Interview: Paola Masperi, Mayamiko Designed

Parveen Devi interviews Paola Masperi, founder of the Mayamiko Trust and Mayamiko Designed, to discuss the latest collection, ethical and ethnic fashion and future endeavours.


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The Mayamiko Trust was set up in 2008, following your time travelling in Africa. Through setting up the trust you were able to provide support and training to women in Malawi. Essentially you were able to give the women an amazing opportunity to provide a sustainable future for themselves and their families. What inspired you to set up the trust?

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 and the availability of wonderful fabrics, that’s how the idea came about!

What difficulties did you face when trying to set up the charity?

You want to put your effort where it matters and where it can make a real difference – we are only tiny and the challenges are many and great. So, it was about keeping focussed and remembering that, despite being only a grain of sand, we are a grain none the less!

Would you ever expand the trust into other others countries?

Absolutely! We are currently looking at Sri Lanka and also working with a refugee project in Milan, Italy, using reclaimed Italian fabrics. We originate as a charity but have also a trading arm that brings in the funds, so as well as expanding the charitable work we do, I need to make sure we expand our supply chain to keep offering on- trend fashion to our customers.

You set up the Mayamiko Cotton Project, through the Mayamiko trust. What impact do you think it has made on the lives of the people working on the fashion line?

Where do I begin? It is everything from taking the tailoring training from a basic level all the way to export quality, it’s a different way of approaching work and life, the concept that you can earn a decent living and afford to pay for your child’s school fees is huge. This is a big question!

Mayamiko Designed is very young, what inspired you to take the leap into the fashion industry?

As I mentioned, we want to be sustainable and this means we need to produce quality garments that people want to buy. If we depend on aid, we will never get to that empowerment and independence we want for the people we are serving in the community. Also, have you seen the variety of fabrics and prints? That’s everyone’s dream and it seemed a logical (but scary and difficult) step.

Who designs Mayamiko Designed clothing?

Myself and my team. I am lucky to have a great mix of skills between us, from technical to commercial to creative. The most important thing is to remember the circumstances we work in and what we can realistically produce with our materials, equipment and skills. It’s a real balancing act because you have all your creativity flowing but then you need to make sure it can be produced well, and in multiples!

Where is the inspiration for the designs drawn from?

The places, the people, the smells and the noises that surround us, in Malawi and here in London and back home in Milan. Well actually all these places are home. It’s a real eclectic source of inspiration! And of course the catwalks. We want to be desirable and on trend and fashion forward when we can, so it is vital to keep an eye on what’s out there.

The material for the clothing is solely sourced locally in Malawi, what fabrics do you use and why?

Yes, we buy everything from the local market. Mostly it is printed woven cotton, the local variety is called chitenje, but there are also other similar fabrics from neighbouring countries and traditional wax (vlisco) fabrics, and we are finding more and more exciting print designs. We have also worked with plain white cotton doing batik, dip-dye and tie-dye.

How are the prints made?

It varies all the time! For batik we make simple shapes with sponge or pieces of wood. We then find the right mix of colours to get the shade we want and it is then dyed in the backyard of our dyer!

What is the create process of the designs?

At the moment we are not designing our own prints other than the batik and the hand dyes. We are looking at digitalising the most successful prints to apply them to jersey, but are still in the process of choosing!
As for the style designs, it is an iterative process of sampling and adjusting and resampling and adjusting again – the fabric has a mind of its own and some shapes work really well, others need tweaking.

Would you ever use fabrics that weren’t ethically sourced? If not, why?

This is a good but difficult question. There are so many things to take into account. We are not always 100% sure where the fabrics ultimately originate from, but we work with what we have. Importing fabrics is very costly, there are big custom duties to pay and then obviously the carbon miles. Being so small-scale we have decided that what matters most to us is the positive impact on people and the community, and to do that we keep everything local and improve where we can, within our sphere of influence. We would love better standards for finished woven fabrics in Africa, and keep engaging in the debate. In the meantime we keep working and doing our best with what we have!

Which designers do you compare yourself to? Do you only compare yourself to ethical designers?

I suppose our circumstances are so unique that this is hard to say, and we are at such a ‘baby’ stage that our personality is still shaping. I love Stella Jean’s work, Suno and D&G because it takes me back to my roots.

Have you ever thought about expanding Mayamiko Designed into other areas, such as footwear?

Footwear is hard because of the raw materials, but would be lovely! We have a range of accessories and accessories for the home.

Do proceeds of the fashion line go back into the trust?

They go back to the communities we work in, either by growing the workshop and the impact on the people we work with, or directly to the Trust.

What is your favourite piece from the collections so far?

Probably the sundress at the moment. It has been so lovely the past few days I have just wanted to pretend I’m on holiday! I also love the box shirt, it’s such a statement piece, all you need is need a pair of jeans and you are ready to go!

Where do see Mayamiko Designed in the next 5 years?

I would love to be an established, recognised and loved brand, across ethical and mainstream fashion. I want Mayamiko to continue being design and product-led, so customers come back for more because they love wearing our clothes. I’d love to experiment with different materials and shapes, which means looking at other growth strategies to think about where we can make the biggest positive impact on people while growing the brand.

Who would you most like to collaborate with?

It’s a long list! But really I would love to collaborate with a cutting edge commercial brand to prove that it is possible (I haven’t said *easy*) to have a competitive commercial collection that also has a great impact on everyone involved in making it.

What impact do you think ethnic and ethically made and sourced design has had on the fashion industry?

The catwalks have provided wonderful visual treats over the past few seasons with gorgeous bold prints, be it ethnic, tropical or geometric. For me it is about acknowledging different types of creativities and democratising and globalising the catwalks in a new way – for example, bold tropical prints on very structured pieces, traditional or ethnic shapes with new technical materials. It’s about breaking the rules and then putting them together again any number of new combinations. As for ethical – well for me the world is slowly waking up to the fact that we can no longer accept ethical and unethical as a divide in fashion– there is no excuse for production to be unfair and unethical and to cost people’s lives. We,as consumers, must start demanding what we have been expecting of other industries for a long time. I’m not saying it is easy – but it is achievable.

Do you think more designers embrace the use of ethically sourced clothing today?

Fashion is very personal to a designer and you wouldn’t want to be associated with something that is bad for the world. It is not what creating fashion or any form of artistic creation is about. I think designers are more and more aware of that. Still, I can speak from my experience of producing for other brands and designers too, the logistics of making it happen can be a big challenge and there is still an educational gap there.

How much of an impact has the trust made on the lives of the people on Malawi?

We are small so we can only reach so far, but the effect is exponential – it gives that perspective that life can be different if you have the tools, the education, the skills to make a difference for yourself. People might accept charity because they have no option, but what people really want are choices and options to take their life into their hands. Some will make more and some less of these options. This is what we want to do – help give people choices over their own life.

Where is the collection available to buy?

On our online boutique, and on a bunch of other beautifully curated online boutiques, there is a list on our website.

How big is your team at Mayamiko Designed?

It’s a tiny but mighty team! There are three people in the UK part-time and 10 people in Malawi, plus our trainees.

What is in store for the Autumn Winter 2014 collection?

That’s exciting! We have a great range of new hand-picked statement prints for autumn, and also a surprise reclaimed capsule collection…
Watch this space!

How often do you return to Malawi? Do you speak Chichewa?

About three times a year, but I wish it was more often. At the moment my skills are best used here, so you have to put your ego aside a little bit and focus on the greater good. Being here means I can support the right technical skills in Malawi.
I speak a little bit of Chichewa, enough to make everyone laugh!

Do you feel proud of the work you have accomplished? What impact has this work made on you?

I am proud of what my team have achieved and I am proud of every student that has come to class and graduated. As for me, this work humbles me every day and reminds me of how much I still have to do!

How did you keep yourself motivated?

I remind myself of the bigger picture and why I am doing this – and I am surrounded by great people and family who remind me of the bigger picture when I forget and get too stuck in the detail! It is only the beginning of this journey but it’s been a long one already. The idea of growing and getting better and making a difference to more and more people keeps me motivated.

What advice do you have for aspiring designers or people who are thinking of setting up a charity?

Do your research first, go out and see for yourself. Put a plan together and then be ready to throw it all up in the air and start again!
Repeat the process a number of times, and most of all – follow your heart!

Thank you for speaking with us Paola, your work in Malawi is a truly inspiring act of selflessness. Ethical trade is such a big issue globally, and specifically in the fashion industry. We hope that more designers take note of your work and seek out new, more ethical, ways to manufacture their work.


To view the whole Mayamiko Designed collection please visit the website here.

To donate to the Mayamiko Trust please click here.

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