An Interview with Paola Masperi of Mayamiko (Part One)

Mayamiko Trust was established in 2008 by Paola Masperi. After extensive travel in Africa, Paola decided to help some of the most disadvantaged people in Malawi by supporting their creative talents and turning them into sustainable activities.

Paola Masperi

Paola Masperi

Tell us about yourself – familial/personal story, education, and prior work.

I was born and raised in Milan, Italy. My parents have always been very active in the community, so I think that’s where the passion for social justice and activism comes from.

My Granny on my Mum’s side was an excellent seamstress and taught me to sew dresses for my dolls from a young age, while reading classics like To Kill a Mocking Bird and Four Little Women to me. I was taught how to count use coins. My Granddad on my Dad’s side was a very established and very creative tailor.

How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

I had always been interested in human rights and sustainable development and always had a passion for fashion: the combination resulted in an awareness of fashion’s impact on people and the environment.

Team Mayamiko

Team Mayamiko

What is the importance of the idea of ethical and sustainable fashion to you?

Fashion is intrinsic to our way of living and our nature – clothing is one of our basic human needs and has carried so much meaning in society across history, geographies etc.

So it is only natural that if we care for people and our world, and want to work towards a more sustainable existence, we have to look at the clothing industry as one of the key levers for change. The challenge is that fashion is complex, its supply chain is so complex and diverse, that it is very hard to define clear cut parameters and objectives.

What about ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies?

I think there is a healthy level of debate and we are seeing some real change happening in various pockets of the market, with pioneering initiatives by manufacturers, brands and innovators, and with real civil society pushes for change by consumers.

But I think we need more clarity for manufacturers, brands, and consumers to make sure we all have a common understanding of what the words we use in the ethical and sustainable fashion debate really mean, and that sustainability is not confused with greenwashing or just a different PR angle.

What is Mayamiko?

I started Mayamiko in 2008 as a charitable project with the long term view of turning it into a sustainable business for everyone involved, but very aware that it required a charitable mind set to get going: I had been doing work in Malawi since 2005 (and in other developing countries) and I could see so much potential that could be unlocked by providing education and skills, a way out of poverty that was sustainable and not dependent on aid.

Two of mayamiko ladies, Jane and Everyn, busy writing down their vision for the future to then discuss it with the rest of the group and find ways of making it a reality.

Two of mayamiko ladies, Jane and Everyn, busy writing down their vision for the future to then discuss it with the rest of the group and find ways of making it a reality.

Many studies have shown that women’s education has a ripple effect not only on themselves and their family, but also on the communities they live in. Couple that with an interest in fashion, the availability of wonderful fabrics, and the many artisanal techniques that seemed to be slowly getting lost, that’s how the idea came about!

At that point, I had been working with Malawi since 2005 on various programmes and the country was pretty close to my heart because of its incredible beauty, warmth, and potential, but of all the countries I had been to it seemed to need the most of this holistic approach.  That made it in a way the one where I felt I wanted to start from.

At the very heart of it, there is a sole desire to help change people’s lives by giving them choices. Choices come in the form of education, skills training, access to finance, and many other options that we often take for granted.

Tailoring and sewing have always been a pretty widespread skill, but often at a very basic level, and many of the other components required for people to be empowered to achieve change were missing: broader education, more in depth technical training, entrepreneurship skills, self-belief etc. And it was also about taking the wonderfully creative skills of many artisans and turning them into a way of making a sustainable living.

What are some of its feature products?

Every year, we launch a collection of contemporary womenswear. So, we are a ‘season free’ brand. This means we don’t want to engage with the pressure of producing a new collection every season, month, or even week.

I believe we can offer desirable collections consisting of some key directional pieces and some more evergreen pieces, and by playing with different prints and fabrics to stay relevant. Locally sourced African prints or artisanal locally-dyed textiles are at the core of our collections.

 Mayamiko celtic rose grabbag

Mayamiko celtic rose grabbag

We have a commitment to source everything, and wherever possible, within a 20km radius from our workshop to maximize the positive impact on our local community.

Alongside our main collection, and because of our Zero Waste commitment, we bring out ‘zero waste’ pieces, which make use of any cutting room waste in a clever and creative way. For example, our Namaste sets, our hair accessories, and some of our clutches are part of this collection.

Every couple of years, or when the opportunity arises, I launch an upcycled collection, making use of end-of-roll, end-of-life textiles from factories, which would otherwise be destined to the landfill – this is how our Rebirth collection came about and I finished developing a new capsule collection using end-of-life Italian silks.

Sustainably sourced fabric

Sustainably sourced fabric

Many factors come into the fold for consideration within this movement. It is international, moderate in size, and growing. Tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse, was the largest garment factory accident in history with over 1,000 dead and more than 2,500 injured. Others were the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 and the Pakistan Garment Factory Fires in 2012. This implies human rights, worker rights, and, in many instances, women’s and children’s rights. What are the importance of human rights and worker rights in this new movement, and to the garment industry?

The thing about human rights is that they apply to all humans, universally and indiscriminately. And what we have here is a world in which these rights apply to some and not to others. Those others are the most vulnerable in society, i.e. women, children, and less abled people.


Clearly, this is a massively complex and diversified problem and what we are seeing now is more exposure, leading to greater awareness. With social media and the internet, there is really nowhere to hide.

What’s becoming more apparent is that there is no ‘black and white’, no ‘my fault, your fault’. We are all part of the system and we all play a role in the issues, and we all must be part of the solutions: legislators, governments, international bodies, brands, manufacturers, and consumers.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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