As I was recently planning a trip to Palo Alto to attend my BFF’s son’s graduation, the timeless task of packing my suitcase and waiting to the last minute was upon me. Yes, I am guilty of overpacking. Yes, I know this to be true and do it anyhow.
My insecure side wants to have options and my practical side knows I won’t wear half of what I take. Whether packing for a short trip or a long summer vacation, the last item I pack is always my bathing suit. Never sure if I’ll have down time, I always throw one in just in case.
Scanning the bottom drawer (which contains the things I use least) in my closet, I checked the inventory of once-worn but hated suits. Not satisfied with the options, I headed over to Malia Mills, a swimsuit boutique in the Montecito Country Mart. While on a vacation a few years back with four other women, each with different body types, all had a different Malia Mills suit. That memory stuck with me as I drove over to find my Cinderella suit.
I’ve been a big consumer of fashion all my life — and have the credit-card evidence to prove it — but bathing suits are the one item I’m ambivalent about. It seems when you get a group of women together, after complaining about kids and mates, body-image issues always come up. Everyone is on a diet. Shopping for a bathing suit can be a reality check and often an anxiety-provoking endeavor.
Living in Chicago after a winter in heavy clothes, it was always startling to see your entire body in a dressing-room mirror under the kind of lighting used to extract your wisdom teeth. In Santa Barbara, the challenge is trying on suits — with a 5-foot-7 blonde with a willowy torso and no signs of childbirth in the dressing room next door.
Malia Mills, with stores across America (all suits are made in the USA), was launched in 1993 with a simple idea: to engineer tops by bra size, to cut bottoms to show off a variety of shapes and to empower women to stride into the water with confidence and from a positive perspective. “Love thy differences,” according to the stated mission of the store’s namesake founder, Malia Mills.
“At Malia Mills, we don’t want to change the way you look, we want to change the way you look at yourself,” Mills told me during a recent telephone interview from her Brooklyn studio. “It’s vital to liberate women from feelings of inadequacy that accompany the struggle to find a suit that fits.
“It’s imperative to show women that if a suit does not fit, it is the suit that is flawed not the body.”
Since opening in Montecito almost four years ago, day-to-day operations at Malia Mills are headed up by sales manager Kati Kiraly. With 10-plus years of experience in the retail and wholesale fashion world in Los Angeles, the Santa Barbara native moved back to town and was pleasantly surprised to find a Malia Mills boutique. Long a fan who still has a Malia Mills bikini from the 1990s, Kiraly — yes, she’s the sister of volleyball legend Karch Kiraly — grew up on local beaches and dreamed of having her own bikini line as a teenager.
Kiraly loves being part of Montecito Country Mart’s coterie of friendly merchants and being the face of Malia Mills in the 93108. Developer Jim Rosenfield’s “synergistic collection” of shops — like his Brentwood and Marin country marts — are well represented with Malia Mills neighbors such as Toy Crazy, One-Hour Martinizing, Pressed Juicery, Read ‘n Post, Montecito Barbers, Xanadu Bakery & Restaurant and Little Alex’s. The action on the Malia Mills side of the Mart is brisk, often local and errand driven.
Stopping by to say hi to Kiraly, you will also meet her assistants, Leanna Bortolazzo and Lina Lichtenstein, both fit specialists who also grew up on local beaches. Bortolazzo is adept at retail and visual merchandising, has an artistic eye and, according to Kiraly, is “an undeniable fashionista with style that revolves around uncommon ideas and quality construction.” Both Bortolazzo and Lichtenstein share a passion for swimwear and fashion.
In addition to swim suits, the store has many easy pieces to help you get out of Dodge for the weekend or a cruise down Butterfly Beach. A Malia Mills getaway bag is big enough to pack your essentials and sassy enough to go from the beach to a bar or hotel.
Malia Mills carries multiple styles of swimwear in solid violet, indigo blue, slate, copper, red, yellow, brown, black and white, along with floral and cotton jacquard patterns. The store also offers a fresh collection of ready-to-wear and accessories curated in Malia Mills boutiques across the country. While not inexpensive, the construction and design are considered by many Malia Mills devotees to be price worthy.
According to Kiraly, Malia Mills has successfully set itself apart from other swimwear shops.
“We are lucky to have a Malia Mills boutique in Montecito,” she said. “Her hip, edgy approach to swimwear and clothing is a breath of fresh NYC air in California. Her designs are unique and special.”
A Malia Mills customer, she added, is “one who wants attention to fit, and also wants high fashion and wants something different.”
Kiraly appreciates for herself and her customers Mills’ view on bra/pant sized swimwear as well as her “love thy differences philosophy.”
“No matter what your size and shape, we should all be able to find a great fitting/looking suit and get on with the business of enjoying life at the beach or pool,” she said. “Life is too short!”
I’ll lift my glass of summer-infused rosé to that philosophy in my new suit with sunscreen, cool shades, a wide-brimmed hat … and cover up.