Jovana Mullins, a Parsons School of Design graduate and alumnus of brands such as Alice + Olivia, Coach and Sam Edelman, felt the need to feed her soul, and left the latter after three years to do more nonprofit work. Teaching art therapy to developmentally disabled youths and young adults at New York’s Center for All Abilities, she was amazed by the raw talent and untapped potential of the autistic participants.
“I was blown away by their art and their talent,” she said. “You see these kids, some of whom can’t speak, and the way they express themselves through art blew my mind. I’ve been an embroidery designer throughout my whole career. I immediately envisioned their art on a ready-to-wear collection. It’s a no-brainer. As a print designer trying to create as much inclusion as possible, this is an exciting challenge.”
Mullins teamed with her husband, Brandon, who leveraged his business background to develop the brand. Alivia is 100 percent self-funded by the Mullins’ savings.
“We’re working on raising a seed round,” Brandon Mullins said. “As far as commercial viability, this could be a long-term commitment. There are fashion brands that do a collaboration with an artist here and there. We’re working with people who don’t necessarily get a voice or have an opportunity. Whether it’s kids with autism, Down syndrome or mental illness, it makes for a much more meaningful purchase for the consumer.”
While the Mullinses hope their mission resonates with consumers, they know the designs have to appeal to customers on an aesthetic level. Alivia’s designs are bright and vibrant, full of rich colors and patterns that look modern and hand-painted, as they indeed are.
“I volunteer as well. When we first met, we said we wanted to do something meaningful and special, but we didn’t know what that was. When Jovana said, ‘I have an incredible idea,’ I thought it sounded interesting. I wondered what the commercial viability would be. I used my business background, inspired by fashion brands like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher,” Brandon Mullins said. “There’s an opportunity and a gap among purpose-driven brands. A lot are focused on the environment and sustainability. Nobody has focused on incorporating people of different abilities. I researched the business end of it, and was excited about building a fresh take on purpose-driven fashion.”
Brandon Mullins said one in six people has development disabilities, and between 30 percent and 40 percent of Americans are emotionally affected by someone they know with a developmental disability.
Alivia’s first collection will be spring 2020. “We’re having conversations now with retail buyers,” Jovana Mullins said. “Ideally, we hope to do an exclusive launch with one major retailer. The products will hit our e-commerce site in April, aligning with Autism Awareness Month.”
The company projects $1 million in sales in the first 12 months. Alivia plans to implement an ambitious social impact model: collaborating on designs with artists with disabilities, including highlighting artists’ personalities with scannable tags telling their stories; using sustainable materials and ethical manufacturing; transparency showing garments’ creation and factory certification, and post purchase, donating 10 percent of the price of each garment to the non-profit entity where the artist is a member.
“The majority of the collection is now made in the [New York] Garment District, except for scarves, which are made in China,” Brandon Mullins said. “We’re testing fair trade in India as part of the NEST coalition. Eventually, we’ll be moving some of our products to India because they’re the embroidery experts. As a new brand it’s imperative to be truly sustainable and own your supply chain. We’re using GRS-certified recycled polyester, which uses far less water than traditional virgin polyester, and the way we print, by sublimation, uses less water. All our of suppliers and all of our mills are 100 percent “all of our mills are 100 percent OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certified.
“We want to spotlight local charities that desperately need funds,” he added. “It’s not a great margin for us.”
That’s not stopping the Mullinses from working with the special ed departments of public school systems in low-income areas. “Art therapy is such a beneficial resource,” Jovana Mullins said. “When we were working on the spring 2020 collection, the [youths] didn’t necessarily understand, although some of them did. One of our artists, Alan Li, came to our ad campaign photo shoot. It was the most emotional photo shoot.
“My goal is that you wear the clothing and it puts a smile on your face,” Jovana Mullins continued. “It’s a very optimistic brand.”