Inform & Connect, AFB’s ongoing series created to foster togetherness and camaraderie within the blindness community through informal storytelling and learning about relevant, and interesting topics. Today's guest is Alexa Jovanovic, designer and founder of Aille Design.
The company works alongside a diverse team of fashion lovers from blind, visually impaired and sighted communities, creating fashion-forward products that empower and celebrate inclusivity. The intricate beading describes clothing characteristics, such as color, textiles, wash instructions, and fit.
Melody Goodspeed: So I want to, again, welcome Alexa Jovanovic to our... Hi, Alexa, how are you?
Alexa Jovanovic: Hi. I'm so sorry about that. The internet completely cut out.
Melody Goodspeed: Oh, that's the worst. I was sitting there trying to ... And I didn't want to say anything about anything. So we're going to jump right in. So everybody this is my friend, Alexa, who is just so amazing. And I want to talk about Alexa when she was 10, because that's the time that she really started to love fashion. So take it from there Alexa.
Alexa Jovanovic: So I absolutely adore dressing up. I did when I was 10 years old and I still do now, fashion is my entire life. I would play with feathers and pearls and beads and costume jewelry, you name it. And I knew when I was 10 that if I could do anything to make fashion a reality and make it my actual profession I was going to. And so ten-year-old Alexa is currently freaking out that she has a fashion company. She's sold products to people she doesn't even know, and she's doing it. She went to New York City to do a fashion shoot. That's where she met Melody and Catherine Harrison, who's a fabulous model and it's all just coming together. So 10-year-old Alexa is on top of the world right now.
Melody Goodspeed: That is so awesome. So when you were thinking about your design company and where you are now, can you tell us about how braille became such an allure for you?
Alexa Jovanovic: Of course. So visually I just think braille is [inaudible 00:07:31] I think the design features are incredible. And then just knowing that you're able to read through touch is amazing. And I just think it's such an incredible language. It's so empowering. It gives so much independence. And I had made the connection between the similarity in the size of braille and the similarity in size of different beads. I was out shopping. I saw a beaded garment and I kind of just had this aha moment where I wanted to see if I could put braille onto clothing and give it a bit more of that functional value. Beads are always just known as being pretty. They make things look nice, but why not do something more with that and make a product that has all this accessibility functionality, but also looks great. It's empowering. It can be worn by anyone. So that's kind of where everything started with braille.
Melody Goodspeed: I love it. So, you know what I love about that and you and I were talking about this last night of how important it is to you, that the structure of the braille though is readable, talking about that inclusion and that it's not just put in half-heartedly we'll say.
Alexa Jovanovic: Oh, exactly. Exactly. So since the beginning we've been working really closely with different individuals from the community to ensure that all of the braille is legible, to ensure that the braille that does go onto the garments is different phrases or information that are actually useful, or that are wanted, that they're placed in areas of the clothing that are comfortable, that look good. It's really designed start to finish with the blind and visually impaired community.
I had this idea when I was shopping, but then right away I brought it to a community to confirm that this was something that was actually wanted. And it's just been amazing to grow this brand with all of those individuals and that community just keeps growing. I've been reaching out to different individuals on Instagram and getting feedback that way, planning different events. That's how you and I met Melody. And that's where I met with Catherine Harrison to do our photo shoots. So really it's just making sure the community's involved every step of the way.
Even just with launching our website, we worked with two blind women from Toronto. They have an accessibility consulting company called Consult. And they went through the entire website to make sure it was accessible and the functionality was there and the user experience was there. So really as much as possible, we want to make sure that this is a company that is for the visually impaired community and created by the visually impaired community.
Melody Goodspeed: That is awesome. One of the things that we talked about is when building your company, we met in March, and since now here in almost July, you've had a lot really happen to you. But going through that, I know we talked about how there's also roadblocks. You're thinking about I know manufacturing, you had your idea and you had it mapped out. Can you talk about maybe one of the times where it's been stressful?
Alexa Jovanovic: Of course. So one of the biggest things is that everything that we're working on right now it started as a research project when I was in university. And so even just that initial transformation from university research project to fashion company was a huge step, but then not only fashion company, now it's actually looking for manufacturers, how do I actually make all this clothing? So I've gained this awareness, people like the clothing, they're willing to purchase it, but how do I actually make it?
And so I was at that point and March when we first met and as you know, that's exactly when COVID hit. So the pandemic definitely didn't help that. So different manufacturers stopped creating new products altogether, or the workforces were low. And it's really important to me that everything that we're creating is done ethically and sustainably. And if possible includes individuals with disabilities in all of those different companies, I want to make sure that everyone I'm working with has the same overall values and philosophies that we have here at Aille Design.
So that's been a real struggle. I want to make sure that everything's American made. Right now, both of our t-shirts they're designed in Canada, but everything's manufactured in the U.S. But with the denim jacket, that's our most popular product so far. Everybody's, "when can they get this jacket?" And that's been proving really difficult. So when it comes to denim, it's such a special material. There's so much that goes into it, even just all of the buttons and rivets that go onto it, making sure that the fit is right. And beyond everything else, making sure that the braille is always legible. So there are so many different parts to go into.
So it's been challenging, but the biggest thing is not giving up. So we weren't able to pull off the denim jacket right away. So we pivoted and we've launched with these t-shirts. So there's always a way to get around it. It's not to say that we're not making the denim jacket. It's just going to be maybe a few more months until we get there.
Melody Goodspeed: Exactly. So let's talk about the denim jacket, because what I really loved about it, but even with the t-shirts, but can you tell everyone what the braille says? Because I think this is so wonderful.
Alexa Jovanovic: Absolutely. The denim jacket on the back of [inaudible 00:12:45] in all different sizes and all of the beading that's on the back there, it describes exactly what the garment is. So the very first phase gives an overview of what the garment is. So it says, "Oversized denim jacket." And then the next section goes into talking about the different colors. So the type of denim wash it is, then it talks about the decoration. So it says that there's the stripes, that there's braille beading with black beads, and then it tells you how it's supposed to fit. So it's an oversized jacket. So it explains that it's going to be loose. That will hit below the hips. It tells you that it's machine washable, you should wash it inside out that you can hang it to dry, or you can put it in the dryer machine and where it's made. It tells you all of the information you could possibly want to know, but it's done in a way that's really beautiful and it shows off the braille.
Melody Goodspeed: Yes. And I love how you've taken your basic washing directions to the color and you've made it beautiful. You've turned it into art, which it's so inclusive. And at the American Foundation for the Blind, we are always talking about inclusion because that's how you create a life with no limit. So I love how you're doing that in such a way that's creative. And it's something that's just not for the visually impaired, but it's very aesthetically pleasing for people that can see and enjoy.
Alexa Jovanovic: Oh, absolutely. I've been getting questions every day about where they can be purchased, how they can be purchased. And that goes from all different types of audiences. And that's one of the greatest things about doing this braille through beading is that it just looks so beautiful it truly is a product that can be worn by absolutely anyone. And that's one of our taglines is "Fashion is for everyone." The black t-shirt I actually have on right now that's exactly what it says in braille.
Melody Goodspeed: That's awesome. I can't wait until mine comes in. So I'm very excited about that. Let's talk about Aille Designs. Tell us about the name of your company and where that came from.
Alexa Jovanovic: Yeah. So we're a Canadian based company and the word Aille is actually a French word. It comes from the verb aille, which means to go forward. And so essentially Aille Design is "Where fashion needs to move forward into." And that French part is also a nod to the founder of braille, Louis Braille, who was French. And having that pronunciation aille, it also touches on the personal eye and the physical eye. So personal in the sense that all of our products are meant to increase independence and empowerment. They really allow the person to take on their full identity and be themselves, wear the fashion that they want and do it on their own terms. And then the functional I in the sense that our company really works directly with the visually impaired community to create everything start to finish. So it kind of has those two connections in there. And the actual logo for our company the two dots, they are the character for the letter I in braille. So you've got two dots on top of the letter I in our logo. And then functionally, it's also how you pronounce the logo.
Melody Goodspeed: Oh, that is awesome. I love it. When I first saw it I did not know how to pronounce it but that is really, really cool. I love it that you've incorporated it all this together, just seemed to all fit. So one of the stories that you had told me in a past interview that we did when we first met was when you first started and you were going to different focus groups and you were talking about an individual that was in a yoga class, I believe. And she was helping you and then came back to you when you were showing her clothing about her friends that she brought. Can you tell us how that felt?
Alexa Jovanovic: Of course. So to this day, that has been the favorite moment of mine throughout this entire experience. It was the second time I was meeting with this woman and I had just finished my second prototype and I was really, really excited to show her. And she had just finished her yoga class. She asked me to meet her in the bar downstairs, and I was sitting there and she approached the table and she had four different sighted friends with her. And I had no idea she was bringing them, but she was just so excited to tell her friends about this new project that she was involved in and how much she loved the braille and wanted to see if they would wear it.
And so she essentially took over the entire interview and started interviewing her friends about it and really became a strong advocate right then and there. And it was just so amazing to see that after having only met this woman once, what an impact this product had already made, and it was in that moment I just felt so blessed and I knew I couldn't stop at anything to make this product a reality. So I constantly think back to that story and to know that we're doing it. I call her quite frequently actually and I give her a little reminders of what we're doing.
Melody Goodspeed: No, that's great. And I think it's such a good point to say and kind of lead into my next question, that blindness does touch the individual, but it touches the people that they're surrounded by and that there is such a power there. And I think that is so critical when we're talking about any type of development for any company. But speaking of companies, where do you see yours going within, let's say 5 to 10 years down the road?
Alexa Jovanovic: So as the company expands, one of the biggest initiatives that I want to take on is ensuring that the majority of individuals that we're employing do have disabilities, whether or not that is blindness or a different disability, I want to make sure that start to finish this really is an inclusive product. That we have individuals at the design table co-designing these products with me, but also in the manufacturing departments and the marketing and the finances, and every step of the way, making sure that this really is a community built product.
Currently a percentage of our profits go to a charity in Canada that works with individuals with blindness and visual impairments. But I really want to be able to expand that and really just ingrain it into the company culture. Like I said earlier, every company that we're working with and affiliating ourselves with, I want to make sure that these are values that can be spread to all companies and just create this industry standard within fashion that shows how important it is to include other individuals in the design process and just in the company as a whole. It's so important that fashion becomes more inclusive. And that representation will start with us and we won't stop until others take it on too. That's one of the biggest goals right now.
Melody Goodspeed: That is very incredible. And just the tone of your voice is so powerful. And so I really can't tell you how much I appreciate that and look forward to receiving my shirt. So if anybody wants to get or to add, or compliment you, how they can reach you or see what you're doing, how could they do that?
Alexa Jovanovic: Of course. So our website is: ailledesign.com. It's spelled A-I-L-L-E. And we have an Instagram as well. So our Instagram is: @ailledesign. You can send me a DM there or our company email is: firstname.lastname@example.org. And I'm happy to work and talk with everyone. I want to get as much feedback as possible. It's been incredible since we launched a couple of weeks ago, but any feedback, anyone who wants to join this community, be involved in the company, I would love to start doing some more collaborations.
Melody Goodspeed: That is incredible. And we really, really do love that welcoming. And it's just been, working with you and meeting you through ... The thing that I love to do at AFB and connecting and doing all this and all the empowerment that we do for our community, it's just, we thank you so much and want to be behind you with that. So thank you so much for being here with us. And because we're so much better together and creating a life of no limits for people that are blind and vision impaired. At any stage, and no matter what we're going through as you've [inaudible 00:20:54] here.
So what we're going to do now, Alexa is move into question and answer. And I'm really excited to see the questions and comments that people have here for you because I think they're going to be pretty fun.
Suzan Henderson: Yeah. We already have a couple of questions. So our first one is from Roy. And Roy was asking about the shirt you're wearing, but Alexa, I know you have the white one with you. Could you share the white one with everyone?
Alexa Jovanovic: So I have the white one here. And the white one, it says "My Plain White T" in white braille beads. And then the black one is black and with white beads, it says "Fashion is for Everyone." So this is kind of that wardrobe staple. And one of the reasons we launched with the white t-shirt is because it truly is an inclusive product. It's one of those things that's a wardrobe staple. Anyone's fashionable, not fashionable, depending on how much fashion matters to you, white t-shirt is always a staple. It's a go-to and it's got that little extra bling and advocacy on it. The beading is very subtle, but then we've got our bigger statement piece, the "Fashion is for Everyone" here. So yeah, that one has started. And I think that's going to be a staple in the collection moving forward. Any specific questions about it Roy?
Suzan Henderson: No specific questions, but we have another really good question from Libby. "Do the garments also have tags that can be read by non-braille readers or readers with low vision?"
Alexa Jovanovic: So that's a great question. The shirts also include the regular printed information that you would typically get on a t-shirt. So all of our garments have that part and they have the braille that's on the t-shirt. And then we can also provide large print cards with information about the garments or additional braille cards with the garment. So any information that might not actually be on the shirt here visible, we have those additional cards. So in the checkout options on our website, you can just check yes or no if you'd like a braille card. And if there's any additional accessibility features or things like that, that you'd be interested in having with your purchase, you just send us an email or add it to the comments, we'll make sure to add it to your order.
Melody Goodspeed: That's a great question.
Suzan Henderson: Another question from Scott, "What is the estimated time that the denim jacket will be available?" He thinks he missed it when you were talking about it.
Melody Goodspeed: I like you Scott, I'm with you.
Alexa Jovanovic: You and every person I have ever met. And it makes me so sad that I don't yet know when it's going to be available. That was one of the challenges we were talking about earlier. Manufacturing denim is quite the challenge, especially to have it manufactured within North America. So I'm really, really hoping by the end of this year, but if you follow us on Instagram or if you sign up for our newsletter through the website, I will be sending out updates as often as possible. That is the number one asked about product. So I promise you at the top of the list in terms of getting things done.
Melody Goodspeed: Yes. That one was a hard one to put on and tough to give back to you I have to admit.
Suzan Henderson: Yes, I thought Melody was going to leave with that denim jacket that day that we met you.
Alexa Jovanovic: Perfectly glad to walk off with it.
Suzan Henderson: We have another question from Lee. Lee asked "Any thought of having a line for men, which may have a different theme for its sayings."
Alexa Jovanovic: Okay. So all of our products currently are unisex and genderless. It goes back to our tag, "Fashion is for Everyone." So essentially we want all of our products to be viewed more so just as their style and their fit, but can be worn by absolutely anyone who chooses to wear them. In terms of the actual sayings that go on them that's something that we work very closely with the blind and visually impaired participants on our team. So if there are certain sayings that you'd love to see on a shirt or that you'd love to have incorporated into some of our garments, please do send an email. I would love to have more input and we might be able to make a custom line just through AFB then.
Melody Goodspeed: That would be super fantastic.
Suzan Henderson: That would be super fantastic. We have another question from Roz Adams, who is one of our greatest advocates. "Do you use uncontracted braille or other types?"
Alexa Jovanovic: So to ensure the largest amount of individuals to be able to read the braille, we make sure to use uncontracted. And we use a braille slate and stylist to ensure all of the spacing is correct and accurate and can be read. Some things will be adjusted due to the bead size, but everything is tested through the individuals we work with to ensure legibility. But for right now, we're sticking with uncontracted, just to confirm that there are more individuals who will be able to access the braille.
Melody Goodspeed: That is a great question.
Suzan Henderson: Okay. So you guys if you have any more questions send those in. We may have time at the end. Right now Melody, that's it.
Melody Goodspeed: Well, one question that I had for you is when you were talking about the braille, when you have people that don't know how to read it, I love the fact that you're putting the cards in there too. When you're talking about different sayings and things, do you ever put in with your clothing, what you could wear with it, has that been another thing that could go with it?
Alexa Jovanovic: So you actually just beat me to it. We're soon going to be launching videos on Instagram, where one of our close friends, Melody you actually met her, Cassandra, she helps with our styling and creative direction. She's going to be putting together some videos on different ways to style both the white t-shirt and the black t-shirt. And as we start releasing more items from the collection, she'll be doing how-to’s with all of those. We're actually going to be doing some Instagram live sessions so we can have people tune in. And if they have specific questions about their shirts and how to wear them then we're going to offer that shopping, styling consultation as well.
Melody Goodspeed: That is awesome. So almost like a personal stylist.
Alexa Jovanovic: Absolutely.
Melody Goodspeed: That is great. I love it. That is really, really cool. So if we want to keep up Alexa with the things that are, is it better for us to be at your website or on Instagram with all your changes and everything that's going on?
Alexa Jovanovic: So Instagram is the first place that we'll constantly be updating things, but in terms of purchasing and getting a bigger view at our history, the press that we've had, kind of the whole journey, that would be on the website. But for day-to-day updates and emails, that kind of thing we can go through Instagram on the DM or through the email, email@example.com.
Melody Goodspeed: Well, thank you so incredibly much. Suzan, do we have any more questions before we ... Of course we're out of time, but I didn't know if we had any more questions?
Suzan Henderson: One more question from Libby. "Have you come across any other companies that put braille on clothing?"
Alexa Jovanovic: That's a good question. So I did a ton and a ton of extensive research while developing this company and I've come across a few places here and there that include braille, but not quite to the extent that we have on our clothes, but also I've never seen a company add the braille with a medium like beading. I've seen sometimes with a little bit of a raised ink, kind of like a puffy paint or some embroidery, but from all the research I've done and the testing that we've done too, the actual braille beads have the best structure. So they hold the form of the actual braille best. And so the other companies that I've seen sometimes they'll include the color of a garment, but they really won't explain something like every single piece of information with the care, content and the fit and all of that. But there have been other companies.
Alexa Jovanovic: And any representation that we can add with braille and to advocate for the community is amazing. So those that I did find out a huge shout out to them because it's incredible anyone that is taking this on, we need more people to understand the importance of braille and really just join forces and bring it to everyone's attention.
Melody Goodspeed: I love it. While we had some technical difficulties, Gabby asked a really good question about what we consider beautiful, and I think you just hit it right there is just everybody to understand and to be open and to be moving forward to make sure that we're all being raised up and no one's left behind. So I love it. It's beautiful. And I thank you guys so much for joining us today. Alexa, thank you. And I know you're going to be getting lots of questions and involvement, and we're really excited about what you're doing.
Alexa Jovanovic: Thank you. I'm excited too. And so happy to be partnered with AFB.
Melody Goodspeed: Yes. And for fun. Okay everybody have a great rest of your week. And please email me, call if you have any questions, we're always here for you. Take care.