Socially-minded brand Alivia helps makes artists’ dreams into reality
Jovana Mullins has always cared about giving back. But when her volunteer center closed, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. She found her way to the Center for All Abilities, a New York City nonprofit that provides enrichment programs and life skills training to people with disabilities as well as neurotypical people facing behavioral or emotional challenges.
Sixty-one million adults in the U.S., or 26%, live with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), yet it is a community often ignored in the fashion world. Mullins, inspired by her work at the Center for All Abilities, founded Alivia, an apparel brand that uses art made by individuals with autism and other disabilities as prints in its collections. With a background in print and embroidery, Mullins serves as the chief creative officer and main force behind a brand that is trying to make fashion a bit more inclusive. Here is what she told us about her journey.
What is your background in fashion?
I graduated from Parsons School of Design with a BFA in fashion design in 2011. From there, I moved to London to work as an assistant designer for Matthew Williamson, who at the time was the king of print and color! It was there that I realized my passion for print and embroidery design. After two years working for Matthew, I moved back to NYC to work for Alice and Olivia. I have since spent the past decade working as a print and embroidery designer for brands such as Coach, Sam Edelman, Rebecca Taylor and Cynthia Rowley.
Where does the brand name come from?
Alivia stands for “awareness, love, inclusion, voice, individuality and acceptance.” These are our brand’s core values and what we stand for.
How did Alivia get started?
Having spent the past decade as a designer in the fashion industry, I was starting to feel burnt out and that purpose was missing from my career. Ever since I was young, I have had a special place in my heart for people with disabilities, and I always knew I wanted to marry my love of fashion with giving back.
In 2018, I left my full-time job to become a freelancer, which allowed me more time to volunteer. My husband and I began volunteering at an organization in NYC called the Center for All Abilities, mentoring youth and young adults who have developmental disabilities. I fell in love! I started going every weekend and hosting an art therapy hour before our mentoring sessions. It was there that I saw this incredible artistic talent — full of expression and joy! I immediately envisioned these artworks into prints for a dress, scarf, you name it — I was totally inspired.
Are all of your collaborating artists affiliated with the Center for All Abilities?
Prior to volunteering at the Center for All Abilities, I was a volunteer leader for another nonprofit organization called Gifted Hands (also NYC-based), and I would gather my fashion industry friends, and we would go to a women’s shelter for young mothers every month and do a fashion-related craft with the ladies. After a couple years, the shelter closed down, and I needed to find another organization to host our Gifted Hands program. I spoke with Hope For New York and told them about my passion for working with people with disabilities, and that’s when they connected me to the Center for All Abilities. It was a match made in heaven.
All of the collaborating artists for our inaugural collection participate in art therapy at the Center for All Abilities (CAA). Part of Alivia’s strategy is to partner with a new nonprofit every season and collaborate with different creators, showcasing the artistic talents that come from all different disabilities. Having launched in April — right at the start of the pandemic — we had to shift back some of our collaborations, but we have some exciting partnerships coming up in 2021.
Why is it important to you to support the autism and differently-abled community?
I think my passion is part of my DNA. My mom was a high school special-ed teacher before having me and my sister. She instilled the importance of acceptance and inclusion of others. Just because a person may look a different way, communicate a different way or act a different way doesn’t mean they are less. Everyone has a purpose and gifts to share with the world. People with disabilities are often overlooked by the fashion industry and society in general. Their voices are unheard. I want Alivia to lift their voices up, inspire a more inclusive world and bring awareness to their talents and abilities.
Tell me about the technology needed to convert a piece of art into a large-scale print.
It’s very important to use a large, high-resolution scanner so you can scan the artworks into the computer while retaining the original brushstroke quality and dimension. I then take the scans and start playing around with the artwork in Photoshop, adjusting scales, colors and creating placements and repeats, all while working in the highest resolution possible.
How do you ensure that your materials are made responsibly?
We require all of our mills and supplier partners to be certified Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex, meaning all raw materials undergo testing to ensure that no harmful chemicals are used. Our main fabric quality used is 100% GRS recycled polyester, which allows us to digitally print vivid colors through dye-sublimation, where think inks used are turned into gas through heat, completely eliminating water waste. This process also allows for smaller production runs, creating less deadstock fabric. Our hangtags and paper goods are made from FSCTM recycled paper. We work very closely with our international and domestic suppliers and manufacturers to ensure that the people making our clothing are paid fairly, treated with respect and have safe working environments. The majority of our products are produced in the NYC garment district, allowing us to visit with the talented people who physically create our garments on a daily basis.
What are some of your most popular prints/items?
The Megan dress in poppy play yellow is our best seller. It’s a really easy wrap dress silhouette, very flattering, and the color and print make you smile! Our scarves have also been very popular, especially for gifting.
How/why did you decide to give 10% of the revenue back to the artists’ nonprofits?
We felt it was imperative to be completely transparent with our give-back model — no opaque donations, no end-of-year corporate proceeds. We also wanted to donate a percentage that would truly be impactful to a small organization. With every purchase, Alivia gives 10% of the sale price directly to the artists’ local non-profit where the artwork originated, providing a lasting impact for generations of creators to come. We also choose to partner with smaller, local organizations, rather than large national nonprofits, as these local organizations are able to provide intimate care at an individual level. We want to tell their stories and ensure that our customers see the specific impact they made in detail and know their money went to a much-needed place. We also compensate the artist upfront for the use of their artwork in our collection.
Why did you decide to include a scannable tag?
We want to bring direct visibility to the consumer’s impact, as well as create an emotional connection to their garment. When you scan the QR tag, you are directed to the personal story behind the artist that inspired your garment. You are able to view their original artworks and learn about their associated nonprofit where the 10% of your purchase was donated.
Why is it important to showcase art and artists from these communities?
Art is such a powerful form of self-expression. In some cases, people with autism are unable to communicate verbally or have difficulty processing language and emotion; art acts as a vehicle for expression and communication that doesn’t require verbal interaction. This artwork is much more meaningful than just a pretty visual painting. Our aim is to break preconceived boundaries — to showcase the level of unbelievable artistic talent inherent in people with different abilities.
What’s next for Alivia?
Pajamas! As COVID-19 shifted consumers’ preference in clothing type, we decided to launch a vibrant line of expressive pajamas, perfect for lounging at home or joining Zoom calls. Made from ultra-soft bamboo fibers, these pajamas feature original Alivia prints inspired by the artworks of three creators who have autism. To bring these pajamas to life, we launched a Kickstarter and successfully funded the first round of production. [Editor’s note: Alivia reached its crowdfunding goal in November 2020.] The pajamas will be available to purchase on our website in February. We also have the option of an adaptive velcro closure for those who prefer an easier way to get dressed.
We want to inspire society to look beyond the disability of a person and instead see them for their talents and abilities. One of the goals we have with Alivia is to build a fully-inclusive supply chain. We want to employ individuals with disabilities within every aspect of our business, from design to manufacturing to fulfillment and distribution. We currently produce our tees and totes with Spectrum Designs, a nonprofit in New York that trains and employs adults with developmental disabilities. As Alivia grows, we will develop our own training and employment program in house.