When Jovana Mullins began volunteering at New York City's Center for All Abilities (CAA) in 2018, she never expected the experience would change the course of her career. But as the print and textile designer began working with young adults with developmental disabilities in the nonprofit's art therapy program, she quickly saw an opportunity to turn her passion for fashion into something meaningful.
Mullins had been working in the fashion industry for over a decade at the time and had designed prints and embroidery for brands ranging from Coach to Sam Edelman. And she knew raw talent when she saw it.
"When I saw the artwork that came from this group, a lightbulb went off: 'What if we used this artwork and transformed it into prints and embroidery across beautiful silhouettes?'" Mullins told TMRW in an email.
Mullins presented the concept to the CAA's founder, Phoebe Ho, who was completely on board. From there, Mullins and her husband, Brandon, a fellow volunteer, began building a clothing line called Alivia. He took over business operations and she got to work leading all things creative.
"I began working with a small group at CAA every weekend, painting, drawing (and) encouraging the young creators to explore their imaginations," she said. "I then began transforming their artwork into a collection of prints that echoed their personalities and creative voice, all while staying true to their original beauty."
Fast forward to April 2020 and Alivia launched its first collection during Autism Awareness Month. Each piece in the collection is available on the brand's website and prices range from $80 to $525.
To help launch the brand, Mullins tapped model and activist Grace Strobel, who has Down syndrome, to star in its first photo shoot.
"Grace’s beauty radiates both outward and inward," Mullins said. "Her passion for advocating and breaking preconceived notions of what is possible for someone with a disability perfectly aligns with Alivia’s mission."
The brand plans to rotate creators and nonprofit partners with every collection (four times per year) and has created a selection process to make sure local organizations in need of critical funds for art therapy programs have an opportunity to participate.
"Art can be a powerful form of self-expression, and can be extremely beneficial for people with disabilities," Mullins said. "In some cases, people with autism are unable to communicate verbally or have difficulty processing language and emotions — yet are incredible visual thinkers and communicators. Art acts as a vehicle for expression and communication that doesn’t require verbal interaction."
Every creator is compensated for their artwork and Alivia donates 10% of every sale to the nonprofit where each creator takes part in art therapy. Every garment also includes a QR code on the tag that you can scan to learn more about the artists.
Allen Li, 17, is one of the artists featured in Alivia's first collection and he told TMRW he's excited to see his artwork come to life. "I feel great," he said. "I feel proud and feel my parents are proud of me."
William Choi, 17, another featured artist, is also feeling pretty proud. "I'm happy. I did it," he said.
Choi's father has enjoyed watching his son's art transform before his eyes. "With the right people helping, William's art becomes meaningful," he said.
Currently, the brand produces half of its product in a fair-trade factory in India and the other half in New York City's garment district. Eventually, Mullins hopes to build a fully inclusive supply chain that creates job opportunities for individuals with disabilities in every aspect of the business, from design to manufacturing and distribution. Now that the brand is launched, Mullins is enjoying watching the impact it's already having on customers.
"The best part has been seeing the incredible reaction of acceptance and celebration of diversity from both the fashion industry and our customers. We have had customers who have family members or children with disabilities tell us that having a brand like Alivia in the world provides hope for their loved one's future," she said.