As we have started 2020 and this new decade I have seen more headlines then I can count about the impact fast fashion is having on the environment and at the same time, the push in the fashion world towards diversity and inclusion. Well, one brand that is addressing both of those at the same time is Miga Swimwear. Miga was launched in 2018 and features swimwear for women of all shapes and sizes, including those with visible differences, disabilities and chronic illnesses. And today I want to introduce you to the founder and brains behind the brand, María Luisa, and the latest instalment of Sparkle Session .
You may recall from my interview with Dana in the fall, which featured her new children’s book, that she and I attended university together. Well, in a very small world, so did the next female entrepreneur of this series! #HoyaSaxa. Without further ado, I will let you hear more about MIGA SWIMWEAR from their Founder and CEO, Maria Luisa Mendiola:
What are five words you would use to describe yourself?
Bold, energetic, determined, honest and hardworking.
How do those personal characteristics relate to your brand?
MIGA wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t been determined and bold enough to contest the stigma of looking differently. Day in and day out I work hard to make this world a more tolerant and accepting place and I am able to do that in part because of how energetic I can be. Honesty is the most important pillar of our brand because MIGA starts from my experience with disfigurement: I have a genetic condition that caused me to have brachymetatarsia, which means that I have shortened 4th toes on both of my feet.
A couple of years back, a friend asked me, “what’s wrong with your toes?” I got very uncomfortable and quickly changed the subject. I remember thinking: How is it possible that I am 25 years old and I still react like this when someone asks me about my feet? It dawned on me that this question was always going to come up, no matter how old I got. So I decided to focus my master’s at Central Saint Martins, UK, on figuring out ways to lower stigma in the disfigurement community. To my surprise, I found that fashion design coupled with storytelling could help women feel more comfortable with their bodies.
What inspired you to start a swimwear brand?
My love for swimwear started from a young age. In the early nineties, there weren’t many cute and affordable swimsuits in Costa Rica since most of the suits were imported. Few of these swimsuits could withstand the frequent use they got in a country that is surrounded by beautiful beaches. So my mom taught me from a very young age to take care of swimwear, above any other piece of clothing. In my mind they became precious. This care and attention to swimsuits turned into an obsession. Even after I left Costa Rica and couldn’t go to the beach as often, I made it my thing to always keep my finger on the pulse researching the latest innovative brands and I was always in search for top quality brands. That is why when I found out in 2016 that burn survivors were having a hard time finding bathing suits that made them feel comfortable and sexy at the beach or pool, I knew I had found my calling. I would merge my passion with swimwear with my vocation to help others.
How are you spreading the word about MIGA Swimwear?
For 2020, our strategy is clear. We are working with influencers, as well as key advocacy organizations, like Girls with Guts, to make sure that we are reaching the people that feel the most connected to our brand. Additionally we are looking to have a Summer pop-up with other like-minded brands. I have been fortunate to meet many female founders that are committed to create products for underserved and underrepresented customer groups so partnering with them made sense. Lastly, we are also working with retailers that align with our mission in the adaptive and inclusive fashion space.
How do you go about your design process? And how long does each piece take to make?
I work with volunteers that have different types of disfigurement, disabilities and chronic illnesses- different from my own. So I start my design journey by not making assumptions and instead asking them what type of swimsuit they think will empower them to return to the beach or pool. Then, I ask other questions relating to their fashion preferences and their overall experience with body-image. After gathering this information, I start to design the collection. For our last collection, for example, I designed the Lydia swimsuit because it was made with the input of multiple women living with stoma bags. The Lydia bottom has a belt that can be moved around, depending on where you have your stoma bag (they sit in different places depending on whether you have an ileostomy or a colostomy).
I also work with our design muses to create a narrative that explains the reason behind their different conditions. Through my work with this community, I have learned that providing a concise story that explains the reason behind the diagnosis is crucial in helping us overcome the stigma of looking differently. Once the narrative is created, the story is printed on a canvas bag. Thus, each of the swimsuits comes with a matching bag that emboldens our volunteers to share their story and also helps raise awareness and understanding among our shoppers that don’t have these conditions.
What is one lesson you have had to learn the hard way?
My background is not in product development, so after a year of many challenges trying to do it all on my own, I realized I needed to pivot. I needed to hire people that were smarter and more skilled than me, especially in the skill sets that I do not have myself, in order to scale our business. After a lot of asking around and really putting it out there that I needed help, I found these two highly detailed-oriented and professional, overall badass ladies I hired for this collection and I couldn’t be happier with the results.
Is MIGA only for those with visible differences or disabilities ?
Our brand is universal. We do not seek inclusion at the expense of excluding other groups. We believe non-disfigured and able-bodied people can reframe how they look at their own bodies and ultimately, learn how to accept and love themselves through the lessons of the disfigurement, disability and chronic illness community.
Is there a particular designer or model you would love to work or collaborate with?
I would love the opportunity to work with Jillian Mercado. Her honesty and can-do attitude has allowed her to represent and raise awareness for not only for the disability community, but also for the Latinx community in ways that others have not. In terms of brands, I am very impressed with the work Universal Standard is doing to make truly inclusive clothing and would love to collaborate with them in the near future to make sure our plus-size customers are properly catered to.
Where do you see your MIGA Swimwear business in five years?
In the future, I see MIGA Swimwear moving to other categories such as women’s ready-to-wear and men’s swimwear. I also see the company having its own charitable arm that focuses on creating curriculums for school’s on how to teach empathy towards the disfigurement, chronic illness and disabilities communities, workshops for how to cope with a change in appearance or with discrimination at work. I am truly inspired by the work of Changing Faces UK, a charitable organization that advocates for the disfigurement community, and would love to replicate their work in the US so we can offer more psychosocial adaptations to these communities.
What is your favorite quote?
My favorite quote, it is more like a mantra, is Follow Your Fear. Since I decided to go down this entrepreneurship path, time and time again I have come to realize that every time I take a big risk, I gain in some big way, whether it is a valuable lesson or a valuable client.
If you had to give advice to other female entrepreneurs, what would you tell them?
It is so easy to get distracted comparing your entrepreneurship journey with someone else’s, especially with social media, so my biggest advice would be: “slow and steady wins the race.” Only because some brands might look like they have garnered explosive growth within a year of launching, it doesn’t mean that they haven’t run into their own set of challenges. Some of the brands that I admire the most and I am blessed to count their founders as my mentors have told me that it could take upwards of 5 years before you see consistent growth. That is what I am aiming for and I have planned adequately so that I can keep doing what I am passionate about for as long as I can.
Lastly, is there anything you would want to tell my readers?
I get asked a fair amount about my self-love and self-acceptance journey and what I have learned from working with this community is that no two days are the same. Body esteem, how a person feels about their physical appearance, is fluid. Keeping this in mind can help us be more self-aware with our inner monologue and help us mitigate the impact of poor self-talk on how we define ourselves and thus, our self-worth.
Thank you Maria Luisa for agreeing to this interview and everyone, go check out the brand on Instagram, @migaswimwear!