Many members of the LGBTQ community have been seen rocking a t-shirt or some kind of fun accessory from Swish Embassy over the past couple of years.
The streetwear company has grown exponentially for many reasons, one being its colorful and engaging clothing options that will make you the talk of the town on social media and at your local gay bar (where you are socializing safely, of course).
Swish Embassy has caught the eye of many famous people as well, notably Drag Race judges Ross Matthews and Carson Kressley, not to mention them having one of the most enticing booths at DragCon each and every year.
The brains behind this fun brand is Canadian-based Dean Malka, who is the seen flashing his adorable smile at any event featuring Swish Embassy. He chatted with us about how his career in the design & merchandising world began, his own coming out story, and what’s next as his business continues to grow.
Let’s talk about you first. When did you figure out that you wanted to go into the world of design & merchandising?
To be perfectly honest, I fell into Swish Embassy in the sort of way Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) fell into working at Runway in The Devil Wears Prada. It was never anything I expected to do. My background had been in management consulting and I always thought I’d continue working in a suit and tie. I did however always have a bit of a passion for collecting fun t-shirts and accessories. After I completed my MBA, I found the prospect of doing something creative rather exciting. Since I’d dabbled with Swish a few years earlier and then mothballed it due to the enormous amount of work it took, my mother suggested I consider relaunching it. Turns out it was great advice.
How did the original concept of Swish Embassy begin?
The Swish Embassy you see now was resurrected in about 2015. The original concept came out around 2009 after a trip to Provincetown. I’d seen a lot of shirts and apparel from all the boutiques along Commercial Street but I thought they were a bit crude or explicit and couldn’t be worn in mixed company. I thought there should be something a bit more within reach but the concept sort of evolved over time to designs that hide in plain sight in a “if you know, you know” kind of way.
Back then it was very artisanal. It all happened in a spare bedroom with a couple of heat presses and pre-printed transfers. It got so big that I would work all day, get home and then work another 8 hours fulfilling orders to drop them off at a mailbox the next morning going to work. Today Swish products are fulfilled by contractors in multiple locations in the US, EU, Mexico, Australia and Canada; I’d never be able to keep up with production inhouse.
What were your major inspirations behind your initial pieces and have you strayed away from them since then?
A lot of inspiration would come from gay culture in general, hearing funny reads from friends while out at bars and parties. It was the early days of the hookup apps and people started becoming a bit less skilled at the pick-up. The slogan and focus evolved a bit more over time into “Wear a conversation piece.” The shirts were meant to strike up a conversation so people would look away from their smartphones and talk to one another and be social whether the objective was romantic or not.
Do you have a favorite shirt or item that you’ve made thus far? If so, why?
One of my favorite items remains the ironic Masc 4 Masc Unicorn t-shirt. It pretty much went viral in the beginning of Swish Embassy 2.0. It seemed to strike a chord that we made fun of the paradigms of masculinity.
Have you been approached by any famous people who are interested in rocking your items?
Yes we’ve had a few famous people wear our items. Some have reached out to us directly and others picked them up at a store. Apparently Ryan Murphy has our “American Whore Story” shirt. Carson Kressley has our “Drag Wars” shirt. One particularly heartwarming story, was the agent who represented the late Ann Guilbert, “Yetta” from The Nanny. He ordered a bunch of shirts that featured that character and gave them to her family.
Let’s go personal for a second. What was your coming out story like?
I came out relatively late at age 26. It wasn’t a happy coming out story. My family was pretty conservative so I basically felt the need to move cities from Montreal to Toronto to feel emboldened enough to live my truth. My father was born in the 1930s and though I never came out to him, apparently my half-brother told him in hopes of driving a wedge between us just a few months before he passed away. My mother has a hard time with it too, but she’s come around and I think she now sees some of the benefits of having a gay son though she may not get the grandchildren she would have liked.
Are you dating someone right now? If not, what do you look for in a guy?
I’m not dating at the moment. I’ve been single for 3 years now. I’m looking for a Tom of Finland model with Bianca Del Rio’s wit, obviously. But in all seriousness, someone who makes me laugh and is able to hang out in a Snuggy while watching Netflix during COVID, but will be ready to get on the first flight to go explore somewhere exotic when things are back to normal.
Finally, what are you looking forward to the most as the Swish Embassy brand continues to grow?
The past year was very challenging because of COVID and because Facebook decided to ban Swish Embassy from advertising on Facebook and Instagram without so much as an explanation. It seems they have a history of doing this to other gay businesses, personalities and even politicians like Brian Sims. Despite these setbacks, Swish has managed to continue growing and prospering. We pivoted to creating novelty face masks and kaftans and redirected our advertising to more conventional channels as well as guerilla marketing. I’m really excited to see what kind of additional products we can add in the near future.