Browns Focus: Mariah Esa
In fashion, we often talk about labels we love. No-one has shown more commitment to the cause than young designer Mariah Esa, who made her name with her exquisitely crafted and highly original pieces, each fashioned from recycled garment labels. To celebrate her Browns Focus collection, Mariah teams up with photographer Christina Ebenezer to create a stunning visual series, whilst discussing her cultural heritage and creative vision with Azeema Mag’s Dalia Al-Dujaili.
Each year, the fashion industry produces 13 million tons of textile waste. According to sustainable fashion enterprise The Pretty Planeteer, 95% of this could be repurposed. As consumers, we can all do our part, but many have argued that real change has to come from within the industry. One young designer has taken on the task of doing just that.
Meet Mariah Esa, the Leicester-based designer whose mesmerising tapestry-esque pieces are created by stitching thousands of discarded garment labels together (her Browns Focus collection alone utilised a staggering 200,000). For Mariah, her innovative techniques began in her early years. Visiting her parents’ garment factory as a child, she would make headbands from fabric offcuts, but it wasn’t until her placement at a manufacturer that she became aware of just how much was being wasted.
Nevertheless, Esa’s work is not simply an exercise in sustainability. Rooted in her practice is a deep consideration for design, manipulating her signature fabrication to create pieces that convey a subtly articulated conceptual language. Describing her asymmetrical coats, Mariah explains: “The waves on the back show how the bias is cut on a tailored coat. A tailored coat is a statement masculine piece, so we wanted to think about how we turn it into a statement feminine piece, exposing the internal elements of the garment externally, which translates into exposing women’s internal strengths externally.”
As a woman of South Asian descent, I ask Mariah if she consciously brings in elements of her heritage, or whether she finds it unexpectedly trickling into her work. “Looking back at my pieces, they’re quite modest; I think that just comes naturally,” she muses. “But my main influence was making women feel empowered through the silhouette.”
“My experiences as a young, Muslim-Indian woman are probably what define the clothing’s vision,” she continues. “We always feel more belittled in the design sector, so I’m creating extroverted pieces.”
For her Browns Focus project, Mariah was given creative control over the photoshoot, an opportunity “all young designers should have,” she states, in order to define their brand’s vision. I ask Mariah how that felt; “It’s amazing having full control over the choice of model - a model can represent your whole collection and a lot of people don’t know I’m South Asian myself. That’s why I’m showcasing my collection on a South Asian model. A lot of South Asian women feel like they can’t go into the creative sector, so having more people like myself in the industry pushes girls to believe they can do it too.”
I’m curious as to what Mariah thinks brands can be doing to champion and support emerging creatives from underrepresented communities, especially when - as Mariah tells me: “The Arts aren't seen as a realistic career choice within Asian and Indian communities.”
“In that area between graduate and job role, everyone’s looking for people with experience, but how do you expect a graduate to have experience if you’re not giving it to them?” She highlights that brands should make sure they’re not just looking for ‘skilled’ graduates, but rather offering opportunities to train enthusiastic young design minds.
“In college,” she reminisces, “I was this close to becoming a midwife!” Mariah’s college tutor had told her that fashion wasn’t for her. “I was heartbroken. I was in a bit of a ditch, so I had to apply to the universities myself - and now look at me!”
Mariah is proving that she belongs nowhere but the forefront of the sustainable fashion movement. Since winning The People’s Choice Award at Graduate Fashion Week 2019, she’s been featured in Vogue Germany, the BBC, Fashion Canada, and Size?’s 20th Anniversary exhibition, all at the tender age of 24.
Although sustainable fashion is the end goal for the industry, it remains a relatively exclusive sector. So how can consumers support smaller brands and help to make sustainable fashion more accessible for lower-income communities?
“I always say, it’s not what you buy, it's how you treat it. It’s making sure that the garment you buy is going to last you.” Mariah rightly asserts that part of our journey to a more ethical future is finding smaller brands that make long-lasting garments. “That’s one of our goals going forward – these pieces are bespoke but we’d like to grow, whilst ensuring that we’re still accessible and that the garments are made to last.”
So, what can we anticipate for the future of Mariah’s label? “Another collection!” She responds enthusiastically. “I’d like to create pieces with a mixture of labels and garment fabrics… but I guess we’ll have to wait and see what comes next.”
Written by Dalia Al-Dujaili, edited by Sunayah Arshad for AZEEMA.
AZEEMA is a print magazine, platform, community and agency exploring women and non-binary folk within the MENASA regions, diaspora and beyond.
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