Emily McMaster is someone who makes time for creative pursuits. She’s the founder and creator of Mabo, a line of children’s clothing thoughtfully designed to make getting dressed easier and reduce mindless consumption. We have long admired (and bought) Emily’s beautiful designs–pieces crafted in natural fibers, made to play in and last so they can be passed down. We’re kindred spirits with a shared passion. Below we talk about pivotal moments, surprising yourself and how educating future generations can feel hopeful.
Founding a children’s clothing brand wasn’t the original plan. Can you tell us about your life before Mabo?
Well, I was born in Utah and raised by a single mother who sewed most of my clothes, with the occasional purchase made at Mervyn’s. I married young and my husband and I moved to NYC where I got my Masters in Film Studies from NYU. I landed a job at Big Beach (of Little Miss Sunshine fame) as a Creative Executive. I read scripts, went to every film festival, and met new producers, directors and writers–all in the name of finding the next big film.
Every morning on my way to work, I called my mom (we’re very close). She started mentioning friends back home who were getting pregnant. At 28, I was young for the film industry, and certainly too young to get pregnant–or so I thought. Our first, Ruby, was a surprise, and I was determined that it wouldn’t break my stride at work.
But I found myself not wanting to go out every night and read scripts all weekend. I grew to hate the work I loved. I worked until my daughter was one, then quit my job. I needed a creative outlet beyond motherhood and I found myself sewing clothes for my daughter. My mom taught me to sew when I was younger and, though I hadn’t used that skill for years, I was really inspired to do it when I became a mother. After we had our second child, we found we really missed our family and the outdoors so we moved home to Utah. With our family’s help, I was able to jump in head first and get Mabo off the ground. Let’s just say I did a lot of Googling.
Was there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to make children’s clothing your career?
When my first daughter was born, I came home to visit and my mom opened an old cedar chest where she kept my old clothes. She pulled out the pieces that would fit so that Ruby could wear them. Having these treasures integrated into my life as a mother was really impactful. I think it put clothing, especially children’s clothing, in a new light for me. This fleeting, magical period of time when humans are little is so steeped in sentimentality and nostalgia. It made making clothing for this time period feel like a special thing to do.
What surprised you during your transition from film to fashion?
Having kids really changed my priorities and expectations of what I thought I wanted to do in life. I found the creative impulse I thought I’d channel into film being directed towards designing clothes for them. It felt superficial at first, caring so much about the way I dressed them. But I realized clothing is a part of their life and why not wear something special for these fleeting moments? Two things surprised me. One, you don’t really know what kind of person you’ll be as a mother until you are one. Two, I was surprised by the weight I placed on motherhood–that I wanted to be a present mom and that I enjoyed it. I truly love being with my girls. Every time there’s a choice to be made at Mabo, I choose them. It’s never difficult.
Self doubt and imposter syndrome are themes that seem to regularly come up for women. Have you experienced either, and how do you overcome them?
Oh constantly! But I combat that tendency by just acknowledging that I really don’t know what I’m doing much of the time. I wasn’t trained in anything to do with fashion, clothing design, retail, or manufacturing, so I’ve simply acknowledged that fact to most people I’ve worked with because I find so much value in being educated by them. From pattern makers and manufacturers to my coworkers, I’ve soaked up so much knowledge from everyone that I suddenly realized I may now know a bit myself.
We see the effects of climate change all around us, and sustainability is at the forefront of our conversations around design, production and how clothing is consumed. This seems like a shared concern. How do you approach sustainability?
This is so hard because I spend a lot of time feeling guilty for producing more in a world that truly doesn’t need anything new. From the beginning, I’ve been committed to only using natural fibers, and we’ve been working toward only using organic for our seasonal collections (our evergreen basics are always organic) as well as other fibers, like hemp, that are more sustainable. We have a lot of conversations about how to make collections without overproducing, and about not making a product “just because.” It has to fill a need or be incredibly special. I know I’m not the only one who finds it tough to juggle values (around sustainability, for instance), aesthetics, and business–especially if you’re not necessarily business-minded to begin with.
Do you have a favorite piece that your mother passed down to you?
Yes! A pair of burgundy saddle shoes, with fringe on the toe, that she saved. I recreated them for Mabo and we’ve been selling them for five years. Runners up are a cream pinafore apron and a couple of handknit sweaters.
Do you have something that you plan to pass down to your own children?
I think it’s less about the pieces and more about the knowledge and principles I want to pass on. From the time my girls were very young, I always said you can’t just wear leggings and a t-shirt–there needs to be a well-made dress or a blouse and pants in the rotation. My older girls are now 15 and 12, and I’m actively teaching them about fiber content, the importance of investing in quality pieces and why they should support companies that are worth supporting. And now that we can share clothes, it’s easier to splurge when we all love something. It’s been so gratifying to see them make these principles their own, and it feels hopeful to think that the next generation might care more about over-consumption than our generation ever has.
Shop the new collection from Mabo at https://maboclothier.com/collections/new-releases