How one Creative Director fosters a sustainable community in real life
“Why don’t people use fashion as a platform of empowerment, instead of selling feminist t-shirts that are made in sweatshops?” asks Kelley Mullarkey, Creative Director of Majestic Disorder. Soon to celebrate its 5-year anniversary, the London-based biannual arts + culture magazine is a bit of an anomaly in the publishing world. Scan the pages of its vegetable ink printed editions, and see nary an influencer nor big box advertiser in sight. This publication caters to “today’s nomadic creative community,” filling its thoughtfully curated issues with sustainable designers, human rights advocates, and itinerant foreign tribes.
And while this social consciousness has become somewhat of an industry buzzword, Kelley and her husband Sean Stillmaker – the mag’s EIC – were championing the inclusivity cause long before today’s editorial wave. What started as an elemental blog in 2011 has blossomed into a print publication, creative agency and community, with the extraordinary ethos of transforming people’s minds through cultural expansion. Everything they’ve built is with passion and authenticity, at the sacrifice of the monetary marketability of “playing the numbers game.” This is the publication that will take you on a visual journey through the Sacred Valley of Peru, or invite you to the studio of the Moroccan leatherworker making trendy babouches by hand. The mag’s well-followed Instagram feed feels more like a travelogue than sponsored feed, and it’s growing global retreats are translating the company’s ethics into a tangible experience IRL. Both inside its pages and out in the world, Majestic Disorder bridges cultures and creates communities with every issue. Read our chat with Kelley, grab your passport, and let your wanderlust reel.
COOLS: What were you trying to bring to the market with Majestic Disorder?
Kelley Mullarkey: To be honest I had no idea. In Chicago I wasn’t meeting world travelers and digital nomads, these people seemed so foreign to me. And because social media wasn’t what it was today, I didn’t have that same access to global culture. I wanted to discover these people’s stories, either people I met traveling or through the Gypset books. The magazines of the time, were super unrelatable, only featuring celebrities and super models, I wanted to read about the artisan living in a shack in Cartagena. I knew I wanted to write and interview people. The whole world turned upside down with the digital media boom, I wasn’t sure where this would go. But I loved coffee table books and wanted to create something like that.
COOLS: And why is the sustainability pillar so fundamental to the MD ethos?
KM: When I moved to Tanzania for a job, I saw the amount of waste that’s dumped on them. A lot of people don’t realize when they donate clothes most of it doesn’t go to people in need, it gets dumped on developing nations and becomes their problem. Its horrendous to their local economies. When I moved to London to attend the London College of Fashion I came across the LCF Centre for Sustainable Fashion. I became fascinated all these new innovations like reworking pineapple skins into fiber and upcycling leather jackets. I always thought sustainable dressing was all hippie, hemp and maxi dresses, and inherently not fashionable, but I started to realize that wasn’t the case. Reading about all the global waste, and talking to younger indie designers about constantly being ripped off by big conglomerates made me ask myself, why am I buying this stuff and who is it effecting? Why are we supporting imprisoning people in their jobs working 100 hours a week getting paid a dollar a day? I wanted to explore the environmental aspect and the human aspect of the industry.
COOLS: And the first issue on was always sustainably focused?
KM: Always. The first few issues also included vintage, and how that fit into the sustainable conversation. It’s challenging because we ask about sustainability, ethics, are we talking about the environment how are we labeling it? I wanted to find ways we could still love fashion, but have it not hurt people. Most of the companies in this industry create terrible systems that inflict pain on people and the planet, and don’t produce that much return for local communities. It mostly just goes in the pockets of big box retailers. And we waste so much.
COOLS: And technically sustainable fashion is still unsustainable because you’re producing more product, it’s just a more conscious product.
KM: That’s the thing. At the end of the day you’re still producing more that’s going into the world. Take an artisanal product. It’s wonderful because you’re preserving generations of tradition, but then you look at something like the leather industry in Morocco, it’s so polluted and harmful to the local environment. The ultimate solution would be to stop buying and generating. Frankly we don’t need anything else, there’s already so much out there. But we live in a capitalist society, so shopping sustainably is the lesser of two evils.
COOLS: The key is to make the artisanal standards more sustainable too.
KM: When I watched The True Cost, there was this quote that really stuck out to me, “at least they’re producing clothes and not in a coal mine.” But most fashion factories in developing nations are in horrific conditions. So we have to ensure safer standards. Everyone’s trying to undercut everyone in the retail sector. Fashion employs more women I believe than any other industry, and its horrific how terribly women are treated. Why don’t people use it more as a platform of empowerment, instead of selling feminist t-shirts that are made in sweatshops?
COOLS: On that note. With the current political climate, we’re seeing a lot more publications becoming more globally engaged, inclusive and socially conscious. Do you think it’s simply a trend, or a shifted lens of creative journalism?
KM: I think it’s both. Ride the wave and that’s where the profit is. Urban Outfitter’s CEO is super right-wing, and yet they sell all these overtly liberal shirts. People are so easily greenwashed these days, that through their consumption, they’re lining the pockets of companies that don’t stand for the ethics they’re selling without even realizing it. We need to be smarter as consumers and research who’s creating an authentic voice with longevity, and not just following the trends.
COOLS: There’s also a major shift in traditional publications towards digital, and print mags shuttering left and right. What do you make of that?
KM: Part of what’s collapsing – like the housing bubble – is these big publications with major budgets that over-expanded when globalization really started kicking in. Big media outlets that produce regularly, most of what they report on is trend driven, and that stuff doesn’t have longevity anymore. To create something that has longevity in print form, as you’ve seen with Teen Vogue switching to a quarterly for example, is offering a more covetable, collectible edition. The publications that survive are the ones investing in building genuine readership, with likeminded communities that have a larger goal.
COOLS: And why is it so important for you to focus on a printed magazine and not digital?
KM: We have a biannual edition that’s more collectible storytelling. It’s not trend driven or newsy, and then of course we have a pretty strong social media following. We also run a creative agency that allows us to do largescale marketing projects, brand developments, corporate communications etc. It enables Majestic Disorder to exist beyond the pages, into a whole community of likeminded people that are consciously and ethically supporting each other.
COOLS: MD mainly features emerging designers, undiscovered cultures and niche experiences. AS such, in the digital sea of influencers and it girls that permeate the industry, what are you bringing to the table?
KM: The kind of people that we feature, and the stories we tell are definitely not on trend with the larger environment we’re producing in. We don’t cover the Insta-famous bloggers with 200K followers who are collaborating with H&M and Mango. It’s a numbers game, and not something we’re interested in. We’re telling stories. A lot of indie mags have moved in that more commercial celebrity direction, which is fine, but we’re interested in the people that are creating something real passionately. Whether it’s their fulltime job, or something they do on the side, those are the stories we can all relate to.
It’s so important that were showcasing people from all over the globe, and not a really whitewashed aesthetic. In the same issue we’ll have an underground record collector from Tokyo and a Native American woman from Oregon who’s still told “oh I didn’t know Native American’s still exist.” I’m interested in what people’s daily lives look like, rather than the Insta-famous. Those people are creating more passionately and authentically. They’re generally more honest, and don’t have tons of PR telling them what to say and how to act.
COOLS: What are the challenges of maintaining that indie integrity, rather than “selling out?”
KM: With the type of content we feature, big brands don’t come to us for collabs. You lose out on that kind of marketability, and the monetary backing because they don’t see the value in us. But on the flipside there are amazing travel agencies, tourism boards and socially responsible travel companies we get to partner with. We’re constantly having to convincing other people of our worth. Another one of the biggest challenges is tracing the effects of all the collabs and partnerships we do. We only choose partnerships we know are good for our community and authentic. We’re not promoting some kind of deceitful message just to sell a product. Nor do we have an agent or a parent who’s bankrolling our publication. We moved here completely alone, and everything we’ve forged has been through honest and integral relationship building. Convincing people of our worth is an everyday struggle.
COOLS: You’re starting to collaborate more with boutique travel agencies to do MD retreats. Are you trying to translate the magazine into more of a lifestyle?
KM: We’re in this sharing economy, where the lifestyle and mindset of 25-40 year olds has completely shifted. We’re more about authentic relationships and offline experiences. As much as we are digitally connected and constantly interacting, people are lonelier than they’ve ever before. So we want to create experiences that can be had offline and connect people in person. Travel is one of the things that I’m most inspired by, and one of the founding tenets behind MD. Going and experiencing a new culture, opens up your mind in such a transformative way. There’s so much hate and misinformation about different cultures nowadays, travel is one of the most incredible ways to experience them firsthand.
COOLS: Travel is the best form of education?
KM: It really is. Your firsthand experience is really what’s going to move the needle on your viewpoint and something that you’re fearful of. If you spend five minutes with someone from a different culture, you’re going to radically change your opinion about a culture. Traveling makes you experience things that you can’t any other way. That’s the only way we’ll be able to fight all this hate and misinformation.
COOLS: And translating it through an offline magazine.
KM: And creating awareness of these issues through bringing our community together in real time.