Miha Made: Behind the Brand
Interview by Liv Thatcher
Photography by Miha Made
Hannah Aronowitz, the founder of Miha Made, splits her time between Portland, Oregon and Oaxaca, Mexico, calling each place home for half the year. Inspired by traditional craft, Hannah works with Oaxacan artisans to design and curate collections of handmade goods, from palm bags to pottery to naturally dyed clothes.
Tell me about what you do. What is Miha Made?
I collaborate with artisans and makers here in Oaxaca, Mexico, to design, produce and curate a collection of clothes, accessories and home goods that I share with conscious consumers in the US. As a brand, Miha Made’s aim is to offer economic opportunities to artisans in Mexico by creating an opportunity for their goods to reach a different market. We’re interested in exploring the crossroads between modern design and traditional artisanal techniques and materials of the state of Oaxaca.
What does the name “Miha” mean?
It’s a play on the Spanish word mija, which is a combination of two words, mi and hija, which means “my daughter.” Mija is also a commonly used term of endearment here in Mexico. I like how the name speaks to the feminine nature of the brand, both in our products and our desire to work with and support women.
When did you first travel to Mexico, and what were your first impressions of the place?
I first came to Oaxaca eight years ago, and I was blown away immediately. I was in awe of the color — buildings, textiles, markets, flowering trees. It’s this amazing, visual sensory overload. I was immediately captivated with the food culture, which is the best in Mexico, in my opinion. And I really fell in love with the people; I felt a warmth and an immediate connection. Oaxacans are incredibly proud of their culture and they really love to share it, which makes it more accessible for an outsider. So all of those things captivated me quite quickly, and I’ve been coming back ever since.
At first, it was not the idea to live there. I was transitioning from working in journalism — I’d previously been working at a newspaper in Colombia — but I felt really drawn to working directly with people instead of writing about them. I came to Oaxaca to work with a nonprofit, and I thought I was just doing a stint to get some experience in the nonprofit sector, and to be someplace warm for the winter. But one thing led to another and I just kept wanting to come back.
What about Oaxaca inspires you?
I’m so inspired by the artisanal traditions here. About half of Oaxaca’s population is indigenous, which is a quite high number, and within that there are all of these different communities which have very distinct cultures and different languages.
Oaxaca has this incredible array of traditions, local dishes, textiles and crafts, and different villages all over the state each dedicate themselves to a craft. One makes black pottery, another works with red clay; one village is known for wool textiles, another for cotton; one for palm weaving, another for wood carving. Each place has its own specialty. The inspiration for the products that Miha sells comes from these natural materials and the traditional techniques of this region.
How do you find the artisans that you work with?
It really varies. Some I’ve met and connected with by going to a village or an area that I know is known for palm weaving, for example. When I’m there, I can ask around or go to the local market and find people that way, and build a relationship from there. I’ve also been connected to some artisans by local friends who know them. Others I’ve met here in Oaxaca City, where I live, if they have a stall in the market or come from their respective villages to sell their wares on the street or in a craft fair.
From there, the process of working with the artisans differs greatly for the different product lines, but it’s absolutely a collaborative process. To create our clothes, for example, I work with a family that makes the cotton cloth in a town called Mitla. I bring the cloth to another person who sews the designs that I have brought to them, then another person does the natural dye with plants. I coordinate between these different people who each have their own specialty in one step of the process.
For palm bags, I do more customization; I work with someone who’s already making a palm bag, but I request it with a different size or shape or straps. And with the hat maker, we’ll have a back-and-forth based on his knowledge and my ideas until we find the final process. I thrive when I’m working on different tasks, so it’s good for me to have so many projects at once.
What are some of your favorite Miha pieces?
I personally love every single item that I sell. The clothes are exciting for me right now, since it’s really cool to have an idea of a concept and then see that come to fruition. I also really love the small chain of production we have — working with different people who specialize in their step, which means getting to work with a group of people to all create this one final product that everyone’s had a hand in. That kind of collaboration feels really good. And then it’s also really special working with natural dyes. It’s a special sort of alchemy.
There’s also this really sweet family that lives in a town called Atzompa where everyone works with clay. There are these ancient ruins called Monte Albán near their village, and they can trace their families back to these ancient times working with clay. They harvest the clay themselves from the earth — there’s a place where only the local villagers are allowed to harvest it so it doesn’t get depleted — and then the grandmother will make these cups that have little faces on them, each with its own personality, then the cups are fired in an earthen kiln right there in their backyard. Knowing that process and that story makes it really special.
How has Miha changed since you first began the brand? Where do you hope to take it from here?
Four years ago I did a conscious commerce workshop at Spirit Weavers, and I remember talking about having this idea for Miha but not having the confidence to pursue it. The woman leading the workshop said, “Just bring back a box of stuff and see if people like it. Start there.” So the next year at Spirit Weavers, I brought a small collection of things to resell that I had purchased directly from artisans, and it did really well. That was when I felt empowered to start Miha in a more formal way.
In the beginning, I was curating a collection by buying already made goods directly from the artisans, and then reselling them. The next season is when I started doing more design. At the time, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in doing design because I didn’t have any real experience with it. But I came to realize that when I’m working with these talented artisans, I don’t need to have that specialty since they have that skill, and then my eye and my knowledge for the US market can help them create different products that can reach different customers. It’s really great to have a mutually beneficial relationship where we’re both helping each other learn and grow. So moving into design has been really interesting, challenging, and creatively fulfilling, so I would definitely like to continue with that.
In terms of how Miha will evolve, there’s different products I’d like to pursue; I really want to create sun hats from palms, for example. I’d also like to explore the farther reaches of the state, both to find different materials and learn about different processes, and also to work with a larger pool of artisans. Working with artisanal goods is so fulfilling, and not only are these beautiful products that I love, but they offer economic opportunity to the maker. It’s also a way to help retain culture. Because if artisans have work, then they can continue doing their craft; if they don’t, they’ll probably shift into doing a different kind of job. It feels important culturally and economically, and that’s the driving force of Miha.
What do feminism and sustainability mean to you?
Miha was founded with the idea to create opportunities for women. When I first came to Oaxaca, I was working with a microfinance nonprofit called Fundación En Vía, which offers microloans to women to help them start and grow their own businesses. Working with that organization, I learned why pretty much all over the globe microloans are given to women — because research has shown that when the woman in the family earns money and has control of the finances, she’s more likely to invest it into her family and her community in positive ways.
In Mexico, like most of the world, women have traditionally had fewer options for paid work, so it’s important to have the goal of offering work for women. I don’t work exclusively with women, since there are some trades that are still male dominated. But for everyone I work with, I’ve visited their home workshop, I’ve met their family, and I feel comfortable that the work is adding to the wellbeing of the whole family.
And sustainability is inherent to handmade goods. There are no industrial processes that pollute, and there’s no plastic or synthetic materials involved since all the materials we work with are natural, like palm and clay from the earth. There’s so much economic opportunity in the fashion industry, but on a global level it’s so detrimental to the environment and has so many human rights abuses.
Fashion has the potential to do good, and it’s our responsibility as consumers to shop wisely, to educate ourselves, to ask brands about their production practices, and sometimes to not make a purchase if we don’t like what we hear. Those values are important to me personally, and that’s definitely the ethos of Miha: to create things that are made with good human rights practices, with fair pay and safe working conditions for the workers, and that are also beautiful.
View Miha Made’s Full Collection here.