An interview with Miakoda's founder and designer, Julia Ahrens, by Elizabeth Harris.
With all of us at home during the pandemic, our sweatpants and athleisure have become our everyday staples. If we’re going to be home all day, we may as well be comfortable right? I know I have.
But shouldn’t we feel that the clothes we wear make us look good and we feel cute in them? Shouldn’t they be made with fabrics that won’t hurt the Earth we inhabit? Shouldn’t they be made by skilled workers who are treated fairly and paid a living wage? Shouldn’t our clothing purchases support brands that are truly working on diversity, not just advertising it?
That’s where Julia Ahrens and Miakoda come in. Miakoda is Julia’s one-woman show clothing company. Julia designs, manufactures, and advertises her products sustainably and ethically in NYC! She uses her growing platform to raise environmental and social issues through the brands and influencers she works with and the models she hires. Not to mention, I love her clothes, and Julia is an absolutely lovely person.
When putting together the Herstory issue, Julia was one of the first women I thought of, and I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with her about her company, social sustainability, and what we can do to play a part.
Julia, Miakoda is 8 years old! Congrats! Can you tell us more about how you started Miakoda?
I went to Parsons School of Design and at the end of my junior year, I went vegan. That summer I worked at Club Monaco. I met one of my best friends there, and I just loved working at the company. I wanted to work there, but I had this moral and ethical debate in my head. I was working in accessories and they wanted me to work with leather.
I remember one day I was stapling leather to pieces of paper for them. I was like, "This is a cow’s skin and I’m stapling it to paper." I was a shoe fanatic before that. I was buying designer shoes, leather shoes. I never thought about it before that. Going vegan changed my mindset and I just couldn’t do this. That was a pivotal moment for me.
I started learning about environmentalism and ethical fashion around the same time the Dhaka factory collapsed in Bangladesh. Ethical fashion became more of a thing that was in people’s minds and conversations. I was interviewing at other companies like J Crew, and other higher-end designer companies, but I don’t even know where they made the clothes. I turned to my mom and my dad and said, "I just can’t do this."
I remember we went to Paris and London for my college graduation. My mom told me that I could pick out one piece of clothing from the high-end department stores that I want to buy to remember this trip and celebrate my graduation. I couldn’t find anything. I didn’t know where it was made. I didn’t know what it was made of. I felt so distressed. My sister turned to me on that trip and said, "If you can’t find what you’re looking for, other people must be looking for it too and you should start it on your own."
She’s a silent partner in Miakoda because when I started I didn’t have the money to start. I worked all through college, all through high school, so I took my savings and money from my sister and said, "Okay I’m doing this." She’s never made a penny off of Miakoda because it's really hard to make money as a small business, but she’s super supportive. She’s always gung-ho about everything that I’m doing and questions me to be a better person and Miakoda to be a better brand.
That’s pretty much how it started.
The first 5 years were the hardest. I was constantly like, "What am I doing?!" I had no idea how to do this, I’ve made many very expensive mistakes, and finally, in the 6th and 7th year, I have a business.
My number one advice to people starting is not to expect to make money in their first 5 years. It’s really difficult. There’s a lot of really expensive mistakes. You’ll make money and you’ll spend a lot of money. I considered it my crash course in business school because it’s like I paid for another college education or master's degree because of the very expensive mistakes.
You speak a lot about sustainability on your company’s blog and on social media. For our readers who are new to you, what does sustainability mean to you?
The biggest thing it means to me is something that you can continue for a long time. There are so many things in the fashion industry that just aren’t going to last. Clothing won’t last. The way workers are underpaid, they can’t sustain their life. Being able to sustain the people that support you is really important to me and not hurting our planet. Sustainability means working with environmentally-friendly materials, paying everyone we work with a fair living wage, and then social sustainability came into play this year.
When George Floyd was murdered and Black Lives Matter became a movement, I looked at myself and said, "What am I doing to not perpetuate racism and social injustice?" Of course, I’ve been interested in working with models of different ethnicities and sizes, but it’s really not enough.
I ended up talking to one of the modeling agencies that I’ve been working with this year, We Speak Models. They are amazing, and they have the most inclusive group of models and all of their models are the nicest, most talented people.
They asked if I was interested in talking about anti-racism and social inequality with one of their models, who is passionate about this, went to school for this, and wants to help brands who care about these matters to be better about it. I was like, "Yep, put me in touch with her."
Her name is Quincie Zairi, and we ended up working together. She consulted me on how we could do better and what we can do, including working with Black models who have darker skin or aren’t the Americanized sense of beauty. I never realized but they don’t get signed agencies. Quincie was working with an agency that said they couldn’t add another Black model. There’s a limited number of Black models, but they can put as many white models as they want. Seriously?
So, I went back and looked at all the Black models I used. Of course, they’re beautiful, wonderful, talented beings, but they all look very European. Quincie gave me suggestions of models to work with and Black brands and people of color. I’ve found so many amazing brands through this.
Starting a business for me was hard enough. I struggled. But she was explaining how difficult it was for minorities. I went and lived with my parents. I lived with my mom and I didn’t have to worry about paying bills, paying rent. Many people don’t have that same ability growing up in lower-income families. Their parents need them to help pull their weight, and they don’t have the same parental support. I'm very grateful for that opportunity.
Working with Quincie was amazing. She’s an incredible model. She’s an awesome human being. After we finished working together, she could have been done with me. Instead, she sent me an email follow-up saying, "Hey I know you’re trying really hard and you’re doing a great job, but maybe you should do XYZ." I was like OMG thank you! She would follow up again and say, "You’re doing a great job, you’re really taking on what we talked about into consideration." I was like “Aah thank you!” because you never really know.
You don’t always realize your prejudices. She said being racists isn’t necessarily a negative thing because everyone is a little bit racist to some degree. You shouldn’t be defensive of, "Oh I’m not racist." It should be, "Let me introspectively look at myself and see where I have my biases." Maybe I have fewer biases than someone who we would label as racist, but there are always opportunities to be better.
That’s one of the things that I’ve learned in business is to listen to feedback because there are always opportunities to grow and do better and be better. Taking that feedback from other people just makes you a better person and a better brand.
Wow! That's awesome! So, how do you design your clothes and products so that they are sustainable?
One of the things I’ve been working on in 2020 is expanding our size range. I want to be body positive because beauty standards absolutely suck in America and all over the world, and breaking those beauty standards has always been important to me.
I’ve always wanted my customers to be able to relate to that model, influencer, and the person wearing the clothes, and want to wear that too because it makes them feel beautiful to see themself represented. When I look at a website and there are tall, size double 0 women who have no legs, I don’t relate to that at all. It makes me feel terrible, and it must make other people who really can’t see themselves feel terrible.
Also, body image for women is so messed up. I want to counter that but my size range only went up to XXL. I saw so many people talking about inclusive sizing, but it’s really hard to make a lot of sizes because it's really expensive. When I went up to XXL, my XXLs did not sell. I had to pay people to buy them. It was ridiculous. So, if I had to expand my size range, how am I going to get people with plus-size bodies to buy my clothing? I spoke to clothing brands who do inclusive sizing and they said it was absolutely worth it, just go for it, and you’re gonna see that it's really rewarding.
I spoke to Free Label and Sotella who are two amazing companies. They’re incredible owners with incredible missions, they’re both sustainable, ethically made, all the goodness in the world, and they have inclusive sizing. I looked at them and that’s where I want to be. I want to do that because it’s important. So, I’ve been working on that in 2020. Being inclusive with sizing and going up to 4XL, so that it can fit up to a size 28 where our previous size went up to size 16/18. I’m super excited about that.
It's also about using eco-friendly materials and using ethical manufacturing practices. I went to our factory yesterday. I got there at 4 o’clock and there was no one there because they’re mothers and they want to be home with their families. That was the thing that sold me on the factory I work with. The first time I went there, the owner said to come at 4 o’clock. I showed up at 4 o’clock and it was empty. I was like where are all of your sewers. He says, "They prefer to come in early so that they can be home with their families." I love that.
It’s not a sweatshop where they’re working until 9 o’clock at night or midnight, not getting paid, not getting breaks. During the pandemic, he picked them up and drove them to the factory so that they didn’t have to take public transport and bought them food from local restaurants so that they could have the business. I was like that’s exactly who I want to work with.
I know manufacturing and manufacturing in fashion don't have the best reputation. How did you find this incredible manufacturer?
The first factory that I worked with was a tiny factory in Manhattan that I worked with when I was in college. The owner was great but the prices were high. We’ve actually lowered Miakoda’s prices substantially since then. Before there was nothing under $100 because my cost of manufacturing was so expensive. I didn’t know their full ethics because of this big language barrier but everyone seemed happy working there and eating together.
Then I moved to another factory. The main people who worked at the front of the factory spoke English well and it was easy to communicate with them. They all assured me it was great. Then they pulled the wool over my eyes and hiked my prices up, mid-production run, and were terrible partners. I thought, “If they’re doing this to me, what are they doing to other people?” I just went in, took all my stuff, and decided that I’m going to do a lot of research when picking my next production partner.
I met so many factories that were all smoke and mirrors and just tell you what you want. When I met Eric, who does our production now, he was just so nice. He sat and talked with me for 2 hours, and he wasn’t getting paid, he was just chatting with me. People would come in and talk to him. Someone would ask if they could leave now and he would be like, "Yeah, you can leave." He had Fashion Revolution posters up at the front of his factory, and he was very proud to have it made in America. He is who I wanted to work with. He is so wonderful.
What advice do you have on how we can be conscious consumers and be more sustainable and socially sustainable?
Counterintuitive to what a brand would say, because brands need to make money, is to buy less and buy from companies who you feel are doing really good things. The way I’ve transformed my life shop is that I look for brands who are doing really cool things. This past year I’ve bought a jumpsuit from Sotella, and a shirt and a pair of pants from Free Label. My parents got me a pair of boots from Good Guys Don’t Wear Leather, which is another really cool company. Besides that, everything that I’ve bought has been second-hand.
It's so easy to get wrapped up in trends. Try to buy from a small company that’s doing what you want to see brands doing. It may be hard to find companies out there who are doing it but they are there. Instagram is a great place to find those companies and connect with them. If you send that company a DM or an email and you ask them a question and they don’t give you an answer, then they don’t deserve your money.
That’s why I have a whole section about sustainability, ethics, and what we’re doing in social sustainability. If you’re not putting it out there, you’re probably not doing it. If you are doing it, trust me, it’s very expensive and very time-consuming, you're going to want to share that with people because you’re going to want to connect with people who care about what you’re doing and what you’re spending so much time on.
If a company is just spending a lot of time on designing something, they’re going to show you. If ethics, sustainability, and social sustainability are just as important as the product, then they will be highlighted.
What advice do you have for other businesses on how they can be ethical, sustainable, and socially sustainable?
You have to care about it. Miakoda is the lovechild of my ethics and morals, so everything that I believe and I wanted to see in a company I put in Miakoda. If you don’t care about these things but you want your brand to care about these things, you’re going to have to care about these things.
You’ll make mistakes along the way. I’ve done things that I look back and wish I didn’t do. I wish I read more about recycled polyester and how it sheds more in the wash and how it's questionably sustainable. I used it before in my line, and then I realized it's not something that you want to use because when you wash it, it goes right back into the waterways. Now, we’re not going to use that and I’m gonna share with you why we’re no longer using this.
You’ll learn and you’ll make mistakes, but you need to be open to mistakes and open to learning. The biggest thing is that it needs to be coming from a place of passion and that you truly care about it.
What’s next for Miakoda? I know you’ve been talking about expanding your size range.
That’s my number 1 excitement for 2021. It’s been something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s also a huge source of guilt for me. I feel bad that I haven’t done this. I’ve had people reach out saying that they would love to wear my clothing but I have not given them that opportunity. I think it’s a horrible feeling to look at something and to think that’s really cute but then feeling bad about your body because you can’t fit into it. That’s wrong.
Also, you can’t just grade the pattern to be bigger for plus sizes. Their body distributes weight and increases in size in a different way than grading XS, S, M, L. Even XXL you should probably refit the patterns, but I just never did that. Now, I’ve fixed a lot of the XXL patterns for this year’s editions, but it’s very time-consuming and expensive. With the pandemic and getting a loan and stimulus check for my business, I decided I’m going to put all this money into expanding our size range. That’s the thing I’m most excited about. That’s my number 1 plan.
I’ve also reconnected with my best friend from my Club Monaco days. She started a small company that’s ethically made and sustainable. I love her company and I love what's she’s doing and what she stands for. We’re doing a collaboration and I’m so excited about it. It’s bras and underwear. Many people have asked for that in the past, and it will be her first size-inclusive line. I’m just excited to work with someone passionate about the same things that I’m passionate about.