Mwayi: A Bespoke Made-To-Measure Brand That PARTNERS With Artisans in Malawi

We caught up with Renata DeStefano, the founder of Mwayi, a recently-launched ethical fashion brand that creates bespoke, made-to-measure African print womenswear. We were elated to learn about her social enterprise brand where all garments are handmade by female artisans in their Blantyre, Malawi workshop who earn 2x the average regional salary! 


Check out the interview:


What does the name Mwayi mean?

Mwayi means “opportunity” in Chichewa, the dominant language of Malawi.  When we were picking a name, it was important for us to choose a Chichewa word - so as to stay close to our Malawian roots - that epitomized our two-pronged mission to provide alternative career options for at-risk women in the greater Blantyre region, while also offering bespoke garments that allow our customers to feel authentic and confident in the skin, and the clothes, they’re in.


What inspired you to start this brand?

It was a confluence of several different factors and experiences. Social impact and financial inclusion have always been close to my heart, and it was my passion for these fields that led me to work in microfinance after undergrad. Social impact is my baseline, and is the foundation upon which I built Mwayi. From there, my exposure to wax prints while living in Malawi – and, of course, to the accessibility of “tailor made” – in addition to the opportunities I sought at Wharton to become exposed to social enterprises, inspired me to build a business that brought all these elements

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Where are all of your fabrics sourced? Do you have a position on copy fabrics that are made in China and sold in Africa?

Yes! All of our fabrics are purchased in Lusaka, Zambia, and come mainly from Ghana and Nigeria (homes of the highest quality wax prints, according to my tailor!). We work closely with our traders in Zambia to ensure that the fabrics we purchase come from the Continent, but we also recognize that it’s almost impossible to trace the entire supply chain, especially since we’re still purchasing relatively small bulk orders. That being said, as we grow, we hope to develop more direct relationships with quality manufacturers in Ghana and Nigeria, and ultimately be able to invest in the industry in Malawi, which unfortunately has suffered many setbacks in the past
10-20 years. Sadly, Malawians who can afford imported “chitenge” (the local term for these prints) prefer that to the lower-quality Malawian product. We plan on changing that, though!


Why is "made to order" an important business model for you?

For me, made-to- order is more than a buzz word, it’s about pushing back against industry standards that impose sizes and shapes on beautifully diverse bodies, it’s about eliminating that uncomfortable moment in a dressing room when something that looks great on the rack simply doesn’t fit. As a 5’1” WOC with short legs and big thighs, clothes rarely fit as they should without the help of a cost-prohibitive tailor. Mwayi set out to change the narrative. Rather than coming from an inward, mass production mentality, we look outward and put the customer first. We don’t believe in sizes, because no two bodies are the same. That’s why you’ll see that our clothing
labels all say “Size: YOURS.” We’re excited to be a part of the larger body positivity movement and hope to do our part to move the needle fashion industry toward a more inclusive orientation.


Who made Dominique's jacket in particular? And why is it important to give these women a platform ...why transparency throughout the supply chain?

Our Lead Tailor, Joy Gondwe, made your jacket. Joy has been my right-hand since the idea of Mwayi started to take shape. She has equity in the company and is really my eyes and ears on the ground. For me it’s important to put names and faces (all our apprentices’ photos are on our website) to the labor from which we in the West tend to be so far removed. Aside from merely a cute story to tell your friend when you make a purchase from Mwayi, I think that this level of transparency helps to humanize these women from a far-off country that is typically associated with the word “poor” (assuming we’ve heard of Malawi to begin with). We want to humanize
our artisans in order to foster our customers’ connection with the brand, yes, but also to emphasize our interconnectedness and shared womanhood, building bridges across cultures and countries.


What can we look forward to in the future?

Wooo! This is a question I ask myself every day. In the near-term, expect a special gala collection to run in tandem with our biannual Summer/Winter collections (Prom 2018, anyone?). Other than that, and launching our Summer 2018 collection, of course, we’re mainly focused on growing brand awareness and continuing to build a community of supporters. A Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign aren’t out of the question. Over the long-term, as I’ve alluded to here, I’d love Mwayi to play a larger roll in rebuilding Malawi’s manufacturing sector and thereby helping to diversify the
country’s exports and move away from an economy dominated by agriculture. At the same time, however, our goal is to bring the Mwayi model to other countries where we see a similar combination of low economic development, a dearth of women in the labor force, and a local product that has global appeal. We’re excited for what the future holds and invite you to follow us on our journey at @mymwayi!