Maria Luisa Mendiola graduated in 2016 from the Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries MA at Central Saint Martins (CSM). Whilst on the course, Maria Luisa started her own company MIGA, a swimwear brand for women with disfigurement. Now based back in New York, MIGA has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to create their first collection inspired by burn survivors. We spoke to Maria Luisa about her time at CSM, and what inspired her to start MIGA.
Why did you choose to study at CSM, and particularly the Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries MA?
I had always been drawn to fashion, and in particular swimwear, but I had not found a way to translate that into something that I would work on full time. So I decided to leave my finance job in November 2015 and started looking for fashion programs at UAL. Unfortunately, most programs had already started and I would have to wait until next fall to apply and leave the UK in the meantime. This was inconceivable, as I had not only fallen in love with the City of London, I had fallen in love with my best friend. Overwhelmed with the idea of having to leave, my partner stepped in and miraculously found a course at CSM that started in the coming January. The biggest surprise, however, was not the start date, but that the program was exactly what I was looking for. The course brought people from all different industries and encouraged them to use their personal experience to solve world problems. We were taught to test our assumptions, to not fear failure and most importantly, that you cannot bring about change unless you change yourself first.
What is your fondest memory of the course/ your time at CSM?
I have so many. I would say, however, that one of the best memories was when we celebrated as a class the Day of the Dead. Our Mexican and Colombian classmates organized the event, and it was an opportunity to not only honour those that have passed away but in a way, it felt like we were celebrating the passing of our old selves, pre-MA Applied Imagination. Because the student projects draw so much inspiration from our own personal experiences, the course is as unique as it is therapeutic. We all came to the course with baggage, assumptions, and fears, but as we shared tacos and guacamole we realized just how much we had changed in those nine months.
What was your initial inspiration for MIGA?
MIGA starts from my experience with disfigurement: I 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 CSM on figuring out ways to lower stigma in the disfigured community. To my surprise, I found that fashion design coupled with storytelling could help women feel more comfortable with their visual differences.
What is your design process for the swimsuits? Has this changed since you graduated?
During my first meeting with the volunteers, I ask them design questions that range from their needs to the colours they like and what do they usually avoid when it comes to fashion. I ask this last question as I like to encourage our volunteers to go out of their comfort zone. For example, one of our volunteer’s told me that she wanted a sexy swimsuit that would also protect her burn scars in her right hand and arm. So I designed for her a one-shoulder bathing suit with a matching glove and a cut-out neckline. I show the volunteers a couple of sketches before going into sampling with the studio so that the volunteers have an idea of how the piece will look before the first fitting.
Similarly, during the first meeting, I also ask the volunteers more specific questions about the disfigurement and their experience, so I can then use their language to draft the narrative that goes in each bag. Through my work with the community, I have learned that having a concise story that explains the reason behind the disfigurement is crucial to overcoming stigma. Once the narrative is approved by the volunteer, the story is printed on a canvas bag. Thus, each swimsuit style comes with a matching bag which not only serves to store and protect the product but more importantly displays the volunteer’s story as a way to raise awareness and understanding amongst our shoppers that don’t have such differences.
The design process has changed since I graduated. For example, while the collection I did at CSM also included ready-to-wear pieces, my business, for now, only offers swimwear. This is because bathing suits proved to be the most successful of the collection; one of our volunteers, who had not been back swimming since her burn injury, was able to do so due to our collaboration. Additionally, for my Masters, the bathing suits focused on disclosing the disfigurements and this was possible because most bathing suits in the UK are used in indoor pools. That is not the case for the U.S. so we have created bold and striking conversation pieces with SPF 50 fabrics. Lastly, while the pieces designed in the UK had the narrative of each volunteer printed inside the garment, for this collection the narratives are printed in bags that come with each bathing suit.
As well as the sales aspect of your website, there’s also a successful blog. How did this start and who writes for it?
Dr Lisa Williams, a clinical psychologist at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, taught me that having a concise story that explains the reason behind the disfigurement is key to overcoming stigma. Thus, I wanted the blog to give women, and soon men, the opportunity to work on their narrative and to share it, as a way to help others. Although throughout the collection we work with our volunteers to create their narratives, I am unable to work with as many people as I would like, so the blog gives others the opportunity to craft their story. To date, we have published over 25 blogs, ranging from conditions like Epidermolysis Bullosa to Vitiligo and Psoriasis. Every week, we feature a different collaborator and while most pieces discuss the collaborator’s experience with a certain type of disfigurement, some have featured opinions on “why we shouldn’t compare trauma.” Other entries have been more of a “lifestyle” type as a way to normalize the experience of having a visual difference. A collaborator that had recently visited Greece decided to write about her trip and briefly, at the bottom of the article, mentioned that she had a facial disfigurement.
What’s next for MIGA?
In the short term, we just launched a Kickstarter campaign that will allow us to produce our first collection inspired by burn survivors. Reaching our goal amount will demonstrate that there is demand for a product that not only helps women feel more comfortable with their differences, but that is inspired by and showcases the stories of the disfigured community.
In the future, I see MIGA Swimwear moving to other categories such as women’s resort wear, ready-to-wear and men’s. I also see the company having its own charitable arm that focuses on creating curriculums for schools on how to approach disfigurement, workshops on 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 disfigured community and would love to replicate their work in the US so we can offer more psychosocial adaptations to this community.
What advice would you give to students and graduates who want to start their own company?
If you are like me, you have wanted to start your own company from a very young age. It’s just a matter of when and how. My biggest advice would be not to overthink it. You will never be 100% prepared and wanting something badly can take you very far. In my experience, it got to a point where if I kept reading the autobiographies of CEOs I admired or the “top 5 things to know” articles on how to start your own company, I would hit diminishing marginal returns and not go for it. I believe you have to be a bit naive to venture on your own, so stop reading and start doing! The fact of the matter is that there is no one document you can read that will prepare you for the crazy ride entrepreneurship can be, and I am saying this with one year in.
If you’ve started your own business, or want to find out more about how to go about setting up your company, make sure to check out the UAL Enterprising Alumni Association. The programme has been designed to help answer your questions and provide thought-provoking inspiration for each other’s creative business enterprise.