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Following Suit

Island-born designer Malia Mills sets her sights beyond the beach.

Malia Mills grew up on O‘ahu and, now, takes on Manhattan.

Consider Malia Mills’ 11 boutiques around the country, an unforgettable cheetah bikini on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 1996 Swimsuit Issue and a sweet partnership with Kate Spade, and this Hawai‘i-born stylemaker undoubtedly deserves cred as one of the most celebrated designers to ever hail from Honolulu.

This year, Mills celebrates the 20th anniversary of her flourishing line, which has jettisoned from mix-and-match bikinis to ready-to-wear clothes, accessories and even a fragrance.

After a rare longevity in the biz, the designer has been enjoying fresh buzz. In 2012, she designed Kate Spade’s first swimsuit line. Then, there’s this year’s Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue. In its much-admired pages stars a body-painted version of the same rockin’ cheetah bikini worn by Tyra Banks on that legendary cover in 1996. It’s a fashion homage that she playfully describes as a “pretty rad way to kick off 2013.” For this summer’s collection, the designer has aptly included long-sleeve bikinis and other vintage designs, available at her seven New York and four California boutiques, including her newest on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side.

With the whirlwind around her, the New York-based Mills remains an island girl at heart. (She even handles her own press.) After all, her formative years were in Hawai‘i, growing up on O‘ahu until 1980, when she moved to chilly New Hampshire at age 13. “I had never seen snow before,” she says. “Can you imagine that?!”

When it comes to designing, the former Punahou student draws from her own swimwear experiences, which changed the shape of things to come—literally. Take, for example, the first bikini her mother let her pick out as a young girl—a knitted two-piece ensemble with a baby-blue-and-pink-striped triangle top. She later had to sew it to fit. Then came the day, after Mills had moved East, when she popped by the town pool in a hot-pink surfer-girl bikini with a high leg line. Though the style was in style back home, the new crowd preferred more discretion in the water.

“Everyone else was sporting modest Speedo maillots—high necks, low legs,” she says. In retrospect, those two lessons were momentous, teaching Mills some smart business sense that has obviously paid off. “I didn’t know it at the time, but, for sure, those are two very big reasons we create a collection meant to be mixed and matched, dressed up or down, just like the clothes in our closet!”