Julia Ahrens and Laura Ahrens are the sister duo that started Miakoda New York. Julia is a fashion designer who turned vegan and had a new-found interest in creating a company that treats animals, people, and the planet equally well. Her yogi instructor sis Laura inspired her, and together, they co-founded Miakoda.
What was the inspiration for starting Miakoda?
After going vegan, I no longer wanted to wear or create clothing that exploited animals and used animal fabrics/skins/fibers. I worked in the industry and felt so conflicted when asked to work with these materials. I tried to look for a company that I felt comfortable supporting and designing for, but there were so few 100%-vegan-companies and they weren’t hiring (and most were pretty small!). This was my initial reason for starting Miakoda. As I thought about what vegan fashion meant for me, I realized it goes beyond animals and includes the planet and other humans. I really wanted to work for a company that made me feel like I was making a difference by our planet in a meaningful way. I love fashion and I love designing, but design without purpose and reason felt extremely lack-luster to me and I really wanted to create something that felt meaningful and purposeful to me.
What values do you want to portray most in your company?
It is so important to us to portray the idea that humans, animals, and our planet are ALL important and it’s our responsibility to treat ALL of them well. With that message, we also want to encourage that NO positive action is too small. We value when consumers make a conscious decision. Whether you have learned to shop ethically and make sustainable choices, or if shopping with us is the first time you’ve ever heard of clothing made from bamboo… you’re making a difference and we value that!
What are ways in which Miakoda practices ethics and sustainability?
All of our garments are made from organic and sustainable plant based materials. No animals are harmed [a.k.a. no wool, no silk, no fur, no leather, etc] and no toxic chemicals are used to grow our fibers [only organic cotton here!]. We choose to only work with fabric suppliers who are equally as committed to monitoring their supply chain, providing safe work environments, and paying fair wages. We cut and sew our garments in an ethical NYC factory that we visit regularly. We truly believe that happy fibers sewn by happy workers create happy customers!
Name one thing that you love most about your work? What is the hardest thing about your job?
The thing I love most about my work is seeing people wearing and enjoying the clothing we create. It is so rewarding to create something that I am passionate about and seeing other people enjoy it! The hardest thing is reaching new customers and to make our mission reach more people.
How do you decide which factories you work with and how do you ensure that they are producing fairly?
We have worked with a bunch of factories in NYC. Before I work with them, I always visit the factory and check out what they’re all about. We are lucky to be based in NY, which is one of the safest garment centers in the world. Fair labor is hardly enforced overseas and there have even been instances of sweatshops and slave labor in California. We talk to the factory owner about labor and what they do to support the workers they employ. There a bunch of sure signs that a factory isn’t what they claim to be— when they don’t let you watch your garments be sewn [out-sourcing to cheaper factories while pretending to be making your garments is a real thing!], when you’re only allowed to stop in when the owner is there, and when they don’t welcome random visits to check-in. It’s important to talk to the factory owner, talk to the garment workers, and to keep your eyes open to make sure what you’re being told is actually what’s going on.
What are some challenges that you see in the fashion industry and how does Miakoda try to improve the industry?
There are so many challenges in the fashion industry at this point in time. We are so much based in a fast-fashion model which focuses on how much can we get and how cheap can we get it for. Garment workers are paid cents per garment sewn and consumers expect garments to cost dollars. Miakoda’s effort is to educate why this is horrible—not only for the workers slaving away to make the clothing, but for the planet as well! Our workers are paid a fair living wage, work normal hours, and are treated with kindness and compassion in a safe work environment. Our materials are high quality… grown with love and compassion for the planet as well as the workers harvesting them and the workers knitting them. We believe in quality not quantity—and quality doesn’t just refer to the craftsmanship of the garment, but to the lives of the workers involved in bringing the garment to life.
Do you believe purchasing power goes a long way with changing the way the fashion industry currently is, or is there something else that you would like to see happen in the future that can facilitate the change away from unsustainable and unethical practices?
I totally believe that purchasing power goes a long way! We’ve seen how the dairy industry has been deeply hurt by consumers purchasing more dairy alternatives and plant-based milks. Supply and demand is very real—companies can’t afford to make something that people aren’t buying. The goal isn’t to put these unethical and unsustainably companies out of business [per say] but to show them that people WANT sustainable and ethical clothing so that they can shift what they are doing to create a better future for our planet.
Why the focus on staple pieces and athleisure wear?
Whenever I bought specialty pieces in the past I saved them for ‘that special occasion’ or wore them a few times before my style changed and no longer loved them the way I did when I purchased them. Staple pieces can be loved for years and years no matter how your style changes. We choose to focus on athleisure because comfy clothes are the best clothing. I personally hate the feeling of getting dressed in the morning, leaving for the day, and an hour or so into the day feeling majorly uncomfortable in the outfit I picked. In the past I would look forward to going home so I could change into something comfy and take off my tight jeans, constricting t-shirt, itchy sweater, etc. I find that I am in SUCH a better mood when I wear comfy clothing—I feel more confident in myself and less irritable. Our goal is to make compassionate clothing, and personally, I don’t feel I can be the most compassionate human being that I can be when I’m super uncomfy in my clothing.
If you had to choose one word to describe your design style, what would it be?
Comfortable! 100% definitely. If it’s not comfortable I don’t want to design it or make it or wear it.
Miakoda is one of the few companies I have seen promote body positivity in their advertising. I think that is awesome! What started this idea and how do you try to create a good example of confidence for women everywhere?
Thank you so much! I really think it’s so incredibly important for humans of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities to be represented in media. From a consumer’s point of view, I personally hate when I’m trying to buy a garment and I can’t even tell what it will look like on my body type. I think it’s so helpful for customers to see the garment on a bunch of bodies to be able to envision it on themselves. From a personal point of view—I am SO sick of black and white thinking that’s perpetuated in the media. The idea that only one body type is beautiful, or that only one hair color is beautiful, or that only one type of intelligence makes you intelligent, or that one lifestyle makes you successful. It’s simply not true and we don’t want to be another company falling into this mindset that you aren’t enough and perfect as you are! I’ve heard so many women say that they hate shopping online because looking at models makes them feel horrible about their appearance. Whether it brings up feelings of not being thin enough or not being toned enough or having smooth shiny hair or acne free soft skin… whatever it is, the thought that a beautiful, intelligent, kind human can look at the images we put out into the world and feel bad about themselves is horrifying to me [seriously!]. All of our models are beautiful… and not just because they’re “pretty” and because they’re “models” but because they are really wonderful humans [*disclaimer: we have been so lucky to work with really awesome models who are absolutely amazing!].
When do you feel most beautiful?
I feel most beautiful when I’m having a conversation with someone I love where I am just constantly laughing and so engaged in the conversation and enjoyment that it doesn’t matter if my eyeliner is running down my face from the tears in my eyes, if I’m making the “ugliest” laughing face, if my entire face is red from hardly being able to catch my breathe. It sounds corny, but it’s so true. The days I’ve felt the “ugliest” are the days when I try to make my outward appearance look the best. I can easily say that every time I’ve ever gotten my hair and make up professionally done and dressed up for a fancy event, I’ve felt horrible in my skin the entire day.
If you could teach a whole generation of younger girls one thing about the meaning of beauty, what would it be?
Beauty is immeasurable. It’s not black and white. It’s not a number. It’s not a color. It comes from being a good person. You can change your make-up, your body shape will change as you get older, you can cut your hair differently, but the way you talk to yourself and treat yourself and talk to others and treat others will make you feel more beautiful than anything else. I promise.
What is your current definition of success?
This is such a tough question. I hate to think of success as a monetary accomplishment, so I’ll say my current definition is how much of a positive impact are you having. Do you practice mindfulness and implement sustainable practices in your daily life? And do you treat yourself and those around you kindly? Money is important to live a comfortable life, but living a life you can feel proud of and that can impact others in a positive way will leave a much more lasting impression. I’ve never been to a funeral where someone boasted “We will miss XYZ person because they had a great career and made a lot of money.” It’s definitely more common to hear “This person always made us smile”, “This person had a great sense of humor”, “This person always thought about others”, etc., etc.
What are your top favorite books, articles, or documentaries that shaped your lifestyle or way of viewing the world?
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and The True Cost take the cake for most influential shapers of my lifestyle.
What legacy would you like to leave behind?
I want Miakoda to be my legacy…. to be remembered for making an impact on this world and on an industry [fashion industry] that so desperately needs reshaping.