Words by Tishanna Williams
Saint Lucia-born beauty Mala Bryan is currently getting a lot of attention for her Malaville Toys collection, a line of dolls inspired by her Caribbean heritage, and a desire to inspire little girls through self-visualization.
What little girl doesn’t love a pretty doll? Mala herself is a self-confessed doll-collecting addict. When she isn’t building a business empire, which includes the restaurant Carne SA in Cape Town, South Africa, and jetting around the world for her still-thriving modelling career, she is all about her dolls — collecting them, and making them. For her own line, she set out to create dolls with natural Black hairstyles and a range of brown skin tones, outfitting them with styles and patterns reflective of her island upbringing.
Over the past few years, it seems like the world has been taking notice of all things Caribbean and Afrocentric, so the collection, while long overdue, also feels right on time. We called the Lucian beauty-turned-entrepreneur in her adopted hometown of Cape Town to find out the inspirations behind her line of beautiful, Black dolls.
LargeUp: Let’s start with a little background info. Cape Town is a long way from home.
Mala Bryan: I was born and raised in Vieuxfort which is [in the] South of [Saint Lucia]. After high school, I moved to St. Maarten to join my mother and work in the hotel industry, where I was discovered and flown to Paris for a competition. There I won my modelling contract. I lived in Israel and Belgium before settling in between Cape Town and Miami.
LU: Sweet, so how does a model and business woman find her way to doll making?
MB: My mom would make those dolls with the crochet skirts that many Caribbean children would probably know of. When I was 18, I started to do it as well using artificial flowers. I would sell them to hotel guests. When I started my modelling career, I stopped, but six years ago I just got the craving for dolls again.
LU: And that’s when Mala Bryan, the dollmaker, began?
MB: Not quite. I started as a collector. I got friends involved and would hunt online for special editions and the like. That’s when I realized I could never easily find dolls of color. What I found mostly were normal-looking dolls with woolly hair.
LU: Ok… why move from collector to entrepreneur?
MB: During my career, I would constantly hear from agents, “Oh, you know how hard it is for black girls.” They are right. Being a black woman in this industry is hard. When I see the dolls that are being sold in stores, they are often not pretty. I put myself in the position of a little black girl, and I would not want to say that looks like me. I would visit sites and parents would be commenting on how difficult it was to find dolls of color that weren’t overly expensive. So, I said to myself, “You know what, I’m going to make some pretty black dolls.”
LU: And you did! So tell us about them.
MB: My dolls come in four shades of brown. They are named Maisha, Mala B., Malina and Mhina. Their style is Afro-Caribbean inspired. It’s very important to me that they look pretty, have no makeup on, have brown eyes and nappy hair.
MB: I am trying to figure that out. I refuse to believe it is only just happening. Barbie has a line of black dolls called the “Sis Line,” which was headed by a black woman. I have quite a few of them, actually, but others I refuse to buy. They have the baby hair painted on, side-eye looks and orange eyes. They’re pretty, but I see them differently. I’m a grownup who knows myself. I’m not a child still trying to find their place in the world.
LU: Right! We get you. What about negative reviews?
MB: People try to say they don’t have black features.
LU: Wow, that’s a blow, considering. How do you deal with that?
MB: I simply ask, “What are black features?” The only thing I can imagine they are referring to is the doll’s straight nose. But my grandmother had a straight nose and is very much a black woman, as do my own mother and my cousins. I focus on the integrity of the hair, eye color and the skin tone. When a child looks at a doll they will not see themselves exactly, but something they can relate to.
LU: Do you remember your first doll?
MB: My mom got her for me her when I was three. She’s about 1.5 feet — a bit taller than I was when I got her, and she has blond hair with blue eyes. Later on my mom started sending me Cabbage Patch Kids and Barbies, and I preferred them to her so I stopped playing with her. She was just there for dress up. My Barbies were smaller to carry around and to make houses and things for so they eventually became the main dolls for me. She’s still around at the same house where I grew up.
Next on Mala’s list is her first adult collector doll line which may ultimately be even more Caribbean-inspired than this one from the looks of things. The lady is keeping things publicly hush hush for now, but LU got a sneak peek and we can tell you she is coming hard with her next collection which may even get its launch on one of the Caribbean’s major islands.