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Malia Mills’ Body-Posi Swimwear | Pop-In@Nordstrom de Soleil

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Back in the ’90s, Malia Mills hated that shopping for swimwear was a scary experience for so many women. Since then she’s been slaying the fashion game with a mission to get past the stress zone and into the #hellyes zone.

With Malia Mills’ swim designs currently featured in Pop-In@Nordstrom de Soleil—our sun/swim shop curated by Olivia Kim—we caught up with the boss herself to talk about body image in the era of the Lenny Letter, intense ruffles and the importance of getting out there and having a margarita. 

Malia Mills halter | all Malia Mills | Pop-In@Nordstrom de Soleil

Nordstrom blogs: The last time we interviewed you, it was one year ago at your studio in Brooklyn. Our friend Laura did the interviewing.

We had such a good time! She had just flown in. We always love having people come by to visit and giving them the inside-out of what’s going on.

Since that interview, what’s changed about the way we talk about body image in America?

It’s such a good question. I was just reading this morning the Lenny Letter and they were interviewing Ellen Malcolm from EMILY’s List, the gal who’s been working so long and hard to get more women into politics. And she had such a great way of describing making change as “sometimes a leap, and lots of times a creep.” In that you always have to keep the creep up or else you fall behind, even after you’ve made a major leap. She was asked what she’d do if Hillary Clinton was elected president of the United States. And she said yes, she’d celebrate, but you still have to keep your head down and continue moving forward. It’s very similar to our business, I would say.

How so?

I had a waitressing job in 1991 and started making swimsuits out of my apartment. The mission of the business has always been “Love Thy Differences.” The swimwear experience is the hot button for that, perhaps the ultimate anxiety in womenswear. We’ve had this conversation now for 25 years. We are definitely as much psychotherapists as we are fit specialists, in many ways. We work hard to use positive language and not have women worrying about, “Is this a size 6 or a size 8….” It’s like: “You’re standing tall. You look great. I can see it in your eyes that this is the one. Now get out there and have a margarita!”

There’s been lots of creeping for all these years. But right now, the most exciting thing happening is that the conversation is so much more on the tips of everybody’s tongue. I’m seeing a lot more women taking ownership of who they are, what they do and their accomplishments in life. Taking a back seat is their size and shape, which is as it should be. Recognizing we are so much more than the way we look. And yet the way we look is very empowering. By that I mean clothing, accessories and makeup: it’s all part and parcel of taking ownership of who we are, and our unique beauty, and getting out there and kicking ass. The conversation is really the zeitgeist. It’s percolating. People are writing beautiful essays about it. They’re having dynamic conversations about it. I feel there is a movement forward that is very encouraging and inspiring.

So you think we’re creeping, on the verge of leaping.

I think so. I feel very strongly about this concept of women in leadership setting tremendous examples. Hillary’s one of many who’ve taken leadership roles in politics. You can’t underestimate when younger women see women do things that have never been done before. It’s incredibly motivating. And in small ways that you might not be able to quantify, it’s almost as if the inspiration starts to swirl around. And you stop throwing up as many roadblocks as you might have done when you have all these women around you living fierce, incredible lives. We’re seeing so much of that in the media, now and in our everyday experience.

Who are some of the writers you look to for inspiration on that topic?

There are so many, from Gloria Steinem to Lena Dunham and everyone in between. And I love social media. Googling “body image” or searching for the hashtag #lovethydifferences, you turn up so many amazing results.

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Malia Mills bikini top

Let’s talk about some of the pieces of yours we’re selling.

The Juliette top—which you have in the color Dark & Stormy—is a piece we’ve been selling for a long time. It’s something our customer loves because it’s quite simple, it’s kind of a no-brainer. A lot of women wear it as a bra. A lot of women wear it under sheer blouses with high-waist bottoms in the summertime. It’s so versatile.

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Malia Mills one-piece

In the color we call Funkytown, you have the Cordelia, one of our more fashion-forward one-pieces. It’s a strapless with a detachable neck strap. The strap has a beautiful detail behind the neck, where the strap gets a little wider, with some lovely topstitching. And then you have this extra long tie—we’re big fans of extra-long ties. You can wrap it around your waist as much or as little as you want. Very low riding, very ’60s-inspired leg line. So coming, it’s pretty demure. But leaving, it’s smoking hot.

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Malia Mills bikini bottoms

The old one-two.

Yes. Then you have our New Mexico color, a fabric with a slight sheen to it in a beautiful earth tone. You’ve got our Raquel top [ed. note: seen at the top of this blog post] and Summer of Love bottoms. The Raquel top is named after Raquel Welch, because it’s similar to a silhouette we often saw in vintage images of her. Again, a very ’60s-inspired silhouette for the bottom. Slightly cheeky in the back, very low riding.

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Malia Mills swim shorts

Just taking it one step further.

Right, taking it one step further with the dark wooden rings. And then we have the Marianne short shorts, which have asymmetrical shirring on both sides. Everyone wants to throw a flag for the boyshorts. “I can’t wear it because I’m too curvy! I can’t wear it because I’m kind of petite and not tall enough!” But it’s not to be underestimated. A little cheek showing in the back, the shirring means you can adjust the size to be a little higher or lower, and you have a silhouette that’s really saucy without being too revealing.

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Malia Mills drop one-piece

Perfectly said.

And then in classic vamps, you have the Valencia one-piece. We took one of our classic tank suits and did some cutouts. Nothing too extreme, but basically a gesture to indicate, you know, calm water runs deep. It’s not super risqué, but just enough to make you feel like standing and really striding toward the water. It’s got adjustable straps like a bra, you can crisscross them if you want, and there’s a third strap so you can wear this as a halter as well. A three-strap convertible. And then you have our vamp top, which is the best of the halter and the best of a triangle top, crashed together. Wide straps, beautiful seaming and extra-long ties that you can either wrap around your neck as a halter or around your waist.

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Malia Mills retro bikini bottoms

Options.

Indeed. And the Pucker Showgirl bottoms: again we’re into this demure in the front, wild in the back kind of idea. So this is a retro, wide-style bikini bottom, and then in the back we pucker the fabric right up the center of your butt. It’s nice to have a little bit of, “Oh! I wasn’t expecting that.”

Do you find that you have a typical customer? A common body shape or size?

We have the most crazily diverse customers that it would blow your mind. It’s hard when we talk about “target audience” or marketing to different people. We have literally grandmothers, daughters and their granddaughters. Everyone loves the mission of “Love Thy Differences.” It’s how they live their lives and they feel aligned with it. We truly are trying to engineer and craft beautiful garments, inside and out. We use very special fabrics, unexpected linings, trims from all around the world. At first glance our suits can look simple, but the beauty and uniqueness comes through when you put them on. It’s you we want to be making the statement. The suit is an extension or a little bit of a complement to that.

By and large, the suits we’re designing aren’t making a strong statement by themselves. Occasionally we do that, suits with Swarovski crystals or kind of intense ruffles. But in general there is a simplicity, or perceived simplicity, to what we do. I believe that’s why we appeal to such an amazing range of gals, because they think they can find something from us that shows off who they are.

–Andrew Matson