Designed to Carry a Cause; Malia Designs is a socially Fair Trade and eco-friendly handbags and accessories company. Founded by Lia Valerio and Lucia Ruth (who became a partner in the organization 6 years ago), Malia Designs was formed to increase economic opportunity for women in Cambodia and to support organizations that fight human trafficking in Southeast Asia.
Can you give us a little background of how Malia Designs came to be?
Lia: While traveling through SE Asia, after serving in the Peace Corps in the South Pacific, I fell in love with Cambodia. The people of Cambodia are kind and generous with a rich and beautiful culture. Although, terrible tragedy overwhelmed the country for many many years, their warmth and openness was and always has been a source of inspiration.
During my initial trip to the region in 2000, I purchased many textiles. I was also introduced to several fair trade organizations that worked with marginalized populations to expand their access to sustainable income.
Upon returning to the States, my best friend, Maria and I, discussed importing from the region to support these organizations and the good work they were doing. Although, it was another 5 years before the idea became a reality, the seed had been sewn and in 2005, Malia Designs was born.
Who are the women behind the brand. Tell us about yourselves, what you do and what led you to where you are today?
Lia: I am the Founder and President of Malia Designs. I have done it all at Malia over the past 12 years. Currently, I oversee international operations and communications and company finances. I continue to receive great joy in the work we do at Malia Designs. Being able to create and sustain a business that supports our Fair Trade producer groups, staff in the States and Cambodia and to give back to community based organizations that fight Human Trafficking through the sale of handbags never ceases to amaze me.
Lucia: I am the Marketing and Brand Director at Malia Designs. I have a background in communications, public relations and marketing. I actually have a very corporate resume. I was a marketing manager for a software company for ten years before I began working with Malia Designs. I was ready to change things up with my career and I really admired what Lia was doing with Malia, so I started working with the brand on a part-time basis. Just pitching in when I could, helping with sales, events and marketing efforts. Six years later and I am so thrilled to be a partner, Malia Designs is my dream job.
Malia Designs was formed to increase economic opportunity for women in Cambodia and to support organizations that fight human trafficking in Southeast Asia. Why this cause and how important it is to bring awareness?
Lia: Human Trafficking is modern-day slavery. Human Trafficking is today’s most widespread human rights violation and crime against humanity. And Cambodia has one of the highest incidences of sexual exploitation of women and children in the world.
The combination of widespread poverty and almost non-existent state support systems make the nation’s women and children easy targets for traffickers. After witnessing the desperate situation in Cambodia, it became clear that offering a viable source of income to Cambodian women was likely the best way that we could help to break the cycle of human trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation.
Video by: Malia Designs (Bringing awareness of human trafficking in S.E. Asia and the mission of Goutte d'Eau.)
Where can we learn more about Human Trafficking? How can we help or donate?
Lia: Malia Designs created Stop Traffick, a 501-c3 non-profit, as a grassroots effort to raise awareness and funds for the fight against Human Trafficking in Cambodia and Chicago. Our grassroots efforts focus on raising funds for victims of human trafficking in Cambodia and domestically and spreading knowledge about this critical human rights issue.
We have a great list of resources on the Stop Traffick site. There are several fantastic organizations that are doing amazing work around the world. You can check them out to learn more, and of course the first step in solving any problem is driving awareness around its existence.
Your products are made by Fair Trade producer groups that employ disadvantaged people in Cambodia. How does Malia Designs ensure transparency and compliance within its supply chain?
Lia: Working directly with our producers and working primarily with recycled or repurposed materials significantly simplifies our supply chain which makes it much easier to ensure transparency. We have been working with our producer groups for over a decade and have personal relationships with them that are built on trust. We visit them in person on an annual basis. We are also proud to be Fair Trade Federation members and to have gone through both an initial and recurring verification process. All of our producer groups are members of the World Fair Trade Organization as well.
What are the main influences for each Malia Designs bags and accessories?
Lia: The inspiration for Malia’s designs often comes from Cambodia itself. Whether traveling through the Angkor temples or the streets of Phnom Penh; color, texture and culture abound.
Photo Credit: www.maliadesigns.com (Shoulder Bag in Gold Leaf)
Photo Credit: www.maliadesigns.com (Recycle Cement Bag Clutch)
All of the materials that are used to create your products are recycled and sourced locally in Cambodia. What's the process of selection for each piece?
Lia: For the recycled cement bag and feedbag collection, we often discover a design or print on a discarded bag in the streets. If we think it might work well for one of our pieces then we’ll conduct research see if it is available for purchase in the quantities needed for production. With our upcycled cotton canvas line, the fabrics we use are leftover or end-of-bolt fabrics from the garment factories in Cambodia. Local markets sell the leftover fabric remnants and rolls. There are several market stalls selling these leftovers and they are all a bit different in what they offer. We begin our fabric quest with an idea of the colors that we hope to find at the market. We use paint chips to pick these colors since they offer such a large variety and they are easy to bring along. However, often what we initially had in mind is not available. Although, something great usually is, flexibility is key in this business.
Malia Designs just launched its Fall Collection, September 1st, 2017. Can you give us more details about it?
Lucia: The screen print lines for fall 2017 are stunning! We’ve added several new shapes to the Khmer Collection such as a backpack, bucket bag and fold over crossbody; all great options for everyday wear and into evening. We’re excited about the back pack because folks have been asking about one for quite a while. Our elephant print wallets continue to be one of our most popular items. We’ve added two new color options for fall 2017.
The Cement Bag Collection is also a great option for the fall season. It is durable and water resistant which is great for wintry weather. The large and small messenger bags are customer favorites as well as the wallet line, and we have a new dragon print that is super fun.
Photo Credit: www.maliadesigns.com (Bucket Bag in White)
Photo Credit: www.maliadesigns.com (BBack in White)
Photo Credit: www.maliadesigns.com (Folder Bag in Grey)
Which ethical brands inspires you?
Lia: Mata Traders! They are a Chicago based Fair Trade Company that creates beautiful block printed dresses and stunning jewelry out of India. Not only do I admire what they do and have accomplished, we have been friends for almost a decade. It is a gift to have like minded people to lean on for advice and input over the years.
Lucia: There are so many great ethical brands that are doing amazing work. I love Raven & Lily and how they are working with some top-notch designers to create beautiful pieces that are sustainably and ethically made and respect and represent the countries they are working in. I’m also a big fan of Liz Alig, great fair trade style and design that is sustainable and affordable.
How would you describe Malia Designs in 4 word?
Lia: Designed to Carry a Cause (cheating because that’s technically 5, but hey what a perfect tagline)
Lucia: Little engine that could
Photo Credit: www.maliadesigns.com
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Lia: I have two children that keep me very busy! However, I also have a wonderful support network and great co-workers. I find that making sure to exercise and get a good night sleep goes a long way. Certainly couldn’t do it all without the amazing women and men who have contributed along the way.
Lucia: I think it’s a bit easier for me because I don’t have children, but I do try to take time throughout the week for activities that nurture me physically and spiritually. That sounds kind of cheesy, but for me I know if I make the time to exercise and get my butt out in nature and away from a screen that I will be more productive when it is time to sit down and work. We also have an amazing merchandise manager, Leilani Angel and she keeps everything running as it should, so that when I am traveling I never have to worry about what’s getting done at home because I know she has it covered.
As women entrepreneurs, what do you think are the most significant obstacles to women’s leadership? As a society, do you think we're failing to take more actions regarding the gender pay gap situation?
Lia: I think the most significant obstacles to women’s leadership are sexism and a failure to value all of the work that women do. It’s unfortunate but true that often women are not paid the same as their male counterparts, and when women become mothers the pay gap increases. When men become fathers they typically see a pay raise. Crazy, right?!
Lucia: I think there is still so much work to be done around gender equality and the pay gap is a great example. I feel like some progress was being made, but now with the current administration, we are not moving forward but backwards. We were proud to partner withLeanIn.org this year to raise awareness about the pay gap and how it affects women, especially minority women. A great place to learn more is: leanin.org/equalpayday
What can we expect from Malia Designs in the coming years?
We hope to continue our slow and sustainable growth. Simply put, we want to sell more bags so that we can create more jobs for our artisan partners in Cambodia and we want to continue to improve our design efforts and prove that is possible to create fashion forward, ethically made and affordable accessories.
Where Malia Designs is located and where can customers purchase your products?
We have offices in Chicago and San Diego and customers can purchase our products at gift shops, boutiques and specialty stores throughout the US (and a few in Canada, Australia, Puerto Rico, Europe) and online at www.maliadesigns.com
Connect with Malia Designs:
Facebook: Malia Designs
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