying to see results of your commitment to an ethically sound practice with a positive environmental and economic impact.
Cheers to you, Paola! EDGE wishes Mayamiko continued success.
All images: courtesy of Mayamiko.