While the fashion industry maintains itself rapidly updated by leaving behind trend after trend, the admirable work of independent designers like Nia Thomas gives us some hope about the future of sustainable textile production and the zero-waste alternatives in the industry. Self-defined as “being incredibly anti-fashion industry,” the designer introduces her latest capsule collection, Ho’oponopono, which consists of fully hand-knitted and timeless garments that provide comfort while looking stylish. 
As a multidisciplinary artist and creative director of her label, Thomas does not leave aside what it means to be ethically conscious and innovative: since all of her collection’s pieces are hand-knitted, it is a zero/low waste production and generates zero carbon emissions. Today, she shares with us some thoughts on fashion, nature, and the balance between the two.
Before we get to know all the details about your newest collection, tell us a bit about yourself. Who is Nia Thomas? And how would you define your work in the fashion industry?
My name is Nia and I am a Black woman, multidisciplinary artist, collector, explorer and the founder/creative director of my namesake label, Nia Thomas. I define my work in the fashion industry as being incredibly anti-fashion industry. No sweatshop labor, no strict fashion season calendar, no following the norms that traditional fashion houses have used in the past. We are part of a new generation of designers that believe in making work that is revolutionary in our ethics and overall message.
Your capsule collection is called Ho’oponopono, a Hawaiian word that means ‘doubly right,’ which also defines an old practice in healing and forgiveness. How did you first become familiar with this concept?
The actual English translation of Ho’oponopono is ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.’ A local friend was wearing a t-shirt with the saying on it and I curiously asked him to explain to me what it means. The word ‘ho’o’ means ‘cause’ in Hawaiian, while ‘ponopono’ means ‘perfection’. The term ‘ho’oponopono’ can be translated as ‘correct a mistake’ or ‘make it right.’ It is powerful for purifying one’s body and getting rid of bad memories or feelings that hold the mind in a negative tune.
What is the relationship between this powerful concept and the collection you have recently launched? What are you trying to transmit with it?
Hawaii has such a sacred, healing energy on the land, and it was truly such a privilege to be there and to feel it. A lot of healing work was done for me there for four months. The Hawaiian practice of reconciliation and forgiveness is something that the island told me in my heart I had to work on to be a better friend, daughter, sister, partner and human. It felt very fitting that I name the collection this because this capsule shows not only my growth professionally but on a personal level as well. I feel that when I am in a good mental headspace, my artistic capabilities can truly shine through and I can transit magic and positivity into the world.
Your new line consists of timeless silhouettes, and all the garments are hand-knitted – an admirable job for a clothing brand in modern times. How long does it take you to produce one of these pieces? Do you work with a large or small team?
I want people to know how much attention to detail, trial and error and long hours went into knitting these sweaters by hand. Our sweaters can be extraordinarily complex in terms of construction and can take twenty to twenty-four hours to knit just one. I am lucky in that my knitwear team is knowledgeable, small and it feels like a family. All our hand-knits are created by a team of four women, including myself.
I met my knitters when we all were in design school at the Fashion Institute of Technology. They specialized in knitwear for their BFA, and I specialized in Sportswear. Since we have diverse technical backgrounds, we all bring our expertise to the table during the design development process. I am constantly learning new things from them every day and so grateful to work with them.
We spray each sweater with a homemade essential oil blend that contains lavender, patchouli and lemongrass before putting them into shipping parcels. We want the wearer to smell the love and intention that went into that piece before they even feel how soft it is on their skin.
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Tell us a bit more about your production process. 70% of your clothes are made of dead stock fabrics. How do you collect these? And how do you manage to reduce the production waste to the max?
I love the exploration hunt of finding our fabrics and that we can repurpose into a new piece for the brand. My favorite place to go sourcing is Fab Scrap, which was created to meet New York City’s commercial textile recycling needs. Materials that traditionally would have gone to landfill are now being properly recycled and made available for reuse. As well as collecting straight from artisans’ ateliers all over the world in locations such as Marrakech, Morocco, Iquitos, Peru, Lisbon, Portugal and, of course, New York City.
I look first and foremost for quality as well as time-honored details that our customers come to love from us, for example, embroidery, hand-weaved textiles, or fibers hand-dyed naturally with plants. Some sourcing days I find nothing suitable, and other days, I find everything we need for the next six months in one day. The spontaneity of the sourcing process continually keeps my job so exciting.
We reduce our waste by using cutoff fabric to make face masks, scrunchies, clothing label tags, gift bags to ship our products in, etc. Hand-knitting is an awesome way to reduce waste because when the fiber is coming from one big ball of yarn, it is a zero-waste production and generates zero carbon emissions.
This collection was inspired by your decision to spend the last quarantine in Hawaii. How have you translated the island’s culture into the clothes?
I always want to be very incredibly careful not to appropriate any culture I am intrigued by. The laid-back vibrant energy of the island of Kauai made me want to design clothes that were as comfortable as they were visually stunning. Easy to maneuver in and out of, and special enough to pass down from generation to generation.
The vivid colors that Hawaii’s nature provided were a huge inspiration for this capsule. I would constantly photograph interesting exotic flowers, fruits from the farmers market I had never tried before, red clay dirt from Koke’e Canyons and algae growing on rocks next to waterfalls so that I could pull the color from the image on photoshop and match it to our desired yarn color. Warm saturated yellows, mossy jungle greens and soft sunset oranges were standout colors that compliment a range of skin tones.
The natural beauty of Hawaii just further instilled in me a thankfulness for Mother Nature and all she does for us. It is imperative that we continue to create clothes responsibly in a way that will never poison her waters, use microplastics, or endanger any beloved Hawaiian species.
I would like to know more about your personal experience in the island. What did you learn from being isolated but without losing your connection to nature?
I learned how to be more grateful for all that I have in my life. I was so thankful to have a true sense of community there. Especially in the times we live in now, where Covid-19 tries to divide us by creating an intense sense of loneliness. Community matters to me, and the community on the island is so tightly knit together that there is even a MelaniNation of Kauai group chat and Instagram where we stayed connected and find ways to support each other.
I learned that even when living on one of the most remote island chains in the world, removed from many of my friends and family, that the island ‘ohana’ (family in Hawaiian) will always help me to flourish. The community on top of the natural beauty of the island completed my soul in a rare way. Swimming in the Pacific Ocean with dolphins, hiking six hours to massive waterfalls, camping overnight in mountain canyons and seeing shooting stars and the Milky Way made me realize that nature takes care of us if we take care of her. She teaches us all the lessons we need to know in this world.
What would you say fashion and nature have in common? How can we achieve a balance between consuming fashion and respecting our surroundings?
I would say fashion is nature. We receive everything from nature. If you think about the way a fruit peel houses and protects the inside of the fruit, the way armor shelters a crab or the incredible texture of the skin that protects our very own body, I feel clothes are meant to protect us and the planet harmoniously.
We can achieve a balance between consuming fashion and respecting our surroundings by having a balance. When nature is in balance, it flourishes. I think there should be regulations on how many garments the fashion industry can create each year. That way there is not an excess of waste that ends up in landfills or being burned. This would protect our sacred lands and air qualities across the world.
This collection not only offers elevated and timeless garments like boatneck sweaters, cardigans, or tube tops, but it also focuses on providing comfort while looking chic. How did you find the perfect balance between these two? How did you come up with the designs?
I think being comfortable while simultaneously looking stylish is an art form. The balance between the two was brought to fruition by looking through my closets classic fall garments I had thrifted through the years and asking myself how I could uniquely create new versions that people would look at and say, ‘that is definitely a Nia Thomas sweater.’
I was stressed when trying to source the yarns I desired for the knits when a friend told me about a yarn store that was liquidating on the island. When I went to the sale, I found cashmere, alpaca, wool, silk, linen, and cotton yarns that were so perfect that I instantly started sketching in my mind what the garments looked like. This, on top of an extensive knit swatch proto process of deciding which yarns should be knit together. Since our customer is multicultural, we wanted to create pieces that people could wear all over the world – from cities to rural landscapes – in their everyday life.
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From your perspective, what would be the perfect occasion to wear one of Ho’oponopono’s pieces?
I would wear the Kiko Tube Top on a date to get dumplings in the Lower East Side, the Lulua Cardigan around a nighttime campfire in the mountains sharing stories and stargazing, the Sonata Sweater to run errands during the day and keep it on at night to grab a cocktail, and the Pele Sweater to a friend’s art exhibition gallery opening. I think it would pair great with vintage leather trousers and a champagne glass in my hand
As stated on the brand’s Instagram account, Nia Thomas is proudly Black-owned. These past months, movements like Black Lives Matter have sparked outrage across the US but have also ignited a global debate on institutional racism on a lot of different countries and societies. Have you already perceived a shift or change of mindset from your customers – for the better or worse?
2020 has been a year of reckoning, in my opinion. When the year started in January, it was nearly impossible to get response emails from stores I wanted us to be carried in, PR reps, and many other crucial platforms that a business needs in order to scale. It took the deaths of so many innocent Black women, men, and children for the world to wake up to the harsh realities that we face every single day.
It is a very emotional topic for me because when the protests started in May, we saw an uptick in sales from people wanting to support a Black-owned brand. However, I did not want George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to have to die in order for Black brands to get the same opportunities and recognition as our white counterparts. As a Black woman, I wanted to authentically share what was happening with my audience because for some, they may not have any Black friends to talk to about what is going on.
Even if they couldn’t afford to purchase anything from the brand at the time, people still reposted our work on their social media platforms, shared our website with their friends and families, and asked their notable friends in the fashion industry to support us in any way they could, from free consultations to press write ups. This helped a lot. I am very transparent and pro-Black in every step I take. My customers understand that and celebrate it with me. Now more than ever.
How do you expect to position Nia Thomas as a brand in the next five years? Where do you see yourself by then?
Within the next five years, we plan to be able to offer an array of products extended from clothing and accessories to shoes, handbags, and ceramics. My head is filled with so many ideas, the possibilities are truly endless! We are on track to be in six clothing stores (both online and in person shopping) around the world by end of the year. This is incredibly exciting to us since we were only in one store at the beginning of 2020. But I hope within the next five years to be in retailers across the globe.
I am especially interested in doing a home collection since our customer lives a lifestyle that is heavy on having/honoring their roots and doing everything with intention. They not only care about how they present themselves to the world through clothing, but the world they come home to every night and rest in. My main goal is to scale gracefully and do it with pride and thoughtfulness.
Considering where you have got so far, what is the biggest dream you wish to achieve with your brand?
I am so excited about the future of our brand. The sky is truly the limit, and we are only two years old as a company. The biggest dream I wish to achieve with the brand is to have our pieces be produced by artisan communities all over the world. Specifically, by women. To give them a chance to earn a living wage while supporting their families and communities. Showing the world what is possible when we work together in solidarity of ancient time-honored artisan practices that benefit Mother Earth and all of her inhabitants.
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