From Pro Surfer to Swimwear Designer and Mom: Malia Jones O’Loughlin Does it All
Local designer Malia Jones O’Loughlin opens up about going from surfer girl to style standout.
It’s Friday evening, late September, and a crush of eager fans pushes up to a small, cordoned-off strip of Waikīkī Beach, jostling to get a clear shot as swimwear designer Malia Jones O’Loughlin and her husband, Hawai‘i Five-O actor Alex O’Loughlin, make their way down the red carpet for the hit show’s season premiere.
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The clamorous crowd and pop, pop, pop of the camera flashes don’t faze Jones O’Loughlin a bit. She keeps her composure, coolly making her way from mark to mark, tilting her head this way and that to hit just the right angles. The glitzy appearance is the last stop on a multiweek journey we’ve taken with the Kailua native, who graciously gave us a front-row look at her daily life as a fashion talent on the rise.
Jones O’Loughlin’s comfort level comes as no surprise. The camera loves her. It has for years, starting when she was a teenager catching waves at Rocky Point. Her family had moved to the North Shore and daily surf sessions became the norm for Jones O’Loughlin and her three younger brothers. At the age of 15, she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Surfing Championship. By 16, she had turned pro and was traversing the globe on epic photo trips with sponsors.
Then the modeling world came calling. Her first big gig, an editorial for Elle, drew raves. “Surfing was getting cool in fashion and they wanted to do a photoshoot in Chanel bikinis,” says Jones O’Loughlin. The results secured her agents in New York and Paris, and years of commercial work to follow. She landed in ad campaigns for big name brands including American Express, J.Crew and Khiels, on the pages of Sports Illustrated and Esquire, and on People’s 50 Most Beautiful People list.
Despite the highflying lifestyle, Jones O’Loughlin’s relationship with the ocean kept her feet firmly on the ground. “It’s funny because growing up I was always a tomboy—I surfed in a pair of boardshorts and a T-shirt,” she says. “Then all of a sudden I’m in bikinis shooting for fashion magazines.” Even while living in New York and France, she carved out time to hit the closest breaks. “Modeling is so short-lived; it was really good I had something I loved that was grounding like surfing,” she says.
Fittingly, it was a combination of the two that led to Jones O’Loughlin’s next and current job title—designer. With a foot in both worlds, fashion brands sought out her advice on how to infuse surf-influence into their collections. Surf brands tapped her expertise on the latest trends. The consulting led to collaborations and before she knew it, she had caught the design bug. “After being in everyone else’s suits for so many years, I decided that I was going to do a few bikinis that I wanted to wear,” she says.
A move back to Hawai‘i in 2009 after the birth of her oldest son, Spike, officially began her next career chapter, and Jones O’Loughlin set about developing her label. Defining her aesthetic came easily. “It’s minimal, understated and timeless,” she explains, the concept spurred by her own frustration with finding simple, chic swimwear that wouldn’t disappear after one season. “I’ve had swimsuits that I’ve really loved, but once I went back for more I would find that everything from that brand was completely different—why does it have to be so drastic?” she says. “The idea behind my collection was that once you find a fit and shape that works for you, we’ll have it next season in our basic colors and also new colors and prints.”
For the cuts, she drew from her own experiences. “Being in a bikini every day, I already had an idea of what I wanted,” she says. “Brazilian was too small but Italian was too big.” Her signature fabric, a supple Italian-made knit, gives easily but holds up where it has to. “The fabric had to be really soft so that it wouldn’t cut into the skin,” she says.
Jones O’Loughlin quickly discovered, however, that the business end of design was no day at the beach. “You don’t really understand what goes into a brand until you have your own company,” she says. “Design is just half of it—going through that creative cycle plus having to learn the business side—you have no idea what goes into making a bikini. You definitely have to have a vision and something to say, and you have to be really passionate about it because it’s just so much work.”
Fast forward to 2016 and the Malia Jones swim and apparel line is not only up and running, it’s thriving. Jones O’Loughlin debuted the line in the spring of 2015 at The Four Seasons resorts in Hualālai and Wailea, and it has since been picked up by several of O‘ahu’s top resortwear boutiques. Most recently it was added to the mix at luxury department store Barneys New York, a dream account for a designer at any level.
In November 2015, Jones O’Loughlin won the HONOLULU Fashion Week Pitch Panel, a competition in which top Hawai‘i designers pitched their brands to distinguished fashion and business leaders for a prize package that included strategic and consulting sessions with industry experts. “It was great for me in regards to the direction of the brand,” she says. “It forced me to look at, what am I doing, what am I trying to say, who is my audience, where am I now, where am I going.”
The line’s assortment has also grown exponentially. Now, along with its mainstay triangle, bandeau and tie-front styles, the swim silhouettes include cross-back and long-sleeve tops, and high-waist and knotted bottoms. The cover-up range has expanded from a few kaftans to shorts, pants, button-downs and dresses. “Everything feels really relaxed and effortless,” she says. “They’re staples to throw in a weekend bag.” Jones O’Loughlin’s latest release, the Resort 2017 collection due out at the end of this month, marks her first foray into apparel for beyond the beach. Think breezy cotton tunics and wrap skirts, one-shoulder tops and cashmere hoodies. The collection also offers a fresh twist on the brand’s signature swim styles, this time in sleek metallic hues.
It’s clear that Jones O’Loughlin’s new role suits her. As we stop by her home for a tour of her design space she seems wholly content with the switch. She greets us at the door without makeup, hair swept into a messy bun, wearing a slouchy sweater and shorts—a busy woman with a low-key demeanor. Her operation now includes showrooms in L.A. and New York, and, though she does all of the designing from Honolulu, Jones O’Loughlin’s pattern maker and production team are also in Los Angeles, requiring travel back and forth. We tag along on an early morning boutique visit to The Modern Honolulu, where she inspects her product’s merchandising. Directing photo shoots, researching at fabric shows, managing the brand’s social media presence and website, and culling inspiration materials for future collections are all also on her itinerary.
And, while Jones O’Loughlin, 39, still slips in an occasional gig every now and then, modeling has taken a back seat to family life as a wife and mom of two. She met husband O’Loughlin through mutual friends—she had just moved home from Sydney and he had relocated to the Islands to begin work on Hawai‘i Five-0. Their connection was instant. “It was love at first sight,” she says. The pair welcomed the arrival of son Lion in 2012 and a few years later the couple tied the knot. Today, she credits O’Loughlin as her line’s biggest supporter. “He does everything but wear the swimsuits,” says Jones O’Loughlin. “I’m very grateful for my No. 1 fan.”
Like most of us, the designer strives for a balance. “I try to incorporate everything together,” she says. “As soon as the kids go to school I’m working until they come back. And then when they come back, it’s time to go to the beach.” Weekends are reserved for family outings, usually lunch at a neighborhood spot then all day near the ocean or hiking. One sunny afternoon we trek to a nearby break with Jones O’Loughlin and Spike, and they race to see who can paddle out first, giggling the whole way.
Looking ahead, Jones O’Loughlin is focused on evolution; 2016 marked the brand’s first tradeshow appearance at Cabana in Miami, a big step. “We’re trying to grow slowly, so it’s about building quality accounts with small boutiques,” she says. Expanding the clothing assortment is also in the works. O’Loughlin’s requests for men’s boardshorts haven’t gone unnoticed. “He asks every day,” she says. “And, you know what, I’m thinking about it.” Jones O’Loughlin is also interested in dipping her toes into other related categories, including sunglasses and beach bags. She’s currently working with brother Daniel Jones, a skilled shaper, to create modern, fashion-minded surfboards that incorporate patterns from her line. “He’s an amazing shaper and his boards have really good functionality,” she says. “To have a sexy surfboard that works so well is rare.”
Prompted for her biggest accomplishment as a designer to date, Jones O’Loughlin considers the question, then laughs. “That it’s still going,” she says. “Seriously. Every day is an accomplishment. Every day I learn something and every day there’s something new, whether it’s on the business side, when I get a new account that I love, or anytime somebody stops me and says I love this in your collection. And seeing my friends wearing the swimsuits and coming back and wanting more, not just because they’re my friends, but because they really wear their swimsuits every day. For me, that’s the biggest accomplishment.”
maliajones.com, Rebecca Beach, Number 808, The Modern Honolulu.
Coffee shop or juice bar?
“I’m just straight tea all day. I like to make my own.”
Long board or short board?
“Now I’d rather surf three-foot waves with a few close friends and my son. Anywhere not crowded.”
“I have a bunch of French-style baskets.”
“My sunglasses right now are Illesteva.”
“My brother Daniel Jones’. He’s my favorite shaper. Growing up I would get boards from all the top shapers and I think Daniel is amazing. He’s shaped me the best boards.”
RACK ’N’ ROLL: Jones O’Loughlin stops in for a boutique visit at The Modern Honolulu.
“I wear a lot of Quality Peoples T-shirts.”
“Morimoto Waikīkī. I like the ambiance—I like sitting and watching Bowls and eating good food and oysters.”
“A trip to San Francisco. I’m more of a foodie than a shopper. We went for my husband’s birthday and ate our way around the city.”
“I think San Pellegrino at Costco is pretty fabulous.”
Watching right now, besides Hawai‘i Five-O?
“Stranger Things. I binge-watched the whole season within a few days. Now I probably won’t watch TV for a few months.“
If I wasn’t a fashion designer, I would be:
“An interior designer. When I finished high school my plan was to go to school for that.”