Mala MTL brings evil into plus-size fashion
Leather miniskirts, fishnet pants and a faux fur coat that would seduce even Cruella de Vil – with every hanger that Sandra Munoz Diaz puts on the clothes rail, she creates her own fashion rules.
Her boutique, Mala MTL, is one of the few in Montreal dedicated to vintage and second-hand plus-size clothing.
“It’s very difficult for a plus-size person to shop and feel welcome and try on everything they want,” says Diaz.
Creating a safe space for plus size fashion
The graduate fashion designer started his own business in 2018 after noticing the demand for plus-size Facebook groups.
Five years later, Diaz’s boutique is located in the Cadbury Lofts, a 1909 industrial building in the eastern part of the Plateau district.
The location is a bit off the beaten track, and that’s on purpose. Diaz aims to create a safe space for customers to explore styles rarely found in mainstream plus-size fashion.
“You can try on colorful prints, clothes that are short or long, clothes that show your stomach because I won’t judge you, right?”
“I’m someone who’s very confident in my body. This gives my customers the opportunity to feel comfortable in their bodies too,” she says.
A long road to body acceptance
That trust hasn’t always been easy. Diaz spent much of her childhood not being able to wear the same styles as her classmates, trying diet after diet.
“At some point I realized that I was always trying to perform. I tried to be a ‘good fat guy’. That’s what we call someone who’s always trying to lose weight, look leaner, and try to be as ‘acceptable’ as a fat person can be.”
Diaz’s reflections helped her shed those compulsions and experimented with punk and DIY fashion as a teenager.
It also inspired their tongue-in-cheek company name: mala means bad in her native Spanish.
“When I stopped doing that, I became a ‘bad fat,’ right?” Diaz laughed. “A bad fat person because you don’t try to hide or downsize. You take up the space you need.”
Hope for change amidst an uncertain climate
Despite the demand for clothing that spans all sizes, Diaz says the plus size shopping scene has taken a hit in recent years.
In August 2020, Montreal-based Reitmans closed its stores under the plus-size Addition Elle banner. Diaz says many other retailers only stock plus sizes online, leaving customers little choice but to shop before they try.
“It’s sad for us not to be able to go to the store to shop. That should not happen. Why? That’s a good question. I don’t have an answer, unfortunately,” Diaz said.
Perhaps a sign of change on the horizon, some independent fashion brands are bridging the gap. A shelf of lingerie from Montreal-based labels like Arako and Drama Club Lingerie is proudly displayed in the center of Diaz’s store.
Drama Club’s owner, Marika Porlier, is not a plus-size herself, but has focused fully on size inclusivity after learning about the difficulties faced by plus-size customers.
“I got really good feedback. This week, one of Sandra’s clients said she felt sexy in lingerie for the first time. That’s what I live for. It feels like I’m doing the right thing.”
As a designer who wears sizes XS to 5XL, Porlier focuses on how we want customers to feel in their clothes.
“I want to offer the same look that straight sizes have. It’s not about hiding the body. It’s about having access to something that everyone else can have,” says Porlier.
It’s about more than just the clothes
Running an independent business in today’s retail landscape doesn’t always run smoothly. Diaz only joined Mala MTL full-time last year and challenges herself to keep prices affordable for her customers, who can bring in clothes for store credit.
As she works to change the fashion scene, Diaz also hopes to help other plus-size people see their bodies in a different light.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘Oh, I love that about you, but I would never wear it.’ So how do you get up from that?” asks Diaz.
“It means looking at yourself kindly in the mirror. To say, ‘I look great today. I like my sparkling eyes. I like my curly hair.’ Eventually, liking yourself and feeling free becomes natural.”
Or, to offer an alternative mirror affirmation ripped from the lyrics of singer-songwriter and flutist extraordinaire Lizzo, whose picture can be seen behind the Mala MTL box office:
“I do my hair toss, check my nails. ‘Baby, how are you feeling?’ I feel good as hell!”