Can fashion help to make the world a better place? UK-based brand Mayamiko certainly thinks so. The company founded in 2015 by Paola Masperi does everything in its power to make clothes in an ethical and environmentally-friendly manner. Always produced in limited quantities, Mayamiko’s clothes are made from organic cotton and traditional printed fabrics handpicked from a local market in Malawi that’s just a stone's throw away from the company’s solar-powered workshop, where the vast majority of workers are women. They receive a fair living wage, a nutritious meal every day and a pension scheme.
Looking to generate zero waste, Mayamiko makes sure all fabric scraps are turned into something useful: those that are not used to make clothing become scrunchies, jewelry or sanitary pads distributed to women and girls in need. To reduce the environmental impact caused by shipping orders all over the world, all of Mayamiko’s packaging is made from recyclable materials and a tree is planted with every new purchase thanks to a partnership with nonprofit organization One Tree Planted.
Speaking of partnerships, Mayamiko frequently joins forces with other brands and organizations to expand its offering of sustainable, ethical fashion. Silk handbags from Sri Lanka’s Booteek, a project supporting women artisans who are mothers to disabled children, are available on Mayamiko’s website, for example. The brand also teams up with Fiore all’Occhiello, an upcycling cooperative in Milan providing stable employment for disenfranchised communities, refugees and asylum seekers.
FashionUnited spoke with Masperi over the phone to learn more about Mayamiko’s business model and how it already puts into practice what other fashion brands are pledging to accomplish in a decade or more.
Tell us about the beginning of the brand. How did the idea for Mayamiko come about?
I’ve worked in different African countries on projects using technology to improve education, between 2004-2008. Many of those projects were related to women’s empowerment. Several studies show that, by empowering women, the positive effect spreads across the entire family and the community. When women earn more money and have more choices, their money is very likely to be invested into their children’s education.
Based on that and the relationships I’ve formed with various organizations in Africa, I started thinking: ‘how can I do something that empowers women in a way that works for them and includes them in the decision-making process?’ I started talking to various women leaders and sewing was one of the skills that kept coming up. Fashion is a great unifying power, everyone wants to wear lovely clothes and look good. That seemed to be a really strong interest for women and it also allowed them to work in a more independent way. If they wanted to be full-time workers, they could, but if they wanted to be more flexible or work from home, that would be possible as well.
The first few years were about building capabilities: training them and making sure we got to the right level of technical expertise, with the ability to create products that would be suitable for exports as well. That took quite some time. Then, we spent a couple of years manufacturing clothes for other labels until the desire to retain more of the value and have more creative control around what we were making led us to create our own brand.
How does Mayamiko’s current way of working differ from what it used to do for other brands?
This isn’t meant to be criticism of brands, but many were just starting to play around with the idea of producing more ethically and sustainably, and they were looking for partners to do that, but they didn’t necessarily understand all the constraints they’d operate within. Many brands didn’t understand that, when you import textiles, there’s a bigger environmental impact, you increase your carbon footprint. There’s also a social impact because you’re potentially taking work away from the local community by using fabrics from abroad. Anyway, there were a lot of complexities which I think were too much for certain brands to grasp. Sustainability was quite a new concept ten years ago.
For some brands, we sourced locally, for others we collaborated with local artisans to do tie-dye and dip dye, some others imported their own textiles of choice. It was a bit of a mix. Honestly, it was quite hard for us to make all these compromises. It was a lot of trial and error and figuring out what worked for each brand.
I think the experience of working for other labels showed us the educational gap that needs to be filled in the industry. The idea to start our own brand came from the realization that we understand these constraints better and therefore we can navigate them better.
What were the main challenges you faced when starting your own brand?
We've wanted to work with organic cotton and sustainable fabrics from the very beginning, but that was and continues to be a challenge. Very little is produced in Malawi and there is no certified organic cotton. So, if you want the product to have the certification, you have to import the fabric. We’re still trying to find a balance so, at the moment, we source local fabrics but we also found a really good partner in Uganda, which is relatively close to Malawi, to provide us with organic rain-fed cotton.
Developing the aesthetics of the brand was also a challenge. How can we be true to the origins of these textiles, tell their stories and have that process of co-creation with the local artisans, but at the same time create something with global appeal? The solution was to create very simple evergreen silhouettes that appeal to a broad audience and also have longevity. Our brand is not led by trends. We let the textiles tell more of the story.
Mayamiko also has a zero waste policy. How do you make sure every single thread is used?
It starts from the conception at the design phase. We always ask ourselves how we can create patterns in a way that is smart and utilizes every piece of fabric. A lot of effort goes into placing patterns in the most efficient way possible, which is quite difficult… Print alignment is very challenging.
However, zero waste is more of an ambition, designing for zero waste is impossible. We try, but there is always a bit left. So then we asked ourselves: how can we use these scraps in a way that’s useful? That’s when we came up with a range of products, from scrunchies to earrings, to creatively use every scrap.
The other initiative we came up with was using the fabric to create reusable sanitary pads for girls. They are not only made of scraps, the fabric that goes against the skin is made of organic cotton. Not having access to sanitary products is one of the main reasons why girls don’t go to school during their periods. There’s still a lot of stigma around it. So, we work with an organization that delivers educational messages around the topic of menstruation and women’s health, and we deliver a product that supports their message.
The small pieces of fabric that we can’t do anything with are used for doormats or mops.
Mayamiko works with several nonprofits. Did you actively seek these partnerships or did they happen organically?
Our philosophy is one of human connections. We believe that we’re stronger and better together. We don’t see other brands as competitors but rather as potential partners. I think it’s just our mindset, but it may also be a cultural thing. I was born in Italy and I come from a big family. Conviviality is something that’s in me as a person.
A lot of these partnerships are strategic. For example, we were wondering how we could reduce our carbon footprint and one option was to offer customers the opportunity to plant a tree for every time we ship an order. We’re basically saying: “look, we’re not perfect and we know that. While we work on getting better, what can we do in the meantime?”. Usually a partnership is the best way to do that.
The others are more opportunistic. So, for example, I was travelling in Sri Lanka looking for artisanal products that we could offer to our audience when I encountered this amazing project with mothers of disabled children. It’s very different business model from Mayamiko. The mothers go to town once a week to make the pieces. I felt that this organization, like us, figured out something that works for the people. So, a partnership was a natural thing for us. We form these partnerships to offer our customers a more varied product range and allow them to get in touch with different realities, crafts and techniques.
You can learn so much from working with other brands and organizations! Sometimes you’re kind of stuck in your own little world, trying to make your business work and, suddenly, there’s this world out there full of people doing amazing things and you can learn from each other.
How has Mayamiko been received so far? How are sales going?
We have a lovely problem, which is we have more customers than products. This didn’t happen overnight, it took us three years to build a following and the reputation that our products are of good quality. It’s really great for us to see customers that keep coming back. My big dilemma is how to grow in a way that’s sustainable both economically but also in terms of my vision. Where do we go from here? Do we need to partner with bigger factories to produce more so we can sell more? Is that really what we want?
Maybe we have to think of smarter business models, such as a secondary market where people can send their used clothes back and get something new in return. We’re now at a painful point.... We always talk about being more sustainable, more responsible, more mindful with our consumption patterns, but the way we measure success is still very old school. For example, if you’re looking at investors or getting financial help from the bank, some of these metrics about growth, which are about selling more and more, they actually don’t fit with the world we want to create.
We’re small and we still make mistakes, but we want to be choosy about the mistakes we make and the risks we take because we’re dealing with people’s jobs and their jobs are their lives. We could have had a much faster growth trajectory but we deliberately choose not to grow too fast.
How many people work for Mayamiko at the moment?
We have 15-20 people working for us full-time and 50-100 artisans collaborating with us occasionally. It depends on the collection we’re working on and the partners we’re working with.
What do you think of traditional fashion companies claiming to be sustainable?
It’s hard to differentiate yourself these days because all the big brands are doing some sustainability or ethics initiative. That is really confusing for consumers. I’m not saying that big brands are greenwashing but it’s very hard to differentiate between what’s marketing and what’s real innovation. The fact we’re small allows us to change and innovate faster.
What are Mayamiko’s plans for the future?
We’ve created QR codes for our new collection which allow us to link each individual product to the people who worked on it. People talk about transparency and connecting with the makers a lot, but many of those initiatives are very generic. If you scan a QR code, usually you’re taken to a generic page that tells you a little bit about the product and that’s it. We thought: “how can we push this envelope a bit further?” If you now buy a dress from Mayamiko and scan the QR code, we know exactly who made that dress, so you’re taken to a page that tells you truthfully the real people that made that specific dress.
If you know exactly who made a product, you know exactly what went into that product. What materials, what trims. If you think long-term about smart recycling, that would be really valuable data. We’re hoping that’s something we can do both for Mayamiko and potentially offer to other brands in the future.
More broadly, our goal is to improve our positive impact. Can we work with more women? Can we work with more artisans? Can we bring more sustainable products to our customers? Can we be more inclusive? Today, since we only work with organic cotton, it isn’t very flexible, so only certain shapes work. We want to try and be as inclusive as we can. We’ve recently removed all zippers from our products, everything is tied so it can be adjusted to different body shapes. But we’re not doing enough on that side, we need to do more.
How have customers reacted to the QR codes so far?
The QR codes were launched three weeks ago, so it’s all very new. But it’s definitely gotten a lot of interest on social media. We can see in analytics that people are using the codes and viewing the pages.
In the future we'd like to expand on that and offer customers the opportunity to talk to the makers, send them a thank you note. We know this is only the beginning of the journey, but the response has been positive.
Nevertheless, there’s a pragmatic part of me that thinks “even if people don’t use it, we should do it anyway because it keeps us honest”. This is something that helps us to make sure we never cut corners. Let’s say we’d meet again in five years and Mayamiko would have grown 100 times, making millions of products. If you ask me that same question, “do you know who made your products?”, and I’m not able to answer it... Then I’ll have failed.
Pictures: Mayamiko Facebook