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Nia Thomas

Nia Thomas Writes a Love Letter to the Earth Through Ethical Fashion

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Nia Thomas’s Eponymous Label Creates Luxe, Ethical Knitwear

Early this year, Nia Thomas debuted a series of knitwear on Moda Operandi. Her eponymous, sustainable label is known for its sensual crochet silhouettes in natural fiber fabrics. Rich creams, deep blacks, and mossy greens characterize her latest collection, which, while seasonal, is designed with longevity in mind. Thomas’s designs are contemporary in feel while remaining timeless in style. They are created to fit any body comfortably and confidently.

Thomas studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. Before the rise of the conversation around ethical fashion, she was introduced to natural dyes by a professor. Gathering marigolds and onion skins, and experimenting with indigo, she quickly fell in love with the process. Dyeing anything she could get her hands on and sharing it on Instagram, she organically grew a business of one-of-a-kind pieces. Her exploration of handmade knitwear grew to eventually working with artisans in Mexico City and Peru, and producing basics in the garment district of New York.

With her collection in more than 20 retailers around the world, as well as online, Thomas takes pride in creating a fashion label founded on a commitment to sustainability and social ethics. Thomas spoke with Whitewall from Mexico City, where she has been living in order to work more closely with her artisans and embracing the city’s quality of life.

Nia Thomas Headshot

Nia Thomas, portrait by Demit Omphroy.

The Designer Discusses Her Approach

WHITEWALL: When you were in school for fashion, you’ve said that sustainability was not the conversation that it is now. And that for you, a sustainable approach started when a teacher suggested natural dyes. What made you want to take that advice, and what did you like about working with natural dye?

NIA THOMAS: What mostly drew me to it was the unexpected element of it. It’s almost like you have to be a chemist, trying to find that consistency. With natural dyeing, you are relying on nature, and nature is always going to do what it wants. Even if you have a perfect formula, things can change so rapidly, depending on the quality, the material—that’s all going to affect how the dye takes it.

I started dyeing things on the weekend for fun, because I had all these extra vats of, like, marigold juice. I started dyeing T-shirts and underwear and anything I could find, really going for it. I continued to do that after I graduated, and people were very into it when I shared on Instagram. I wasn’t planning on selling it, but it organically grew into a business.

WW: And then what attracted you to creating knitwear?

NT: Growing up in New York, it is such a cold climate. We didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so our parents would take us to thrift stores. Touching vintage mohair sweaters made in Italy, and merino wool, all these things, even when you are young you can understand what quality is. So I knew when I wanted to do knitwear for the brand, if it was not going to live up to those sweaters, then I did not want to do it.

In 2020, when we started knitwear, everyone was at home; you wanted to be comfortable. I love an oversized chunky cardigan, I love a pullover, it makes sense for the times we are living in and the customer I want to reach. I was looking up yarn websites, and yarn is so expensive. I was thinking, “How am I going to do this?” I was talking to my friends, and someone on Instagram DMed me about a yarn store downtown going out of business where everything was 70 to 90 percent off. I went and came out with boxes and boxes.

Nia Thomas

Photo by Nicole Steriovski, courtesy of Nia Thomas.

For Nia Thomas, Sustainability is Second Nature

WW: In your origin story, there is a connection between an idea, problem solving, thoughtfulness, and sustainability. Because you had to be resourceful in sourcing materials, in dyeing materials, the brand was also sustainable from the start, out of necessity.

NT: I’ve always looked up to designers like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano because they didn’t come from money either. McQueen said he used to take his food stamp money to buy fabric. I thought that was so inspiring and very anti-establishment.

WW: You’ve had to create your own path, problem solving, the necessity, but it’s also what makes the brand what it is.

NT: Exactly. And I think that’s why people have gravitated toward us. I’ve never done any paid ads on social. It’s been organic growth, and people share, and word of mouth.

A Studio 54-Inspired Fall/Winter 2023 Collection

WW: Where do you start with a collection? Is it the material?

NT: For me, it starts with a concept. It doesn’t have to be something as concrete. I think about the color scheme of it, the feel of it, an art house film that I’ve seen, the independent movie theater here in Mexico City. I go there and watch foreign films, and I’m so inspired by the energy, the slowness of it, and the costumes. Film, art, and music really do play so many hands in what I do because it’s all super-intertwined.

I think about where our customers are wearing these things out in the world and experiencing life in them. It also stems from travel, visiting new places. And the women in my life are so powerful it’s very hard not to be inspired by them.

Winter ’23 was inspired by Studio 54 energy—Pat Cleveland wearing Halston and showing up in a limo. I wanted something flowy, something you can move in, some ballerina-core energy for the new collection. I studied dance and gymnastics as a child, and that’s never really left my life.

Nia Thomas

Photo by Nia Thomas.

WW: There’s a strong sensuality to the knitwear you create. Can you speak to how you want it to feel on the body?

NT: I think the conversation of sexuality versus sensuality is such a big one, especially within clothes. Sensuality in clothes is about being able to express yourself. I want to make women feel comfortable enough within their bodies to even try on the clothes, and wear them out in the world. That has so much to do with the fit and the hand feel. When I do pop-ups, people are like, “I didn’t think this would be so soft!” I would never design anything I wouldn’t put on my own body. Having that integrity within the clothes helps.

Everything fits every type of body, and that can take months to perfect, especially with things that are so intricate like hand crochet. The development process is sometimes quite long, and sometimes we get it right within the first sample.

Timeless Design is a Priority for Nia Thomas

WW: You’ve said, “I want these clothes to be worn for decades,” rather than just a season. And we even see your posts, tops from six months ago being shown, which in fashion is rare! How do you design with that timelessness in mind?

NT: I think making fashion timeless comes from having a style that can’t be bought. It’s not something that’s based around trends. It’s about picking a timeless piece that comes into your timeless lifestyle. For me it is neutral color palettes—earth tones. The earth is never going to go out of style and the earth is one of the most photogenic things in the world. We’re always trying to emulate its beauty in some shape or form. That’s why I’m always attracted to mossy greens, muddy browns, and creams.

Not only the color palette, but the silhouette and textures are almost seasonless so that you can style so many different ways. I love it when people will tell me, “I bought this summer crochet dress, and this is how I’m wearing it in the fall, with tights and boots and a leather jacket.” That’s incredible. That is sustainability.

Nia Thomas

Photo by Nia Thomas.

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Kelly Wearstler

THE WINTER EXPERIENCE ISSUE
2023

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