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Sustainability In Fashion With Designer Maria Dora

The climate crisis cannot be ignored. Every Friday, Milk will be focusing on solutions and stories from the environment’s biggest supporters; through essays, photo stories, updates on the latest technologies, and tips to combat the climate crisis, we’ve got you covered. This week we spoke to sustainable fashion designer Maria Dora. 

LA-based designer, Maria Dora, is a queen of sustainability in fashion (even if her humility keeps her from saying so.) She got her big break when she was asked to design a custom piece for Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games movie, and strives to keep her work as Earth-conscious as possible. As a single mother, she cites her daughter (who will call her out if she’s not doing what’s right for our planet) as an inspiration to keep going.  The designer takes the time to pick through the wasteland of fabrics and materials in Los Angeles in order to exercise all her resources before worsening her carbon footprint. 

Currently, in between studios, the designer spends most of her time creating two lines, Maria Dora and Georgia, in people’s kitchens or her garage. If her brand had a slogan it would be: “waste not, want not.” Her work has received wonderful accolades and has even been voluntarily endorsed by the likes of ASAP Rocky. “If it’s resonating with people, I feel like that’s important.”    

You’ve talked in previous interviews about your family having a lot of inspiration for your designs. Is that still true? How has it also helped your designs evolve? 

It’s still true – I’m most inspired by people that are familiar and intimate to me. Growing up, I watched my parents work through a complicated love story…they’re very different, but in the end, they’re just two sides of the same coin. Now in their sixties, my folks are so comfortable in their relationship – it took time, but everything fell into place. 

That dynamic subconsciously had a massive influence on how I approach design…things don’t have to be perfect, but getting dichotomies to coexist in a singular, sincere space is the goal. My brother jokes that my aesthetic could be broken down to the phrase “heartbreakingly beautiful,” but he’s probably right. 

You recently left your studio, where do you do most of your work now? 

I just left in December – still figuring things out. Thankfully my work is primarily with the knitters and craftsmen that I collaborate with, many who work from home. I end up spending a lot of time in people’s kitchens and living rooms, which is nice. 

Our sample and production guy for Georgia ic25 also primarily works for costume designers, so his tiny factory is packed with these incredible, fantastical designs. Rufino is always sharing his knowledge with me and it is inspiring to work with him so closely. 

Can you talk about the sustainable products and materials you use when creating your pieces? 

Every project starts with what we immediately have on hand. I decided a while back to make a conscious effort to use our deadstock (vintage, but unused) yarn instead of letting it waste away in storage – it forced me to look at what was working and what wasn’t, what could be used in a new way. That decision made my knitwear wholesale business smaller, but in a way that feels right and sustainable for me. We’ve started exploring production in Peru because they have such a rich history of sustainable work, but it’s something I want to take slow for now. 

For Georgia, all of the materials are deadstock that can be found here in Los Angeles – even down to the buttons. We have a massive jobber culture here because of the denim industry – it felt wrong to import fabric when I could find a quality natural twill here, a few minutes from where the product is cut and sewn. A few other designers have told me that I need to start buying from large vendors to make better margins, but I like the idea that materials change with each lot – each production run is special and locally sourced. 

So Georgia is your other line? 

Georgia ic25 is a collaborative workwear project that I started with some friends. It’s centered on three pieces: a chore jacket, a work pant, and an apron. We made it because so many of our friends have a habit of wearing the same things over and over again, almost like an artist’s uniform. We wanted to give them something that was of quality and made sense both in the studio and when they were out running errands and doing other things. 

Matthew Henson got a few pieces awhile back and his client ASAP Rocky has been wearing it all over the place. Their support means so much. I see pictures of Rocky wearing Georgia in London and Miami and Sweden, and I’m like, Oh, so he really likes the outfit! Like, he’s really into this jacket. That’s echoed the general reaction to the line since it’s a lot of repeat customers. As a small business, there’s no money for advertising – but if Georgia is resonating with people and becoming part of their everyday life, that’s amazing. 

You’ve done a lot of work for film. Do you feel that it’s hard to remain sustainable in an industry that is time-sensitive or has a budget? 

It’s funny because I realized that in order to be sustainable, I have to stop saying yes to people constantly. I want to support their vision, but I have to be honest about where things were coming from, how many planes it would take to have it shipped or what processes are used in production. Everything has to come from somewhere, but at the same time, there’s a massive carbon imprint that could be minimized if we include something from the last project or work with local artisans. It’s a tedious process, but I’m finding that people want to listen and accommodate once they have the information in front of them. 

Is there a place in LA where all of this dead material goes? 

Yeah. Los Angeles is a large hub for fashion (mass and independent) and there’s so much material here that just goes to waste or storage every year. It’s all within a 15-20 mile radius, which is crazy. Sourcing deadstock or figuring out creative solutions for current inventory is time-consuming, but it’s not going to have the ecological impact that getting new product from abroad would. 

There’s something beautiful about understanding a material might not be exactly what I want, but it’s here now and this is what we’re going to use. I could use a stock service to find something cheaper and more reliable (to reorder), but the real cost is greater. Sourcing locally means I choose to work with a finite amount of material, but once it’s finished I can find something equal or better. The process also forces me to work in quantities that I know we can sell versus taking on excess inventory, which just perpetuates the wasteful nature of consumerism. 

In what ways does your daughter influence your determination for making clothes that support our environment? 

Ruby is an empathetic person…she notices when things are off and asks questions, whether it’s in our personal life or the world in general. She’s aware of waste or when we don’t recycle. Those traits made me re-examine how I was approaching work because she sees all of it – if I want her to live with integrity, it really does start with me. 

You said in an interview that when asked to knit a piece for the Hunger Games movie, that your knitting skills were sub-par. How were you able to come out with an iconic piece? 

The hunting shawl is a mix of weaving and macrame, simply because my knitting skills were very elementary at the time. Trish Summerville suggested some modifications to a previous design and we collaborated on the final piece…I was nervous because I wasn’t very experienced, but she was so gracious and patient with me. I had worked for a few different fashion designers before her, but costume design is different – it’s hyper-focused on detail and continuity. Trish has a unique vision and it’s always so great to work with her.

Do you have any suggestions for designers or brands that want to become more sustainable? 

Start small – people get caught up in the story and providence of things, but genuine change starts with you. You don’t need to spend all that capital on the new “eco” thing people are trying to sell, do your research and decide if it’s right for you. If there’s something good and sustainable that you can genuinely make part of your everyday life/workflow, you can build from there. 

Images courtesy of Michelle Corvino.

Stay tuned to Milk for more climate crisis solutions and more artists we love.

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