Jovana Mullins was raised in Overland Park, Kansas, by a special-education teacher. Though she’d always dreamed of working in the fashion industry, and eventually achieved that goal, she couldn’t escape her upbringing. “I always felt that I had a bigger calling,” she says. She credits her mom for instilling values that drove her to help others. Throughout her 10-year career in fashion, she volunteered regularly for organizations that supported those with disabilities.
This year, her two worlds collided.
From our respective homes, Jovana and I meet to talk about Alivia, the social-impact fashion brand she founded this year. Behind her, boxes and racks of dresses in bold prints fill the tiny space. “It’s technically a walk-in closet in our apartment,” she explains. “But it’s become my office because of COVID.” Jovana shrugs it off. She’s no stranger to finding creative solutions to unexpected problems. She did, after all, launch her company—her very first foray into entrepreneurship—in the middle of a pandemic.
The idea for Alivia came to Jovana well before the pandemic, though. In 2018, she left her full-time job to pursue consulting and give her more time and flexibility for her volunteer work. When she and her husband Brandon signed on as volunteers at the Center for All Abilities in NYC’s Chinatown neighbourhood, Jovana started arriving to her shifts an hour early to run informal art therapy sessions for people with autism.
I found that art was such a powerful tool for people with developmental disabilities to express themselves and for me to get to know them.
“Some of them can’t necessarily communicate verbally,” Jovana says. “But I found that art was such a powerful tool for people with developmental disabilities to express themselves and for me to get to know them.” The resulting art was so beautiful that she imagined the paintings as prints on scarves or dresses. What if, she thought, she could build a brand that would raise money for disability-focused non-profits?
Standing for something
Though it has almost become an expectation that new brands stand for something—say, sustainability or ethical production—Jovana didn’t see any social impact brands tapping into the talents of those with disabilities. “The fashion industry has been so exclusive,” she says. “Whether that’s by not making fashion adaptive or not creating employment opportunities.” She set out to change that, building inclusivity into every stage of the idea, starting with design.
When he entered the room, he lit up. Everyone was crying because he was just so excited. He said, ‘This is mine. This is me. I did this.’
Alivia gives a voice and platform to those with disabilities, sharing their work and stories on every piece of clothing the brand sells. “There’s a QR code on the hang tag as well as inside the garment,” Jovana says. “You can scan it to learn more about the artists as well as see their original artwork.” Alivia pays the artists to license their work and 10% of every sale is donated to the organization where they are supported.
One of the young men who created the art for Alivia’s first collection had the opportunity to see his work reimagined as garments when he attended a photo shoot. “When he entered the room, he lit up,” she says. “Everyone was crying because he was just so excited. He said, ‘This is mine. This is me. I did this.’”
Beyond design, Alivia aims to provide even more meaningful work in an industry where those with disabilities are often excluded. Much of the production of the garments is done in partnership with Spectrum Designs, a non-profit that employs people with autism.
As the company grows, Jovana is sticking to her mission to provide even more space in fashion to those with disabilities. In a brand photo shoot, Alivia worked with a model who has Down syndrome. The representation has provided inspiration to those who often do not see themselves reflected in brand campaigns. “One of our customers said, ‘I showed my niece who has Down syndrome, and she is so inspired. Now she wants to be a model,’” says Jovana.
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Selling dresses in the year of the sweatpant
It’s stories like these and the visible impact she’s making that keep Jovana pushing forward with her mission. It has, after all, been a rough year for launching a new business. The spread of the pandemic impacted Alivia in more ways than one. The brand debuted just ahead of wedding season, as planned, with a collection of summery frocks perfect for dress-up occasions. Then COVID happened and weddings were all but cancelled.
We did half our production here in New York. Thankfully, the day that Governor Cuomo shut us down, I picked it up.
The pandemic also impacted production. “We did half our production here in New York,” says Jovana. “Thankfully the day that Governor Cuomo shut us down, I picked it up.” The remainder of the items were held up in India for three months. Even without a global pandemic, Jovana says that production was one of the more stressful parts of starting her own business. “I had never actually had to handle production as a designer,” she says. “We had a team that took care of that wherever I worked.”
While the world was shifting to working from home, a lifestyle suited to sweats and loungewear, Alivia tried to enter the market with a collection for going out. As such, “customer acquisition has been really, really tricky,” says Jovana. That brings us to the third challenge: funding. Alivia launched on her and Brandon’s savings, and they have been bootstrapping ever since. Launching the next collection would prove challenging.
But, as 2020 has proved time and time again: entrepreneurs are resilient.
Pajamas with purpose
While established businesses around them are forced to close every day, Jovana reacted quickly to the world around her, finding a place for a brand like hers and overcoming adversity. First, she hit the drafting table and drew up designs for in-demand categories like pajamas and loungewear. Recently, Alivia launched its sleepwear collection for pre-order, made possible by a successful Kickstarter campaign. “We just reached our goal today!” Jovana tells me from her multifunctional closet.
Consumers are now more conscious about what they spend money on, and they want to support brands that are creating an impact.
Jovana is also thankful for her instincts to save fabric scraps from the production floor before COVID happened. “I hate waste,” she says. “Brandon was like, ‘Stop. We have no space for this stuff.’” But she couldn’t bear to part with such beautiful fabric, and in the wake of a global pandemic, her collection of scraps worked perfectly for making face masks.
The small pieces have also been reimagined as scrunchies, to round out the collection with more price-accessible items. Alivia launched accessories in reaction to feedback that people wanted to support the brand but couldn’t afford to do so. “It’s not fast fashion,” Jovana says. “Our margins are very small.” But she’s also found that the pandemic has inspired those who can afford to buy her product to actually do so. “Consumers are now more conscious about what they spend money on,” she says, “and they want to support brands that are creating an impact.”
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Finding strength in community
Another unexpected silver lining of our newfound collective isolation is the need for community. “We’re creating this positive, inclusive community that I don’t think we would’ve necessarily been able to do without COVID,” Jovana says. Building that community has also been possible by tapping into an essential element of brand building: storytelling. Alivia has maintained a weekly commitment to its Saturday Smiles series, which shares the stories of people with disabilities doing amazing things. More and more stories hit Jovana’s inbox from the brand’s growing community.
As a solo business owner working from home in a pandemic, Jovana also felt the need to create a community around herself. She found it in an online women’s entrepreneur group. “I have my husband, but he has a full-time job, and day to day I’m by myself,” she says. “Community’s been huge.”
When Jovana and I spoke, it was just a week before Black Friday Cyber Monday weekend, and she was working hard to launch sweatshirts just in time for the busy shopping season (she made it, by the way). I let her return to her busy one-woman operation, but I had one last question: Where did the name Alivia come from?
“This is my favorite question!” she says. “Alivia stands for Awareness, Love, Inclusion, Voice, Individuality, and Acceptance. These are our brand’s core values.”
It’s obvious to me now why Jovana’s company has defied the statistics. In addition to having a resilient founder at its helm who made scrappy pivots early on, Alivia has found success—in perhaps the most challenging time to start a business—because of its clear understanding of who it is and what it stands for.