J-Pop inspired clothing designer moves studio to Sassafras in Belltown

By Shin Yu Pai
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Malia Peoples displays her fashion. (Photo courtesy of Malia Peoples)

Malia Peoples, the designer best known as Lady Konnyaku, recently moved her women’s clothing design company from Olympia to Belltown. Inspired by the comfort of knit fabrics, Japanese street fashion, and the colors and silhouettes found in mid-century vintage clothing, Peoples’ whimsical tops and dresses flaunt geometric patterns, bold hues, and playful details. “We’re so excited to have Lady Konnyaku designs at Sassafras!” says Amy Tipton, proprietor of Sassafras boutique and design studios. “The first time I saw her designs, I was blown away. Her designs are quirky and modern, with a touch of nostalgia from our childhoods, incorporating prints and fabrics that we remember from times in the not too distant past.”

Working out of her space at Sassafras boutique since February, Peoples is excited to have a concrete location to test out her designs and garner a dedicated following.

“Seattle is great because ours is a small pond,” says Peoples. “If a person wants to show their line, it’s really easy to get an audience here. People are supportive of one another here.”

Institutions like The Wing Luke Museum and Seattle Art Museum have provided Peoples with a platform for showing off her talents. The Wing featured Lady Konnyaku’s designs in its “Fashion: From Workroom to Runway” exhibit, which brought Peoples’ work to the attention of the Seattle Art Museum. As part of SAM’s public programming for its Japanese fashion exhibition Future Beauty, the museum invited Peoples to offer a series of sewing workshops in conjunction with the show. As both a working artist and teacher, Peoples enjoys providing guidance and motivation to others.

“This feeling goes beyond fashion and design — I love to help people feel happiness and satisfaction in life. I’ve found that in teaching, and I strive to do that with each piece of clothing I create,” says the young designer.

Peoples entered the world of designing fashion after leaving a career in the nonprofit world. She worked briefly for China Labor Watch, where she put her Chinese languages skills to use as a translator. Peoples’ passion for Chinese culture grew out of a desire to better understand her family and roots. Born in Hawaii and raised as an American, Peoples always wanted to know more about the Chinese side of her ancestry.

“I wanted to get closer to my ancestors, even though they were Southerners from Macau,” says Peoples. She jumped at the opportunity to study abroad in Beijing for a year and later chose Chinese as her college major. Her proficiency in Chinese allowed her to apply her abilities to interpreting. “It was quite an experience, hearing firsthand accounts of factory life in China, as well as Bangladesh and other Southeast Asian countries,” says Peoples.

But eager to explore her creative side and a deep love for fashion informed by Japanese street styles, Peoples enrolled in classes at the New York Fashion Academy in Ballard.

“I love the art of dressing oneself and wanted to learn how to make clothing,” she says. In two years, Peoples learned the skills needed to start her own clothing business.

The idea for Lady Konnyaku was born when Peoples worked at Uwajimaya. She became fascinated with the packaging and marketing of Japanese foods.

“There were so many ‘nonsense English’ phrases, funny phrases that made little sense,” she says. “My original plan was to find a fast-track way to sell exclusively to Japan. Part of that plan was to create a brand that was sort of ‘nonsense Japanese.’

My hope was to catch someone’s eye in the same way that ‘nonsense English’ catches my eye and makes me laugh. At the same time all of this happened, konnyaku jelly cups were being recalled due to choking deaths.”

In addition to her clothing designs for women, Peoples is developing a new line of clothing for men. “Other Peoples Polyester (OPP) is influenced by a time capsule I found in my parents’ garage — a box of clothes my older brothers wore as little boys during the 1960s and 1970s.” Since Peoples already uses vintage polyester details in her Lady Konnyaku designs, she plans on carrying over her pop aesthetic to a new line of items for men and T-shirt lovers that will debut later this year.

With her partner Mike McSorley, Peoples also designs and produces a line of textile bartending equipment for McSology. Last year, Peoples and McSorley successfully funded their first Kickstarter campaign to produce a craft bartender’s tool roll. The couple also fulfilled their first wholesale order of 1,000 bags to the United Kingdom in 2013.

With her recent move to her new studio, Peoples hopes to be able to attract an audience for her designs. “Most Seattleites are afraid of color, and I aim to change that,” she says. Peoples also plans to focus her energies on expanding through wholesaling to cities beyond Seattle. (end)

Lady Konnyaku designs are currently carried at Sassafras, located at 2307 1st Avenue. Her online store is at http://www.etsy.com/shop/LADYkonnyaku.

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Photos on flickr