Misa Miyagawa, the designer and founder of Botanica Workshop, makes underwear that’s feminine but not fussy, simple but delicate — and always with a commitment to sustainability. The pieces are all about that feeling of well-being you get when you put something beautiful on your skin or bring a new, carefully made object into your life. The label launched in 2014 and it’s been growing quickly, as more and more women are responding to the idea that sustainability and good design are related practices.
We left the humidity of the East Coast summer behind and headed to Echo Park, Los Angeles, not far from Misa’s shared studio space. Walking by the lake, she pointed to a cluster of creamy pink lotus flowers, which are a very specific evolution of a breed first imported from China over a century ago. It’s fitting that Misa would mention them, since her work as a designer is in part the natural expression of a deep relationship with her physical environment.
Let’s start by talking a bit about the brand. What got you interested in designing underwear?
Well, Jeff, my husband, is intensely into sourcing sustainably made products. And clothing is the most polluting industry after oil, so I thought there was maybe some potential there. Underwear that’s well designed, well made, and sustainable was really hard to find at that time. It was also confusing to me that all this underwear had to be made in China, that it couldn’t be made here in the US. I do understand it now, because of the challenges of manufacturing — we just don’t have the machines here. But I thought underwear could be designed differently and could be made on regular machines.
The name Botanica Workshop expresses the brand’s philosophy really well — the ecologically minded use of materials and the considered approach to production. Can you talk more about that?
So there’s the official answer and the secret answer! In the beginning I wanted to open an atelier, with a workshop and a showroom that people could visit. But that was around the same time that people starting moving to LA in mass numbers, and the rent got so high that I just couldn’t do that anymore. So that’s the ‘workshop’ part of it. The ‘botanica’ part was inspired by these shops where you go to get spiritual materials — candles you burn to bring yourself money, things like that. You see them on every block here in LA, there’s always a neighbourhood botanica. I think it’s a really cool way to express a process that’s maybe not as direct as buying medicine (you know, you have a fever, you take advil and you get better) — it’s more about bringing an object into your life and hoping that by using it and thinking positively your problem might be cured. Like, a pair of organic panties is not going to save the world, but it might cause this small shift in your life.
I love that so much. It sounds so hyperbolic to say that a pair of underwear will change your life, but it does in a certain way! One thing people love about your designs is the low impact they have on the body — they don’t contort the body or restrict blood flow, for example.
Yeah, so when I was researching underwear just before I started Botanica Workshop I bought a ton of stuff, everything from super high end to super low end, and after a year of wearing these really intense bras I had scars from the underwire, it was terrible. So that’s a huge thing for me.
How do you source your fabrics?
It was really hard in the beginning. After a lot of trial and error I realized that what would make my brand successful is working with similar brands: startups, small family businesses, entrepreneurs who are trying to make organic cotton successful in the US. During the recession — and even before that — there were a lot of mills in the South that had gone out of business because it was just too expensive to produce organic cotton. By the time I started Botanica there were some mills, especially in Asheville, North Carolina, that had been revived by communities of artists. At that point it was too expensive to buy US organic cotton, but they were importing cotton from Pakistan or China and milling it in the South, and the quality was really good. If you look at American jersey next to Italian jersey it has a different hand, a different feel. American jersey is not super refined but it’s very sturdy, and I like that substantial quality.
The fabric is obviously a big part of the aesthetic of the pieces. What else influences your design process?
I’m inspired a lot by nature and the colors in nature. The jobs I’ve had here were all in food, so I have a huge appreciation for the amount of life in California, the different varieties of fruits and vegetables and flowers, and Botanica’s palette is really inspired by that. I’ve spent a lot of time with vegetables!
What were the specific inspirations for the fall collection?
The fall collection was a lot about designing into my ideal customer. I worked with illustrator Amelia Giller, whose focus is on body positivity. So we thought about what might make our customers feel good — maybe just chilling at home in her robe in a beautiful color, that type of thing.
I know you’ve talked about Botanica Workshop as part of a certain lifestyle. Can you say more about that?
So, for the past ten years or so, 90% of my wardrobe has been vintage or second-hand. I know it’s something that’s become more popular, especially after Marie Kondo — this idea of paring down your wardrobe. And underwear is the foundation of that. You put it on right after your shower, it’s the first thing you put on your body and and the last thing you take off. I think it’s important to think about what will make you feel good from the very start.
Does working and living in LA influence your process?
Definitely — I couldn’t do this in New York the same way. LA county is one of the biggest manufacturing centers in the US, and that’s crucial because I have so much control in the production process. I’m interested in manufacturing in the US in general, and I do think it benefits the larger economy. It’s a bit cliche but it’s true that people here are very conscious of green living, and there’s also a certain openness to things.
Do you have any favourite neighborhood spots?
So these figs are from Cookbook, which is a tiny shop here in Echo Park that was started by two people coming from art backgrounds. Robert the co-owner goes to the farmer’s market three times a week and hand picks everything, all the produce. It’s a big community hub, and everyone from LA’s creative community passes through there— people will get a coffee from their one pot and go sit outside. They do prepared foods too, recipes based off the staff’s favourite cookbooks. So you’ll have the beet tahini dip from Moro, or the spaghetti bolognese from Marcella Hazan.
As a designer and business person you have a very busy and varied life. Are there any rituals you have that keep you sane?
I have breakfast with my husband every morning. He works in Beverly Hills so it’s a really long commute for him, but it’s nice even to have ten minutes together in the morning to have tea, talk about our schedules. And then I always try to have a lunch date with another designer during the week. Since starting the brand I’ve made a lot of great connections with other makers. Not always in fashion — they could be chefs or sculptors or whatever, but we have the same view of the world and a similar hope for our products, and it’s so good to know you’re not alone.
You launched Botanica Workshop in 2014. How has the brand evolved since then?
I think I have a really great following of people who understand what I’m doing, and that’s been integral to the growth of the brand. The more you stick around the more people understand what organic cotton is and why it costs what it does, and why being sustainable is important. Nothing compares to that feeling when someone comes up to you and says “I’m so glad you exist!”
Shop the new Botanica Workshop collection.