I sat down with designer Maggie Marilyn in the lobby of her hotel in downtown Manhattan on an 80-degree day on the back-end of an action-packed eleven days spent sharing her brand vision and new Resort ‘19 collection with buyers, press, and influencers in the American market. A New Zealand native, Marilyn has to make the most of every moment of her time in New York City, and as her final interview before she dashed off to the airport, I prepared myself for a designer who was harried and eager to go home. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Maggie Marilyn’s passion and enthusiasm for fashion, especially sustainable fashion, is endless and contagious. We sipped iced teas as Marilyn shared the story of how her brand was birthed, the importance of personally connecting with her garment makers, and why she believes that fashion is moving in the right direction. Maggie Marilyn is a young brand but one that is destined to be a household name. I know because I left our interview more energized and optimistic than I’d arrived, and desperate to own some of her pieces myself.
Where are you from?
I am a Kiwi, originally from the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. It’s a really small, coastal town that has no more than 5000 people, who live there full-time — so I’m definitely a country girl at heart I guess. When I was 17, I moved to Auckland, which is the biggest city in New Zealand, to study a fine arts degree majoring in fashion.
When did you launch your brand?
I started my brand straight out of university — about two and a half years ago. But, we officially launched with our first stockist, which was Net-a-Porter in September 2016.
Did you always want to be a designer?
I think, to be honest, yes. I always wanted to do something creative. The high school that I went to didn’t offer any fashion classes or sewing classes, so it wasn’t as if I grew up knowing exactly how to design or how to sew, but I just loved fashion and was totally consumed by the world and the dream world that it seemed like it was to me. I think I always knew I wanted to be a designer.
You just mentioned before that you launched your brand straight out of university. That’s a pretty bold move. What gave you the confidence to take the leap to say, you know what, I’m just going to go for it straight away?
I had four years at university to really think about it, and, honestly, the whole time through interning and everything, I was like, I just want to start my own brand. I am lucky enough to come from an entrepreneurial family, so I had a lot of business advice and support from my dad, and I was lucky enough to have friends and family around me that just believed in me so much. So I think that really gave me the confidence to start it.
Are there any designers that you connect with to get advice, or are you really just sort of carving your own path and seeing where it takes you?
We have a really amazing group of young designers at the moment coming up out of New Zealand, so it’s really exciting to be a part of a new wave of New Zealand fashion. and I feel like we’re all really supportive of one another. There’s another designer in particular called Georgia Alice, and we quite often go for monthly brunches, and talk about the peaks and the perks of what we do, and the stockists that we’re in. It’s really nice to have that support.
Can you tell me a little bit about your brand ethos? You have a very strong mission that drives the Maggie Marilyn brand, I’d love to hear in your own words how you would describe that.
The main thing that really drives me is our ethical and sustainable mission. We’re manufactured in New Zealand, our knitwear is made in Italy, and that was something that was important to me. I knew I wanted to be an international brand, but I love New Zealand and am a proud New Zealander. I really wanted to stay here, so, I knew if I was going to be this big international brand that I wanted to be, I had to contribute something to the community that I lived in. In the late 80s, the manufacturing community in New Zealand almost vanished. We used to have big brands like Levi’s made in New Zealand and that was a really prosperous industry for the country.
I knew that all these people [from the manufacturing factories] were still here because I had worked with a few of them when I was at university. For me, it really started with wanting to have this humanness to the clothing — that I had a direct relationship with the people that made my garments. Even as the brand has grown so quickly over the past couple of years, I still make time to go around to all of our factories and keep up those relationships and really understand who’s making my clothing. That’s something I never want to lose.
I spent my whole graduate year at university studying the negative effects of the fashion industry, not just on the environment, but also the people involved and the supply chain. It was really important to me that I had a completely transparent understanding of where everything came from. By no means are we perfect in the sustainable sense, but that’s something that we’re striving for.
It’s near impossible…
Completely, yeah. But I think in a transparent sense, we’re getting there with getting to the root of who makes the buttons, who makes the zips, is everything dyed with azo-free dyes so that there are no harmful chemicals used — that was something that was really important to me, and just non-negotiable really.
That was going to be one of my questions, I was wondering how you were introduced to the idea of sustainable manufacturing. Whether you had sought out the information independently or learned it as part of your university curriculum.
It definitely was a big part of my curriculum at university.
How did they present it? Were they sort of like…
It wasn’t something that was compulsory, for all students to be a part of, but it was definitely something that was a huge part of our theory practice. So, for me, once I started to watch all of these documentaries it was like how can I turn a blind eye? I definitely had moments where I felt quite disheartened by our industry. Is this an industry I even want to be a part of? I definitely had those thoughts when I was at university, but I think I am hopelessly optimistic, and I really felt like I could make a difference. Why shouldn’t I try and give it a go?
A hundred percent. So, it’s so interesting to hear your story and to consider that there are new brands and existing brands that are struggling to commit to even trying to be more ethical or more sustainable. What do you think makes you different from these other brands? Do you think it’s a generational thing, do you think it’s a geographical thing, or do you just think it’s very personal, who you are as an individual?
I think it’s probably all of the above. I’ve never lived in another country, so I’m not really sure exactly what it’s like, but in New Zealand, we’re definitely known for this clean, green environment. It’s a very important part of who we are. I was even saying to my publicist the other day, every year, our local newspaper actually rates all of the brands from an A to F on their manufacturing practices. In New Zealand, the customer really cares about that, which is interesting. Also coming from a small town and living by the sea, and just having such a deep appreciation for this amazing environment that I came from and how beautiful it was. Then, in my four years at university, researching sustainability and fashion. It was the fusion of those two things.
You just presented your new Resort 2019 collection in New York, which is gorgeous, congratulations.
What inspired this collection?
How I design is never something super literal. I’ll start with a film that I’m inspired by, or an artist, or something like that. It’s always, for me, designing for the girl, and what she wants and what she needs in her everyday life... Who inspires me, who I aspire to be, and there’s always just this real sense of lightness and optimism. Hopefully, through the clothing, I want to empower our customer and let her know that she can go out there and change the world.
Like you are.
The clothes, as cheesy as it sounds, I feel like they do empower me. When I put on a blazer that’s called — the names are very important — the “You Give Me Strength” blazer, there’s this thing inside of me that makes me sit up straighter. I definitely feel like the brand empowered me and allowed me to grow so much as a woman, and I want to do that for other women. At the same time, I want to make a positive impact on our industry by being at the forefront of sustainable and ethical fashion.
During your Resort presentation, you talked about how you make a concerted effort to design with an eye towards your girl’s ongoing wardrobe. You try to create cohesiveness through each collection so that new pieces work with previous season’s pieces whereas, many designers just create distinct and stylistically separate collections each season that don’t necessarily work with each other. Do you think that designers will start to move towards a more cohesive way of design that creates a continuous dialogue and aesthetic with their customer?
I hope so. I think ultimately it’s just not sustainable to buy a whole new wardrobe every season whether it is fast fashion or it’s luxury, or it’s our brand. It’s just not sustainable. We have to buy less. That really is the whole crux of it all. Before I started my own brand I would look at how dismantled my wardrobe felt. I would have brands that I loved that I’d buy a top from one season and then the next season I’d want to pair it back with something and there’s nothing to pair it back with.
We did this hot pink, in Pre-Fall and we’ve done it again in Resort, so, this jacket can go perfectly over this outfit and it’s just this continuous thing that you’re building and that you’re going to love for years to come.
You’re kind of building your own collection at home.
Which is so nice. How would you describe your personal style now?
Maybe it’s not a great answer, but I feel like it’s changing a little bit because as the brand grows, I’m growing as well. I love color, and I’m so uplifted by color. It’s like a strong femininity is how I would describe it — I guess it’s never too dainty or pretty.
It’s bold. Yes, I’m going to wear a full hot pink outfit and I’m going to feel great.
What brings you the most joy in what you do?
So many things. Being 24 and seeing my team grow with me, that really inspires me. We did a training at one of our stores yesterday and George, who works for me, started to speak about the brand and to see him get out there in front of 30 people — [it] inspires me so much that the brand can do that for someone else. But also, the lives, the hundreds of families that we support in New Zealand through our commitment to making there, that is so rewarding for me. I’m not going to say that it’s all rainbows and sunshine because it’s not, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, running my own business. It’s so grueling at times, and not everyone’s going to understand your vision, or even understand why you want to have an ethical and sustainable brand, but, I think at the end of the day, I have so much hope for the future for what the brand can achieve and the difference we can make in the industry, that really is my fuel to keep going.
And what does the future hold for Maggie Marilyn?
Well, I’m wildly ambitious, so I truly believe the sky’s the limit for what I want to do. One day I want to have my own stores, and I guess that I could hopefully inspire other brands to get behind what we’re doing. It’s not just about me putting my hand up as a brand and being righteous and saying that we’re better than everyone else, but it’s really about inspiring other people and saying come on guys, let’s all jump on board. If every brand just started something really small like asking who made their fabric, there are so many small steps you can take to really make a difference. I guess I just hope that through what we do it will inspire other brands.
And final question, I think that you and I are in agreement that while we see many ways we can improve the fashion system, there are flaws. It’s imperfect, but we’re at a tipping point for that to change. You’re living proof of that. If you could imagine how that improved fashion future that you’re working towards looks, how would you describe it? What would your fashion utopia be?
I think going back to the idea that what is true sustainability. We’re in an industry that maybe isn’t completely sustainable, but I think the biggest thing that tugs at my heartstrings is the people that are involved, and how horrifically the people that work in factories in China and Bangladesh are treated. After something really big like Rana Plaza, there still hasn’t been enough change in the industry, so I guess my fashion utopia would be that we get back to the human scale of it all.
It’s not weird to be like “Oh yeah I totally know who made my garment.” I understand that [if garment workers] were paid a fair living wage, that they could afford to educate their children and educate their community to build themselves up out of poverty. I think that would be my version of what I feel like the fashion industry should work towards. There is a true cost to everything, I guess that really starts with the customer questioning more, that you can’t actually buy a twenty dollar t-shirt and think you’re getting a bargain. You might be getting a bargain, but someone’s paying a really strong price for that further on down the supply chain, and so, that would be my dream, that everyone in the industry is paid what they are worth.
Let’s hope that becomes a reality. Thank you so much.
Maggie Marilyn Portraits: Angela Datre
Additional Photography: Provided by Maggie Marilyn
Words: Laura Jones
Copy Editor: Sonjia Hyon