Mary Alice Malone blows apart fashion industry stereotypes. Malone Souliers’ Founder and Creative Director is warm and perceptive with a welcoming voice and infectious laugh that sets all in her company at ease. Her gracious, participatory approach to heading up a brand has gone unchanged since Malone Souliers’ early days and filters through every part of the company.
A childhood spent roaming the Pennsylvanian countryside tied Mary Alice’s heart to the pastoral. Her favourite shoes were a male cousin’s hand-me-down boots, and she wore them until they fell apart. That this country girl would grow up to own a shoe brand that embodies ‘classic, unapologetic and feminine’ design still surprises her.
“I don't see myself as a fashion person, and it's not something I really identify with because I've just never thought of myself as one of those girls. Growing up on a farm, among the plants and the horses, nobody cares what you look like. What kind of work you're gonna put in. Are you a nice person? Are you responsible? Do the horses trust you? OK, great.”
This reverence for hard work filtered into all of her endeavours. After attending art college, Mary Alice moved to London, having earned a place at the famed Cordwainers school. Here she channelled her ambition into learning the patterns that form the foundation of traditional male shoe craftsmanship. The parts of London she enjoyed most were those that reminded her of her upbringing.
“I'm not a city person but I like the convenience of it. I lived in London for seven or eight years, which was amazing. London has quite a good balance of life; there's lots of greenery. Everybody enjoys work and enjoys taking time off. They enjoy patience, and food - it’s a very European mindset.”
The fashion industry in London was different too. Where New York was non-stop, London had a nonchalance that appealed. Though always fascinated by immaculate women who get up every day and who do their hair and makeup to perfection, Mary Alice has never counted herself among their numbers. Applying a philosophical mindset to this all-consuming love for fashion, she realised that for many taking this time for yourself is cathartic. Rather than trapping women in a box, it can be freeing.
“What I always found so amazing about fashion is just this idea that you could kind of create whatever persona you wanted to be. It feels amazing to put on a business suit. I love that you could put on high heels and feel like a different person, or you could put on whatever you choose and nobody knows where you came from. They just know who you are in that, what you're projecting.”
To Mary Alice, this process is the most important part. The journey to alter what a woman projects, to lift her mood or confidence or frame of mind in line with her desires, is the part of the fashion industry that caught her attention. Behind the scenes is Mary Alice’s arena. Creating, training, building a collection in the factory and working out any issues, these are the areas in which she thrives. An antithesis to the social media generation, for whom the reaction often outweighs the pleasure of work, once a collection is complete her tendency is to forget about it and ask what’s next. When in 2013 she made the decision to get Malone Souliers’ wheels in motion, Mary Alice - ever the hands-on learner - headed to Italy.
“Originally I hired a tiny little car and drove around. I just drove through Italy knocking on doors. Then we grew up and suppliers came recommended to us, which was a nice moment in time. Even then I was going back and forth to Italy every other week. I got to a point where most Italian immigration officers didn't even check my passport anymore, just ‘Oh, you’re back again’ and I strolled on through.”
The organic growth and instinctive nature of the brand’s relationships is crucial to Malone Souliers’ founder. Relationships both within the company and externally must be fostered. Following her lead, the people she works with throw themselves into every endeavour wholehearted and with an open heart. Gut instinct - plus that assiduous driving spirit - has guided Mary Alice this far.
“Italian manufacturers are very specialised and so we get recommendations for new craftsmen from our current factories. Nurturing this relationship is one of the most vital parts of our business. We work with partners - you spend a lot of time with these people and you're heavily dependent on them. It’s important to me that they're nice people, that you can consider them your family. Trust is key.”
The transient nature of trends does not fit with Malone Souliers’ ethos; the brand offers shoes to treat yourself to, to look after and enjoy season after season. Vintage is a constant source of inspiration to Mary Alice, whether the century-old gentleman’s silhouettes she learned at Cordwainers or the ingenious mechanics of ‘50s slip-ons that inspired the brand’s first mule Maureen. Collections come about through a lot of hard work and a hint of serendipity.
“Trends are quite organic - everyone seems to migrate together. If we’ve done a pointed toe for three seasons, I just want something fresh. Then you look at everybody else's line and you're like, “Oh”. I guess everyone's brain tries to do the opposite at the same time. Everyone's trying to be different and I'm the same.”
Closely recording the life cycle of a product is an action that remains close to Mary Alice’s heart. She believes in paying unabashed homage to her inspirations and to the materials that build each shoe. Mirroring every aspect of her career, no company decision is made without deep consideration and expansive knowledge of the subject. True to form, Mary Alice devours every piece of research she can get her hands on.
“I would rather know where the cow came from, that we raised it, that it has one bad day. Just as I would rather grow my own vegetables than buy them from a store. Same goes with manufacturing. We work with incredible artisans so I know where the shoes come from. We are very hands on with the materials, I spend a lot of time looking into alternative fabrics - there is no waste. I'm really weird and geeky about this.”
Quick Fire Questions
Architecture or philosophy?
Mule or pump?
Personally a mule, I think pumps look extremely beautiful on other people.
Springtime garden party or autumnal bonfire?
London or New York?
You have to go back and forth between them.
Early bird or night owl?
Masquerade ball or rock concert?
If food and shelter is provided, what would you spend your last $100 on?
The baby or the dogs, or a trip - I would rather have an experience than buy something.
What book are you reading right now?
I listen to a lot of podcasts at the moment - a favourite on sustainable agriculture and then a few on health and wellness.
Favourite unexpected colour combination?
Anything super bright - I love colours that don’t make sense together.
Favourite new Malone Souliers style?
Which brand would be your dream Malone Souliers’ collaboration?
There are a lot of big brands that I love. I have a lot of respect for what Gabriela Hearst is doing, she is incredibly environmentally minded and her stuff is beautiful and womanly but she also does her own shoes which have a very strong identity and I like how they work with the clothes. I really like what she’s doing.