Education and Awareness. We strongly believe that education and awareness can help break stereotypes that society may have of people with disabilities. The more we are able to educate our community and bring awareness to the abilities and talents these individuals have, the closer we will come to an inclusive society. People are naturally fearful of the unknown, so let’s educate them!
Aspart of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jovana Mullins.
Jovana Mullins is the co-founder of Alivia, a social-impact womenswear brand inspired by the artistic expressions of people with developmental disabilities. Although her career to date has centered on fashion, her true passion is volunteering — using art as a vehicle for empowering individuals with disabilities. In 2019, she founded Alivia with the mission of providing purpose and voice to the previously unheard, showcasing the many talents and abilities of people with disabilities, and pushing the fashion industry further towards inclusivity.
Jovana graduated with honors from Parsons School of Design with a BFA in Fashion Design, and has spent the past 10-plus years designing for luxury and contemporary fashion brands such as Matthew Williamson in London, Alice + Olivia, Sam Edelman, and Coach. She resides in New York City with her husband Brandon, and their crazy Miniature Australian Shepherd named Kimi.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Igrew up in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb outside Kansas City, surrounded by a big Italian family! Although I only have one sister, we were always spending time with Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins — everY Sunday we would gather at my Grandparent’s home for a big home-cooked Italian meal. My sister and I are only 14 months apart, so we grew up very close. We are very blessed to have extremely supportive parents who always nurtured our talents and dreams. Whenever we expressed an interest or hobby they would make sure they gave us every opportunity to explore it.
You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Alivia makes radiant clothing inspired by the artistic expressions of people with developmental disabilities. Every collection begins by transforming the artwork of young creators with disabilities into bold prints and embroidery across elevated silhouettes. 10% of every purchase is donated to the creator’s nonprofit art therapy program, providing a lasting impact for generations of creators to come. Every garment includes a scannable tag allowing wearers to see, experience and share the human story behind their clothes — and the direct impact they’ve made.
We’re enabling conscious consumers to form a deeper connection to their clothes and their impact, while giving purpose and voice to the previously unheard by showcasing the many talents of people with disabilities. Our aim is to push the fashion industry further towards inclusivity.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I have always felt a calling in my heart to help people with disabilities. I remember in 1st grade befriending a young classmate in a wheelchair; while other kids would bully her or were scared of her differences, I would hang out with her and her Para during recess and sit with her during lunch. I think my passion for helping those with disabilities is in 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. She would always tell us that no matter how different someone may look, talk, or act, they are a child of God and they have their own unique talents and purpose.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
My ‘Aha Moment’ came when volunteering as a mentor at the Center for All Abilities, a nonprofit in NYC supporting youth and young adults who have developmental disabilities through creative art therapy, mentorship, and vocational training. I experienced the incredible creative talents of these individuals and was blown away by their artworks. As a print and textile designer for the past 10 years, I am creating artwork and transforming it into prints for garments, but when I saw the artwork that came from this group a lightbulb went off — what if we used these artworks and transformed them into prints and embroidery across beautiful silhouettes?
For years I felt that heart and purpose was missing from my career in the fashion industry. Recently, many fashion brands have moved towards sustainability, social impact, and positive change. While I’ve been thrilled to see this change happen, most of these brands don’t resonate with my aesthetic or have the visible social impact that I yearned to see.
After bringing the initial idea to my husband, Brandon — a businessman and entrepreneur — he knew felt an opportunity existed. I completely credit Brandon for pulling the final trigger in making Alivia happen — I am not sure I would have even known where to start! He believed in my vision and the brand’s mission and encouraged me to pursue this. With Brandon by my side, we officially began our journey to build Alivia in October 2018.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
The first step was presenting the concept to the founder of the Center for All Abilities, Phoebe Ho, in hopes that they would be our first non-profit partner. She loved the idea! We then legally established our company and filed for our brand trademarks. The brand name Alivia stands for our core values: ’Awareness, Love, Inclusion, Voice, Individuality, Acceptance’. From there, Brandon led the business side, creating budgets, KPIs, and a funding plan. I led all things creative — working with a small group at CAA every weekend, painting, drawing, etc. encouraging the young creators to explore their imaginations! I then began transforming their artworks into a collection of prints that echoed their personalities and creative voice, all while staying true to their original beauty.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
We had planned from the beginning in 2018 on launching April 1st, 2020 to kick off Autism Awareness Month. Of course what we didn’t plan for was the Coronavirus pandemic. After heavy consideration, we decided to keep the launch date but to focus on sharing the stories of our creators rather than pushing product sales. We quickly pivoted to developing and manufacturing masks from our printed fabric and donated masks to a local residential home for people with disabilities for every mask sold. Through this initiative we’ve donated hundreds of masks and have been able to connect and engage with new customers in a more meaningful way. The pandemic has taught us the importance of staying positive and remaining flexible.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
After our first photoshoot we got an email the next day from our amazing photographer saying a program on her computer crashed and she had lost all of the photos. She felt absolutely horrible, and was calling every IT company in NYC to see if they could retrieve the last data. Brandon was on the phone with his software engineer friends trying to get advice on how she could retrieve lost data; I was calling all of my friends and family asking for prayers. After hours of no luck, the situation seemed hopeless, so we began scrambling to rebook the models, makeup and hair, etc. for another photo shoot. Brandon and I were so overwhelmed and discouraged; we felt this was sign the company was doomed for failure. But then a miracle happened: the photographer found the folder she thought had crashed. It was just labeled differently then she originally thought! You would have thought we won the lottery. We were jumping and screaming with happiness. The biggest lesson I learned was to stay calm, trust God, and always back up your computer! It wasn’t funny at the time, but we can all laugh now!
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My husband is absolutely my foremost mentor and cheerleader. I am forever grateful for his constant guidance not only in business, but also in life. He’s the smartest person I know and has such an intellectual and analytical way of thinking (opposite of my emotional and visual mind). I am also very blessed to have the constant support and encouragement of my parents, sister, grandparents, and extended family and friends. They’ve been with me every step of the way, cheering us on and believing in our mission.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of the most memorable and special moments of our Alivia journey so far was having Allen Li, one of the featured creators we’re highlighting in our collection, attend our e-com photoshoot. Allen is 16 years old and has autism. He has the most joyful personality, and his whimsical artwork truly reflects who he is. Allen got to see his artworks embedded the collection for the first time when walking on set. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room as everyone watched Allen’s excitement seeing an embroidered tee with his artwork and signature — he was so proud! Now every time I see Allen, he says, ‘I am the Artist Man’.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Look beyond the disability. Alivia uses fashion as a platform to connect consumers to the talents of people with disabilities. We want to inspire society to look beyond the disability of a person, and instead see them for their talents and abilities. Just because a person my 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.
- Inclusive hiring. 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. It is so important for businesses to take leadership in this area.
- Education and Awareness. We strongly believe that education and awareness can help break stereotypes that society may have of people with disabilities. The more we are able to educate our community and bring awareness to the abilities and talents these individuals have, the closer we will come to an inclusive society. People are naturally fearful of the unknown, so let’s educate them!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- It won’t be easy, but it will be rewarding. I never realized how hard starting a company would be. The ups and downs are insane. One minute you are on top of the world, the next you are a sinking ship! But at the end of the day I remind myself of our mission and impact, and realize that no matter how hard the work may be, the reward is worth it.
- Success doesn’t happen over night. I am naturally a very impatient person when it comes to my work. My mind thinks lightyears ahead and I am always ‘going, going, going’. I am also a planner, and very goal oriented. These aren’t bad things, but can easily make you go crazy when the business takes unexpected turns. I constantly have to remind myself to be patient, and trust in God’s plan for our business, not my own. Rome wasn’t built in a day!
- You will make mistakes; learn and move on. It’s simple, no one is perfect. You could have the best education, the best team, the best connections, but you are still going to make mistakes. The most important thing is what you take away from those mistakes, and how you move forward.
- Be flexible. Nothing will ever go according to plan all the time. Covid-19 has been the greatest example of this. We had great plans of a splashy launch in April for Autism Awareness Month, including pop ups, press interviews, etc. but of course good ole ‘Rona’ came in and we had to pivot. We began making masks with our fabric scraps and used this time to focus on tweaking our e-commerce site, reworking our sales strategy, and become more creative with how we acquire customers.
- Ask for help. You can’t do everything yourself, don’t be afraid to ask people for help. I am a ‘doer’ and always felt it would take me less time to do something myself rather than explain what needs to be done to someone else. I thought I could create the prints, sketch the clothes, make the patterns — but there is only so much time in a day. I realized the importance of delegating work and relying on experts to do the things I couldn’t.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
One of my favorite sayings is: ‘Helping one person might not change the world, but it could change the world for one person.’ Everyone, no matter your age, has the ability to make a positive impact.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Tommy Hilfiger. I am currently reading his memoir and have been inspired by his story. He pioneered the classic American ‘cool’ style, and has built a fashion empire with a clear aesthetic and point of view. But what inspires me the most about Tommy is his heart and passion for inclusivity and how he’s used his platform for positive change in the industry. Tommy and wife Dee have 3 children with autism, and sit on the Autism Speaks board. Tommy has developed an inclusive clothing line made for people with disabilities, Tommy Adaptive. He is definitely a role model.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find us online at shopalivia.com
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!