Malia Designs: A Triple Threat against Slavery


How many of you are like me and started your day with a cup of coffee or tea? If you lived in Cambodia, you probably just spent your entire daily income on that beverage. According to ECPACT (End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism), more than 70% of Cambodians live on less than $3 a day. Poverty is one of the factors that make individuals vulnerable to human trafficking, which is a serious problem in this Asian country. Women are particularly endangered due to gender inequality and lack of education. Dressember brand partner Malia Designs is working to change that by providing economic opportunities for both women and those with physical challenges.


Our tagline is ‘We are designed to carry a cause’, and I think that sums up our mission well,” says Lucia Ruth, Brand Director with Malia Designs.

Founded in 2005 by Lia Valerio, Malia Designs was created to help the disadvantaged of Cambodia and to support efforts to end human trafficking in Southeast Asia. The company uses designs that are inspired by Cambodia’s people and culture and incorporates them in bags, wallets and accessories that will have Western appeal.

The company uses designs that are inspired by Cambodia’s people and culture and incorporates them in bags, wallets and accessories that will have Western appeal.

The company uses designs that are inspired by Cambodia’s people and culture and incorporates them in bags, wallets and accessories that will have Western appeal.

The company adheres to a three-pronged business model in efforts to achieve its goals:

1. Malia Designs’ products are made by fair trade producer groups that employ disadvantaged people in Cambodia – primarily at-risk women and the disabled.

2. We offer high-quality, fashion-forward accessories that pair lively designs with contemporary styling using materials sourced locally in Cambodia. Our fair trade production and frequent use of recycled materials are also good for the planet.

3. Malia Designs extends its mission even further by donating to nonprofit organizations fighting human trafficking in Cambodia and in the US.

The company works with three Cambodian women-led artisan groups that provide sustainable employment for over 300 at-risk individuals. Each group plays a different role in design and production.

We look for [design] inspiration when we’re traveling in Cambodia and other places, too, like photos. Then we work with a couple of U.S. women designers and they help us to create the artwork,” Lucia told me. In the beginning, the groups that we work with were already established, although they were much smaller. We were simply buying versions of their products and selling them here. We learned that there needed to be some design updates so the products would appeal to the Western market. We send drawings and specifications to our producers [in Cambodia]. Sometimes they will have designed a bag shape that we fall in love with and we’ll use that design and use our prints on it. It’s very collaborative between Lia and me. [We use] feedback from our customers and work with our women in Cambodia who are also very talented designers.

Because sustainability is very important to Malia Designs, all materials are sourced locally in Cambodia. Cement bags, feed bags and remnants from the garment district are all readily available and are used to make fashion-forward items that would appeal to customers regardless of their provenance.

I see it as a triple win,” says Lucia. “It’s sustainable, it looks good, it’s fair trade. This is one tiny place where, hopefully, you can have it all.”

In addition to empowering the marginalized, Malia Designs provides financial support to Damnok Toek, an organization in Cambodia devoted to preventing child trafficking and providing aid to young trafficking survivors. It also donates to anti-trafficking organizations in Chicago and San Diego, where the company has a physical presence.


When asked what she feels is the most significant impact of Malia Designs, Lucia replied, “I think it is the long-term partnerships that we have with the artisan groups in Cambodia. Over the years, we have provided grants and loans for them and really been there as a key customer that has allowed their businesses to grow. That was one thing that was very apparent for me on my first trip to Cambodia. We can do the most good by designing the most appealing product and that’s what makes it continue on.”

Lucia wants customers to know that they are a big part of that impact.

When people purchase from Malia Designs, they’re helping not only artisans across the world in Cambodia but also independent designers here. Their purchases really do make a big difference in the lives of the women.

Working for Malia Designs has changed Lucia’s life, as well.

I’m so fortunate to be able to do this as my work. I get to use my creative skills for something that’s bigger than me. That’s a pretty big gift,” she says.

Fashion is fun, but businesses like Malia Designs make it meaningful, as well. Why not take a look at Dressember brand partners the next time you’re shopping for a gift, or just in need of some retail therapy. Purchasing from Malia Designs and others with values similar to them is an easy way to make a real difference.

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About the Author

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Jeanette Bouchie is an adult services librarian at the Vigo County Public Library, where she has worked for 18 years. She is also a freelance writer and is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Dressember to increase awareness of human trafficking. She also enjoys reading, tap dancing, traveling, getting dressed up, and attending the occasional comic con.