Mala Bryan talks openly about herself and the inspiration behind her range of dolls. She’s happy to answer most questions posed to her, but there is one thing she will emphasise, even if she’s not asked about it: “I didn’t create black dolls for black children. I created them for diversity.”
Mala, a model, DJ, partner in a restaurant business – and avid doll collector – who was born in Saint Lucia in the Caribbean and lives between Miami and Camps Bay, recently launched a pop-up shop in Kloof Street, Gardens, where you can get to know Maisha, Mala, Malina and Mhina, the creative inhabitants of Malaville.
It was a life as a loner that first led Mala to Malaville, a dream world she created in her teens, and again escaped to in her 20s when dental surgery required a long period of recuperation. “I was isolated again,” says Mala. “I was a hot mess so I couldn’t go out, and because I couldn’t post pictures of myself online, I started posting pictures of my dolls in the garden.
“Since I was 18, Malaville had been my creative space. I created families of dolls who lived there and it was kind of a joke, really.”
And while Malaville may have been something she took very lightly, her dolls were something she always took seriously. It started with her simply collecting dolls. Then she started meeting with other collectors, discussing what was available, but more importantly, what was not available.
“I can’t remember ever having a black doll when I was a child (but) I don’t feel like it affected me… but it did feel like something was missing,” Mala says.
When art collectors started showing interest in the pictures she was taking of her dolls in various locations, and posting online, she decided she’d rather be showing off her own creations in these images, and so began the idea to launch her own range of dolls.
“I met many influential people who liked the idea, but when they told me to get a business plan, that put me off,” she laughs.
What was also harder than she had anticipated, she said, was finding the right mould for her doll. “I looked at many, which didn’t hit the mark. I contacted people in China, went to a toy fair there and saw hundreds of toys. But I knew what I wanted, I was very picky, and so it took me a long time to finally choose the right doll,” she says.
While the obvious assumption is that anyone wanting to launch a black doll would be looking for one with a broad nose and curves, most important for Mala were hair texture, eye colour (because many dolls had “weird” eye colours, she said) and she wanted dolls in four shades of brown.
Apart from pursuing diversity, her business mind reasoned that if she launched four different dolls, collectors would want to buy all four.
And while her aim was not to make the black dolls for black children, she does feel black children need dolls they can relate to, and that all children need toys that help them relate to the real world, where there is diversity. Her dolls also have no make-up, wear clothes that she designs – and all have jobs in the creative industries.
Mala says her dolls are like her “vision board”, explaining that she believes in the law of attraction and that “I want to teach people to use dolls to project what they would want and love”.
One of the things Mala loves is music, and on Thursday nights you can catch her playing Caribbean music at the old land bank in Queen Victoria Street in the city centre… and she reveals that one of a future line of dolls will have DJing as a career. Others will be journalists and creative directors.