Fashion designer and jewelry maker Malia Peoples has long been keen to make fashion more sustainable and ethical, even before those qualities became buzzwords. In a world swarming with fast, cheap and trendy fashion, Peoples was keenly aware of the cost of such work and dreamed of creating a fashion brand that would be more eco-friendly and conscious.
A Chinese major at the University of Washington in the early 2000s, Peoples had the chance to intern with China Labor Watch in New York after graduating. CLW shared an office with Human Rights Watch. As an assistant to the executive director, Peoples often had to serve as an interpreter, helping comb through documents that were smuggled from toy and shoe factories in China.
Peoples also helped interpret interviews with refugees, who shared their personal stories and experience making clothing. “It had a deep effect on me,” Peoples said. “When I came back to Seattle after that time, I wanted to start my own clothing brand that was ethically made.”
Peoples spent time in China when she was a teenager and remembers being in awe of the colorful and fun clothing aesthetic she saw her friends from South Korea, Japan and China pull off. Puffy sleeves and patterned details pulled in her attention. Given her familiarity with the region and her newfound experience with CLW, Peoples’ dream was to open a workshop in China with fair and ethical working conditions, designing with an eye toward the East Asian fashion market.
However, Peoples’ fashion know-how was limited. She had never sewn before, though she had always been a thrift-store junkie and enjoyed curating an eclectic closet of found fashion. So she enrolled at a fashion school in Ballard, where she learned how to sew — and how to design. This is when her love affair with polyester, her main fabric of choice, began. Polyester was always in abundance in thrift stores, and Peoples wanted to find a way to transform the fabric. Often associated with comfort, polyester is also not biodegradable because it is sourced from plastic.
Peoples had always been intrigued by how polyesters lend themselves to color and was influenced by the hues of her Hawaiian background. She went into cast-off fabrics, finding ways to recycle polyester. Because the microfiber material does not degrade back into the environment and is created using tons of oil and coal, recycling the fabric reduces its carbon footprint.
For almost 10 years, Peoples designed and created clothing that she sold through her brand “Other Peoples Polyester” and under the fashion line Lady Konnayku. In 2011, she won the Seamless in Seattle competition for her designs under the Lady Konnyaku line. Through OPP, Peoples designed and created fashion pieces from reclaimed polyester fabrics and thrift-store finds, but then she hit a roadblock.
The dreary gray of Seattle and the monochromatic clothing that our Pacific Northwest atmosphere inspires didn’t feel suitable to Peoples’ style.
“I am from Hawaii and my background is warm, so every time I am going to Hawaii, I am seeing colors and warmth. And then I am back here in Seattle and it's gray, and I didn’t feel like I had a lot of support with my fashion line, which was very colorful,” Peoples said.
With black North Face jackets and muted, outdoorsy wear rampant in the Northwest, Peoples recognizes her style might do better in warmer climates.
“I know that my work will do better elsewhere — and the internet has helped a little bit — but now more than ever, there is a bigger push than ever. At some point, I want to keep building my online presence. I would like to be somewhere else at some point,” Peoples said.
In the interim, Peoples will focus on ceramics and jewelry. “I decided to switch to ceramics and infiltrate Seattle’s gray with smaller bits of color,” Peoples said. Her jewelry line, Melted Porcelain, features bright colored clay necklaces and earrings with metallic touches. Peoples has taken inspiration from the Nerikomi tradition of layering colored clay and shaping them by hand to create enthralling designs that add a pop of brightness and warmth to Northwest gray.
The reality of making a living through art
Peoples always loved to make things using her hands. But the choice to switch to creating jewelry was entwined with the reality that making a living through art means catering to what clientele can most connect with.
“I feel like right now the jewelry has been a lot easier to buy and connect with. It’s genderless; it’s ageless. Everybody has their favorite color, and I’m trying to go that route,” Peoples said. She wants her jewelry to be able to embrace an aesthetic and social shift toward focusing less on gender and age — a flexibility that was harder to find with clothing.
As Peoples says, the business of commodifying creativity can feel strange and weird. She says that the lucky few can go about their craft without compromise and hit the jackpot. But for most people, you have to assess whether the concept in mind can be aligned with the reality of whether people actually buy into that concept.
Peoples realized she couldn’t get away from using color in her clothing, and jewelry seemed to sell better than clothing, so she adjusted her business model. Peoples is finding that the business of jewelry is also more efficient because creating clothing from concept to completion is a long and arduous task, especially if it is a small, handmade operation. Jewelry, however, can be made more quickly and produced in larger quantities.
“Any great designer has a team of people making things for them, whether it's jewelry or clothing,” Peoples said. “But until I have a broad customer base and that financial stability, I’m just going to have to weather the course.”
Peoples says the truth is that when creativity becomes a commodity one has to market and sell, it's tough to make a living unless someone is well-funded or has the finances to lean on while they take creative risks. While she is still working on building her brand, Peoples has been teaching for years, and was modeling as well to make ends meet — until COVID began.
Peoples teaches regularly with elders in Yesler Terrace and recently taught a virtual class with Path with Art. Being an arts educator ends up benefitting Peoples as an artist, passing down knowledge and gleaning new ideas through the exchange that happens in a learning environment.
“Teaching, I feel, makes me better as a designer and a maker,” Peoples said. “It's one thing to do the work but it's another thing to slow down, take the time and really be intentional about explaining how things are done with other people.” Through the pandemic, Peoples has been able to teach virtually and has allowed regular classes to anchor a sense of time and regiment a routine.
Through the pandemic gift-giving season, which used to be her busiest, Peoples has her fingers crossed that the online showcases she is doing in lieu of in-person holiday arts and crafts fairs will be successful. In the new year, Peoples hopes to go back to working with fabric and clothing, creating designs that are inspired by free-flowing fringes and strips of fabric that can be worn by anyone of any gender and age. Someday, if she ever moves to a warmer place, she might opt for Hawaii, China or Japan. But for now, she is very much rooted in Seattle, bringing pops of island color to our gray cityscape.
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at [email protected]. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more of the Dec. 9-15, 2020 issue.