Allen Li and other participants painting at the Center for All Abilities.
For two years, Allen Li has been attending programs with The Center for All Abilities in New York City. The 16-year-old, who has autism, receives therapy, life skills training and mentorship, from the nonprofit that focuses on supporting individuals with autism, developmental disorders, Down syndrome, and other neurodevelopmental disabilities. Among Li’s favorite activities is art therapy. It provides him with an outlet drawing hearts, stars, and suns.
Perhaps unexpectedly, It’s also helped kickstart a new business venture and fashion brand.
It all began in July 2018, when Li started taking art therapy classes with Jovana Mullins, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design. Mullins, 31, is a print, textile, and embroidery designer, who has worked with brands ranging from Matthew Williamson in London to Coach. She’d just started volunteering at the center with her husband every weekend, where they would help participants with disabilities explore their creativity using paint, markers, and crayons. She provided techniques that allowed them to use art to express themselves.
Jovana Mullins and Allen Li standing together for a picture.
“I’ve always had a heart for people with disabilities,” Mullins said. “My mom was a special- ed teacher, and I’ve always felt a calling in my heart to give back and work with this population of people.”
Mullins said when she first began working with the participants, her instinct was to give them prompts. But, she soon realized the more creative freedom they had, the better.
“When they were able to choose what mediums and colors to use, and what subjects to paint, that is when the best artwork would happen!”
After three months, Mullins had an epiphany.
“Every time I saw the artworks, I was just blown away, and I thought, ‘This needs to be on a scarf,” or “This needs to be on a dress,” Mullins said.
Mullins approached her husband and then the nonprofit’s founder with an idea: to create clothing influenced by her students’ artwork. Both loved it and were on board immediately. From there, Alivia was born: a social impact womenswear brand that makes colorful and vibrant clothing inspired by the artistic expressions of people with developmental disabilities.
Painting at the Center for All Abilities in New York City.
Mullins began working with three members, including Li, all of who have autism. They would meet once a week and draw together. The drawings included nature and flowers, but Mullins would often leave it open-ended, prompting them to create whatever came to mind.
“These young men with autism are unbelievably talented and truly express themselves through art,” Mullins said.
“A lot of them don’t communicate in the same way as you and I do, but art is a vehicle for them to express who they are and show their personality.”
After several months, Mullins collected their artwork and began the process of turning the art into fashion. She sketched silhouettes and worked with a pattern maker. She also conducted an immense amount of research to find sustainable fabrics and to identify a printing method that wouldn’t dull the bright colors in the artist’s drawings or diminish the original brush strokes.
By September of 2019, a full collection was complete. Mullins hosted a photoshoot, and Li attended.
Allen Li and two models at the photoshoot.
“That was the most rewarding part of this whole experience,” Mullins said.
“We got to see the joy and extreme happiness, he [Li] had when he saw his artwork on clothing and when he saw his signature embroidered on the t-shirt.”
Mullins said she used between 10 to 25 artworks from each of the three designers and blended them on dresses, skirts, shirts, and scarves. They even created masks because of COVID-19. Some of the merchandise has the addition of the artist’s signature prominently placed.
“My art is a star, and my name is on it,” Li said with excitement. “I’m an artist.”
Model wearing clothing inspired by Allen Li’s art.
On April 1, Alivia officially launched, and almost immediately, they had 2,000 email sign-ups on their website. Ten percent of revenue for each purchased item goes directly to The Center for All Abilities, so they can continue supporting people with disabilities through their art therapy program.
Mullins’ goal for her company is to have a fully inclusive supply chain that includes employing people with disabilities in every aspect of merchandise creation, production, and selling.
“I’ve always felt my calling in life was beyond fashion and art, and I’ve always felt like I wanted to make a difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities,” Mullins said.
“I hope Alivia will inspire other people, brands, and companies to look at people with disabilities differently and to be more inclusive, whether it’s with their hiring, or looking beyond their disabilities.”
Alivia is currently collaborating with other disability nonprofits for their upcoming collections. Meanwhile, Li is still drawing after discovering his love for art.
“I am an artist,” he said.
“I showed my mom [the clothes], and she said, ‘nice,’ he laughed while giving a thumbs up.