Malaika Haaning: From Parsons to ZERO WASTE Fashion
Malaika Haaning is a sustainable fashion designer and founder of Malaika New York.
“Malaika branded garments using a technique that minimizes waste. The apparel industry is one of the biggest waste-producing industries. Much of the excess materials created in the apparel industry end up in landfills. By implementing Zero Waste Patterns, we are able to strategically drape the fabric in a such a way so little to no materials are wasted.”
Millennials and the general consumer market have become more environmentally conscious. However, the fashion industry has a lot of work left to do. “More than 15 million tons of used textile waste is generated each year in the United States, and the amount has doubled over the last 20 years”. Also, “Early July 2018, fashion brand Burberry had burned almost £30m ($40m) of stock has caused outrage. The company admitted destroying the unsold clothes, accessories and perfume instead of selling it off cheaply, in order to protect the brand's exclusivity and value.”
As a fashion designer, Malaika’s entire clothing line is focused on zero waste. Zero Coat, Zero Dres and other incredible design pieces.
Originally from Denmark, Malaika had learned about recycling and energy saving at a young age. After spending her 20s working in logistics, Malaika decided to apply to Parsons in New York City.
“If I have to do something, before I get kids, before I get too settled down, it has to be now. I didn’t want to be within the field I was in anymore, I enjoyed the time I had and I got to travel, but I was like… if I have to do it it has to be know. And I’m so happy I did it.”
[06:00] What’s your origin story? How/when did you get started into fashion?
[09:00] How the application process like to Parsons? What was your age at that time? When did you move to the US?
[11:00] What was going through your head when you decided to pursue fashion design for a living and setting up your own business?
[12:00] How was the interaction with your peers and colleagues when you were at fashion school and during internships/business? Was it challenging? It’s a pretty tough area.
[14:00] What are some of the internships that you did and what did you learn from them? What are some of the things you learned during the internships that then you could apply to your own business?
[17:00] Did you have to present a line of clothes when you finished your degree/as part of graduation? Was there a connection with the brand that you created later?
[20:00] How did you start Malaika NY?
[22:00] How do you go about cutting the fabric/materials to minimize waste?
[27:00] Your business model is a bit challenging since you target fewer clients with high-quality, long-lasting clothes. What’s difficult about your current process and how do you overcome some of those difficulties?
[29:00] Who is your target audience and customer base? What are they like?
[31:00] Can you expand a bit more about the materials you use? How did you find them?
[32:00] What would you recommend to first buyers?
[37:00] Do you think that your origin had an impact on your personal style, what you wear today and your brand?
[38:00] How does your current wardrobe look like?
[41:00] What would you recommend for people who want to get started designing their own clothes?
[43:00] How can people find your brand, contact you on social, etc?
[11:00] If I have to do something, before I get kids, before I get too settled down, it has to be now. I didn’t want to be within the field I was in anymore, I enjoyed the time I had and I got to travel, but I was like… if I have to do it it has to be know. And I’m so happy I did it.
[14:00] I gave it 110% all the way. I didn’t have a life while I was going there. It was just all about school, all about making the perfect result in whatever I was doing, and learning as much as possible.
[27:00] In the beginning it was very much uphill. You spend a lot of money figuring out what NOT to do.
[29:00] Most fashion businesses fail within a year. You see a company come, and after two years it is totally gone. It’s because people want to do it too fast.
[31:00] I want people to feel comfortable, but still modern and cool
Transcript of Interview with Malaika Haaning.
What’s your origin story? How did you get into fashion?
Malaika [6:50] It was, actually, pretty early on. I guess I was always encouraged to use my name for something because it isn't a standard Danish name, either. At first, I wanted to be a singer, but I gave that up very, very early on. And then I said: “Okay, what should I do then?” And I always liked dressing up and drawing dresses, but at some point, I just started playing around with stretch fabric and started sewing it into tubes. Then I was trying to play with it on the body and all that stuff.
Fei Wu [7:40] How old were you at the time?
Malaika [7:42] Eight or nine, something like that. That's very early on. I mean, it was not like said: “I wanted to be a fashion designer”, it was just more like being a kid and playing.
And then I guess it just continued growing with me. For the New Year in 2000, I wanted to do something big, like a silver dress or something that's welcoming it into a new decade. So I made this silver dress, and I was wearing the outfit and everyone was complimenting me. And I was like “Okay, maybe I should try work more towards something in this direction”.
What was the process of applying to the Parsons like? At what age did you move to the US?
Malaika [9:08] My story of getting to Parsons is very long, but I’ll try to make it short.
I worked professionally in logistics for 10 years, traveling, that's how I came to the US in the beginning. They just sent me around the world, there was no other way and I just eventually found out it wasn't for me. I guess that's how I learned about Parsons in the first place. Then I read about FIT and was figuring out where to go. But then I was like “Okay, Parsons is like Harvard for fashion. If I really want to do this, I need to be in a lead school. Let's try to apply for Parsons”. I was probably like 5% chance that I will get in because it's a very tough school to get into. And then, a couple of months later, I got a letter saying that I was accepted. I was like “Okay, well, I guess I'm moving to New York”.
Fei Wu [10:32] Oh, wow. This is actually interesting, a lot of our guests who appear on the show, talk about the unconventional route or the unexpected nature of life.
So you worked in logistics, which is a totally different industry. And then you said to yourself: “Okay, I've already gone to school, but now I'm willing to sacrifice a job and pursue fashion design. What were you thinking at the time? How old were you?
Malaika [11:21] Well, it was the late 20s. That's around when people start getting kids and all that, and I was like “If I have to do something before I get kids and get to settle down, it has to be now”. Also I didn't want to be within that field I was in. I enjoyed it for the time that I had, and I got to travel and all that, but I was like “If I have to do it, it has to be now”. And I'm so happy I did it.
What was it like for you to be in your late 20s and attend a very technical design school?
Malaika [12:40] The degree that I took is a two-year degree at Parsons, and it's for people who already have other degrees in the other fields like logistics, business, even people that educated themselves to be lawyers and all that, so I went to school with those people. And all of those people also knew that at one point of their life, they had to make a decision about they're going to do in the future, and it was kind of like the last thing for them. But most of them have actually been studying before and only a few had work experiences. And I feel like the ones that had work experience were better students because they knew what they were going to use their education for, where the others have just been studying.
For me, it was like “This is it. I moved to New York. This is Parsons, I'm so excited”. Basically, I gave it 110%. I had all the internships that I could have to learn the most possible, I didn't have a life while I was going there. It was just all about school, all about making the perfect result in whatever I was doing, and learning as most as possible.
Fei Wu [14:01] What are some of the internships that you had? What did you learn while you were there?
Malaika [14:06] It was six in the two years. So I didn't have a moment off even when it was summer break. I had one internship at Michael Kors, and then I had one in LA. I mean, it's different when you learn because it's different things that you're doing there.
I actually moved to LA for the summer to work there for three months, like for any regular job within fashion. And I really got to see firsthand how the big corporation works. But it was just three times a week, so it's not a full-time job, and, of course, you get to see many things, but you don't get to see everything.
What have you learned during the internships that apply to starting your own business?
Malaika [15:35] Well, both of them are fast-fashion companies, one more than the other. I wanted to do my own business because there nobody is controlling what I designed. The purchasing department in these companies, they don't have a say about designs that's comes out, so you can design many things, but in the end, it is the purchasing department that's going to decide what goes out to the stores. Also the thing that resonated with me the most was the waste part of everything and the way they come up with new styles. I mean, it's just a lot of waste.
Fei Wu [16:54] Before we talk about your brand - I heard about the senior project at the end of the course at Parsons. Do you have to present a line of clothing or a piece of clothing as a part of the graduation project?
Malaika [17:15] Yeah, there is. So you have a small collection that you do. And also you have all the classes that you finish, and for each class, you have an assignment, and most of my classes were construction because I was very focused on that.
So what I did for my last one was a textile made out of recycled plastic bags. And, I mean, it took, I would say, at least a month to develop it, so it becomes something you could use.
Is there a connection between your graduation project and the brand that you're creating now?
Malaika [18:23] Yeah, there is. So I was actually trying to get into the zero waste that year.
We had an assignment to create something out of a piece of fabric without cutting too much, with no sewing, and our construction teacher was like “How can you do that?” And we did that. I guess that was the zero-waste. That is one of our backbones, and that's also the reason why I started the company - I felt like I had something there.
I wore that particular garment that I made in that class to a store in LA. I was actually just going there to get some inspiration for a new collection that we're creating, and one guy there stopped me and asked: “What are you wearing?” And I'm like “Well, this is mine”. I didn't have a company then, but I thought that I might have a company someday.
So that guy said: “Okay, so how many can I get and how soon can I get it? Let me get your email address”. And I was actually finishing up the internship that I had in the LA, and then I was going back to New York. So when he said that, I was like “Okay, I probably should come up with some kind of company” [laughs].
So I founded the company, I guess, back in 2014, and then I launched it in 2016. But I guess I shipped him clothes out before even launched the company.
Fei Wu [20:16] That's smart. How many did you actually have to make? I assume you were wearing the only piece at the time, right?
Malaika [20:24] Well, I did. And I only had this very raw piece. So I need to make the pattern and I need to make some kind of a normal sleeve hole because it was basically made with a scissor in the first piece.
So it took me quite a while because I wanted this to be 100% perfect. I think they ordered six at the beginning, just to see if it was something that would sell.
That's how I started out. And then in 2016 on April, 1st I launched the company because I thought it would be the perfect day to do that.
How do you define zero waste? How do you go about cutting the materials to eliminate waste?
Malaika [22:09] For a standard piece of garment that anyone wears, like a T-shirt, you throw 30% of that into the trash directly. It doesn't matter what it's made of, it's still 30% waste, and it is quite a lot for just one t-shirt. So for zero waste, it’s a little bit different from designer to designer, but I work mostly with squares and rectangles. And this one has a little bit more of an organic shape, but it's still one piece. It has less waste because instead of cutting away the fabric, I use the snaps. So when I was trying to figure out a way to not cut it, but still shape it to the body, the snaps came in.
Fei Wu [23:05] And that creates a very natural drapery feel, which is something that I absolutely love. It's so natural, not to mention to the ladies or whoever's listening, it's really flattering on us instead of a piece of clothing the hugs your body. These are very nicely-fitted clothes. I find that the additional fabrics actually hide some of the imperfections.
Malaika [23:35] Exactly. That's also what I was trying to go for. So if you have a little bit of muffin top, or if you just had a baby, or if you've been eating too much. And I like it as a cover-up.
Fei Wu [24:00] Absolutely. And it's very much weatherproof. New York's the city that happens to be windy and rainy. And when I saw your line, I was thinking that while there are not very much clothes that's really made for that weather, but I could absolutely see that it's worth the investment because it's so versatile. Not only in a style, but also in the weather conditions in the many parts of the world.
Malaika [24:27] Yeah, for sure. And also, what we have created does not exist anywhere else. It is one of a kind. We are a small brand, so there's not many out there. Of course, it is our absolute bestseller, and we sold a lot of them, but it's not something you're going to see from any other brand because it's simply too hard to copy. It's too time-consuming. And I guess that's why not so many designers are zero waste - it doesn't go into standard production.
What's difficult about the process? Could you give people “behind the scenes” of what goes into zero-waste production?
Malaika [25:30] Yeah. So for zero waste for some of the pieces we create is basically engineering. So for example, when you work with a square, and you have these snaps, you have to put numbers in order for it to be correct when you put it together. So that's a big challenge for sure. And also with the armholes. normally in production, you have two pieces you put together to make an armhole, here we just have one pattern, so you cut it around, which is not an easy thing to do. It's time-consuming, because in factories, they have these laser machines, and they cannot cut that out, so we have to do this by hand. So a big part of what we do is by hand. And also, we source our products locally, and if not locally, then from Italy with very high standards. That's also a factor. And of course, it's fair labor all around, which is also costly.
But there are so many more things that go into it than just getting something sourced in China, getting it made there and then shipping it over here.
Fei Wu [27:10] That's really fascinating.
I know there's a huge difference between going to school and really enjoying the first business engagement, and I'm sure your parents and your siblings are so proud of you. And then there's so much competition in fashion.
How do you overcome difficulties that come with the hard path of producing fewer pieces that you’ve chosen? What do you do to encourage yourself to keep moving forward?
Malaika [27:55] Good question. In the beginning, it was very much uphill, and I spent a lot of money figuring out what not to do. I have “light points” when people compliment my clothes like you just did. That's basically my high points. And I guess that motivates me to keep going.
Most fashion businesses fail within a year or two. Like, you see a company come, and then after two years, it's totally gone. It's because people want to do it too fast, but you have to go steady, you have to go organically. So I would rather grow organically and be as a direct to the customers as I can. I want to know what the customers are saying so that I can make the right products because, in the end, it's all about you guys. I have to adjust and figure out what to offer.
Who is your customer base? What have you noticed among the people who purchase from you?
Malaika [29:42] They are all very different: different cultures, different ages. I would say probably most of my customers are between 35 and 45, but I also do have customers between 50 and 65. The people that younger than that, they see the design first and become interested, and then the salespeople start talking about our sustainability, what we're trying to do. And after that, I guess, they fall in love with a brand and want to know even more.
It's definitely mostly women that we have, although our pieces are unisex. I recently got a compliment from this woman that was shopping, and she had two kids. I thought she had a fantastic body, but she was like “Your clothing just makes me feel so confident because I'm hidden and still feel sexy. So that's what I'm trying to do - I want people to feel comfortable, modern and cool.
What material do you use for your clothes?
Malaika [31:31] I guess the first time I found something similar was during an internship, but then I found it in the garment district. So that's the fabric that I'm using now. It comes from Korea, actually, that's where we source it from. It's very high-tech and very well engineered. Also, it won't get wet.
Fei Wu [32:06] What is it called?
Malaika [32:09] It's “scuba”. So it's basically a fashion diving suit [laughs].
Fei Wu [32:19] Wow. And what would you recommend that people consider purchasing first?
Malaika [32:39] I'm been talking so much about the zero vest because it's so versatile and you can use it with anything. But we also have a hexagon t-shirt, it's very airy. I almost wear it every day. And then, of course, the T-shirt dress as well which I'm actually wearing right now. And for dresses, you could get the Zero dress, because it can also be a top, so if you want to have a dress - just close all the buttons, if you want to have a top - just wear it with a pair of leggings. And then we just got the Bike tube jacket out on our site. This one is made of bike tubes.
Fei Wu [33:41] Wow. It’s actually made out of bike tubes?
Malaika [33:44] Actual bike tubes. It's upcycled. We picked it up for several months, all the bike tubes. And we have the Instagram stories you can check out, where we show how everything is processed. So we're using this instead of leather. So it's your traditional biker jacket, but it's made out of bike tubes.
Fei Wu [34:19] Amazing.
What’s your business model? How do you make sure that the brand stays afloat?
Malaika [36:13] Well, we try a little bit to create a certain zero waste lifestyle. If you follow us on social media, we consider you a part of our family, because we want customers and everyone that just likes to follow us, to be a part of our family. And of course, we do have new pieces every now and then. So the way you should look at it is that you spend a little bit more on what will last maybe 10-20 years, instead of just spending the same amount, but on five pieces from h&m that’ll last half a year. So what we trying to do is make very good items that’ll last for many years. And what we don't want to do is produce more waste.
Fei Wu [37:10] And what has been your personal style? You wear a lot of your clothes, do you purchase anything outside of your own brand?
Malaika [37:30] I feel that my style is a little bit more like Japanese. For me personally - yes, I'm a minimalist, but I'm also a tomboy. And I guess that's why I tried to do the unisex. I feel like I don't like the pieces that are too tight to the body. I want everyone to feel comfortable. And I guess, now that we're talking about my roots, Denmark and all this, it has been a very big influence for me to go the way I went with my company. I grew up saving on the water, recycling, thinking about what you eat and all this kind of stuff. So we had a minimal lifestyle. And my designs are very minimal, but also have some architectural interesting features in them.
How many pieces of clothing do you think you have?
Fei Wu [38:55] I'm soaking curious because I know I have too much, and I'm trying to minimize it slowly.
Malaika [39:05] Actually, I have not bought new clothing almost since I started my own brand. I just kept what I had before. And of course, if it was worn out, I had to do something with it. But for me, I wear my own collection most of the time. So I guess I've built my collection around what I would use, the most staple garments: a little black dress, a pair of leggings, a vest. And I love leather, but I went vegan way to do fake leather. Now we're coming out with some new winter coats as well.
So I guess I don't have that much Actually, my husband, he has more clothes in his closets that I have in mine. But you don't need that many, you just need something you look good in. That’s it.
Fei Wu [40:10] Yeah, it's true. When I was forced to keep to bring only one luggage to travel in Europe for three weeks, I really struggled to pack in single luggage. And it was pretty big luggage. But then I realized after three weeks, how little stuff we actually need, because along the way I didn't purchase anything and have thrown away a lot of things.
How quickly can people tell that you're a designer when they meet you?
Malaika [40:44] I guess I have a vibe over me, and my hair code is symmetric as well. I think maybe that's the first thing. Sunglasses and what I'm wearing, I guess, in combination with sneakers, which I always wear.
Fei Wu 41:04 I have a question because I've always wanted to design my own clothes. And I am not alone in this, many women and men do. And to be honest, I watched some YouTube videos, and I watched some of my friends go through design school, and I came to realize that we underestimate the amount of work and the amount of knowledge that goes into designing a piece of clothing. So if somebody like myself would want to start doing that, what would you recommend that I get my hands and feet dirty in?
Malaika [41:49] I don't think you should be afraid of it. Buy some fabric, put it on, put some pins and try it on. See if that sticks. It's very easy. And you can make some fun looks out of it, you can even make a dress. I guess if you want to do it as a hobby, you can buy those commercial patterns, some fabric you like, try to do something very simple and see if it's for you or not.
Fei Wu[42:23] Wow. Incredible.
Malaika [42:25] I think when I got more serious about it, that's how I started out. And now I have a base of pattern, of course, but most of my patterns stuck with a square. So I create my own. And you could do that too.
Fei Wu [42:47] Super fun. Now I have to do it.
And if people want to find you, where would you like people to follow you?
Malaika [42:59] Instagram @malaika_new_york
Fei Wu [43:08] Awesome. This is super fun, I am so happy to see independent fashion designers like yourself choosing a path that you're comfortable and proud of instead of following what said to be the most successful designer and purely driven on revenue and the number of stores. I think you really have found your tribe of people who love your clothes, including myself.
Malaika [43:39] I have one thing to mention - if there's anyone that's listening, who wants to have their own brand, and they are thinking about going into fashion school, I would say go to school. Figure out if it's for you, figure out what part of it you like it. If you only want to design, then don't have your own business unless you have tons of money to hire people to do everything for you. Because designing, if you have your own company, is like 3% of the time. The rest is all hardcore business. And I feel like having a past in logistics, knowing how a company runs, doing sales and, all this has helped me greatly. Have I not had that, I don't think I would still be in business, to be honest. So for anyone that's listening, you know, that's the advice I would give.
Fei Wu [44:35] Thank you so much!
So many people listening to these podcasts are actually looking to see how can they do what you do.
10 years in logistics probably had helped you with the business side of the design and your brand, is that true?
Malaika [44:54] Yeah, it did. I knew how the company worked before I got into this, so I had an idea of what it would look like. I didn't know exactly how it was with fashion, but it helped me greatly. I was also doing sales at one point and was just meeting people and going out there. So basically, I was creating a network. And it's so important for small business.
What is your favorite and the least favorite part of what you do?
Malaika [45:38] My least favorite? I don't know if I have a least favorite thing because it's all a whole. I guess the thing that I love the most is when I get compliments from customers for pieces that I create because that is a confirmation that I actually made something people loved.
Fei Wu [46:05] I can imagine that.
You know, one of the reasons why when I put on your piece I feel good is because I feel like I was myself. I felt like “Wow, I'm looking at the best version of myself”. This is only my appearance, that is only my the visual, but before people get to know who I am, I think it delivers a message as well.
Malaika [46:41] I actually had a point in my life where I had no style. I was trying to follow the trend after trend and after trend. And when you do that, you don't really have a style, you just follow whatever everyone else is wearing. I'm just trying to help people that might not have a style or if they're not sure what it is. And then I'm trying to just have a piece that makes them get the style that they want. So they can wear something they think is great, and it looks good, but it doesn't look fashionable if you know what I'm trying to say.
Fei Wu [47:18] Fast fashion. Yeah, it's so dominating. And it's really hard to stay away from them. But I think you're in a way of changing people's mindsets in terms of how to approach fashion, and that's fascinating because you can really make clothes look so many different ways.
Malaika [47:41] So you can always change it up. You don't have to buy a new piece all the time. You don't have to buy florals, you don't have to buy certain colors. You just have your staple pieces. And of course if you do want to buy a piece, just put it together with that, and you’re good.
Fei Wu [47:56] Thank you so much. What a lovely conversation! So nice to meet you.