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Ala Isham: “Laugh, even when you want to cry”

I think an age-positive movement has already started and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Ageism has been rampant in our society for years and there’s finally an uprising. When we started using models over 40 (and 50+), we had few options. Now we have so much trouble casting as the choices are […]

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I think an age-positive movement has already started and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Ageism has been rampant in our society for years and there’s finally an uprising. When we started using models over 40 (and 50+), we had few options. Now we have so much trouble casting as the choices are incredible. Women are at the center of the conversation right now and it’s not based on our age, it’s based on our message and our level of engagement. Our voices are louder and clearer than ever, and we are happy to be part of the message.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Ala Isham of Ala Von Auersperg.

Her mother, Sunny Crawford von Bülow, and grandmother, Annie Laurie Aitken, had innate style. They valued beautiful craftsmanship, knew what looked good on them, and understood that you can be comfortable and still look fabulous. These early lessons trained Ala’s eye and helped inspire her line. Ala had been working with the designer Antonio Gual for years, when in 2015 he suggested applying her original nature- and travel-inspired artworks onto them. From there, Ala Von Auersperg — the brand — was born, with her daughter Sunny Kneissl joining the team as in-house stylist. AvA is about enjoying life as you are and being the best version of yourself, because when a woman looks her best she feels better about herself. We all have roles to play and we’re going to do them more effectively when we’re at our best — and, frankly, there is too much fun to be had to be focused exclusively on what you’re wearing.


Thank you so much for joining us Ala! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I don’t come from the fashion world, but my mother, Sunny Crawford von Bülow, and grandmother, Annie Laurie Aitken, had innate style. They valued beautiful craftsmanship, knew what looked good on them, and understood that you can be comfortable and still look fabulous. I had noticed a void in the market for such pieces and began working with designer Antonio Gual to create a personal wardrobe that accommodated my taste and lifestyle. I needed clothing that could travel and transition — designs that were both elegant and effortless, but I didn’t have the patience to fuss with complicated fashion.

In 2015, while designing pieces to wear in Antigua, I shared photos of some of my paintings — a passion I inherited from my paternal grandparents — with Antonio, and he suggested applying my nature and travel-inspired artwork on the fabrics we were using. Our first few iterations featured some of my favorite floral paintings on flowing kaftans, mesh dusters with beach inspired scenes and easy silhouettes. From there, Ala Von Auersperg — the brand — was born, with my daughter Sunny Kneissl joining the team as our in-house stylist. The collection is about enjoying life and feeling beautiful at any age and any size.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

I had absolutely no idea how to run a fashion company. I was lucky enough to find a business partner, Larry Black, who I met through Antonio. He was integral in the development of our label and had a background that allowed me to focus on the creative element while he would handle the rest. As our business grew, we were able to bring on new team members who offered expertise in the areas where we needed to help expand our business.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I refuse to fail because I knew we had something. The feedback I got when I worked one on one with women at trunk shows and studio appointments only reinforced the idea that there was an entire market being ignored. Designer brands were not catering to women over 40. We still wanted to look great. We don’t suddenly run and hide once we age. We want clothes that fit our lifestyle and our bodies.

As Antonio and I began working on new AvA collections, he would create these inspiration boards, and we both discovered there were no images of women over 40 in fashion magazines. Where did all the models go once, they hit a certain age? Why were brands not using women “of a certain age” in their ads? We were committed to correcting that oversight!

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

We had a bit of a learning curve but 2019 has been incredibly successful.

From a product perspective, our designs are totally resonating with our customers. We are committed to creating silhouettes that offer women my age options for day-to-night dressing that are comfortable and flattering. For example, evening dresses with mock turtlenecks if we don’t feel like showing off our decolletage, or optional arm coverage with silk capes that can be worn over our shoulders or draped behind us for added drama. Silhouettes that can be belted to show off our waist or worn loosely when we feel like rocking a great frock without showing too much shape. One of our greatest hits has been our pants. Everyone who tries them on (and buys them!) immediately tells us how incredibly comfortable they are. We offer a higher waist, two way stretch and added compression. Pants that are as comfortable as yoga pants but dressy enough to wear to dinner or a night out.

In 2019 we placed a bigger emphasis on e-commerce than we had in previous years and saw incredible growth. In the month of July and August ALONE we exceeded 100% of 2018’s e-commerce sales. From a numbers perspective, sales are up 72% over all our sales channels, such as trunk shows, e-commerce, private sales and wholesale.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Sizing was a bit of a learning curve when we started. Our first collection featured stretch compression, and we didn’t realize it was sized way too small. At my first event, the models and some of my friends squeezed their way into some of our dresses. They smiled (and looked so thin) but no one could breathe!!

I learned then that every detail matters, and we made a commitment to ensuring our fabrics are always comfortable. I test wear any new material we are considering. We also learned to be super attentive to how each material holds color, and the integrity of the prints.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I believe we’re creating incredibly versatile, comfortable clothing that is still effortless and elegant. That was something I’ve always admired about my mother and grandmother’s clothing, which is harder to find these days and a key reason I started AvA.

And, while I can attribute quite a few initiatives to our success, I think we’re addressing a market that has long been ignored. Aging was a taboo subject in fashion, and we embrace it. As an age-positive brand, we celebrate women of every age and put them as a focal point when we design. We also want our customers to feel as though we’re showing them imagery they can relate to. We’ve made a commitment to using a wider age range of models for our campaigns and partnered with some fabulous influencers who are celebrating their lives and sharing their age-positive lifestyles.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Laugh, even when you want to cry.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’m so very grateful to my partners, Larry and Antonio as they have been with me through it all. I also feel so fortunate to be on this adventure with my daughter, Sunny. I won’t sugarcoat it and tell you that every day together is perfect, but there is something so rewarding about building a company that I can one day pass to her. And it doesn’t hurt when she brings my adorable grandchildren along on our business trips and photo shoots.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

A percentage of annual revenue from the AvA business is donated to my philanthropic work, specifically my work with The National Center for Victims of Crime, which I co-founded in 1985. Women who have experienced violence suffer in many ways following trauma and we’re trying to help them overcome their experiences and find the support they need.

Also, AvA is about enjoying life as you are and being the best version of yourself, because when a woman looks her best, she feels better about herself. We all have roles to play and we’re going to do them more effectively when we’re at our best — and, frankly, there is too much fun to be had to be focused exclusively on what you’re wearing. I hope to spread that gospel to women all over the world!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. I wish someone had told me that I would actually be starting two businesses. One is design and the other is fabric!
  2. That the landscape is changing so quickly in both fashion and media. Wholesale will no longer support a business and you need to invest in your brand. It also feels like marketing and PR change on a monthly basis!
  3. That my personal life would be on display. Through the birth of social media, consumers want to connect with me and feel that authenticity. I lead a very private life and I didn’t realize when I started AvA that I would have to be so much more public about my life.
  4. Cost. Even when you have exceptional business plans, the costs of running a company can be extraordinary.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think an age-positive movement has already started and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Ageism has been rampant in our society for years and there’s finally an uprising. When we started using models over 40 (and 50+), we had few options. Now we have so much trouble casting as the choices are incredible. Women are at the center of the conversation right now and it’s not based on our age, it’s based on our message and our level of engagement. Our voices are louder and clearer than ever, and we are happy to be part of the message.

How can our readers follow you on Instagram?

@ala_von_auersperg

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