Toronto fashion startup shines spotlight on Braille with its designs
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Written for Daily Hive by David Silverberg, a freelance journalist and writing coach in Toronto.
When Alexa Jovanovic stepped into Ryerson University’s School of Fashion on her first day, she was determined to learn to become an editor-in-chief of a high-end fashion magazine.
But a life-changing course steered her to an entrepreneurial path where she supports a demographic those magazines have neglected for decades: the blind and visually impaired community.
In January 2020, Jovanovic launched Aille Design (pronounced eye) to create clothing boasting messages written in Braille.
Those phrases, made with Swarovski crystal pearls on scarves, shirts, jackets and masks, include “Chin up, mask on,” “Fashion is for everyone” and “We’re going to get through this, stay strong.”
It’s about time a fashion company addressed the needs of disabled people, she says in an interview from her Toronto home.
“This community is so often excluded in the fashion industry, and I had a lot of discussions about inclusivity while working with Canadians with vision impairment who helped me with Aille Design.”
The seed for the idea was planted soon into her first year at Ryerson University.
In a class on Fashion Communications, she was impressed by Professor Ben Barry’s talks on the need for diversity in fashion.
“I realized fashion doesn’t have to be just fun and frivolous. It can be a way to bring about social change,” she remembers thinking as Barry led the class.
As she brainstormed what to do for her final year’s project, the light-bulb moment came when she was shopping for clothes in Toronto and came across a beaded jacket.
“It clicked with me then: Why couldn’t fashion have more than an aesthetic value, and also have a functional purpose?” Jovanovic says.
She was onto something. She needed to nurture this idea further, so she applied to join Ryerson’s Fashion Zone, a business incubator focused on helping accelerate growth for fashion startups.
She started to design the pieces, while consulting with those in the vision-impaired community on the messages they’d like to beaded on clothes.
Bringing a brand to market two months before the pandemic upended some of her marketing plans, but Aille Design won some favourable coverage on CP24 Breakfast, sparking a slew of new orders. The business fielded requests from NYC, Japan, Brazil, Europe and Saudi Arabia.
One standout piece is a denim jacket emblazoned with several silver stripes designed in Braille crystals.
Each stripe conveys a different bit of information about the jacket: one stripe says, “Oversized denim” and the one below it translates to “medium indigo faded wash.”
Jovanovic, with two other employees, takes on a lot of responsibilities, ranging from hand-beading the crystals to working out partnerships with groups such as the American Foundation for the Blind.
“What I want to make happen in 2021 are more partnerships with groups aligned with what we do, and I’m working towards incorporating low-vision individuals in manufacturing the garments. I want to provide jobs for a community that also has been overlooked in this area,” she says.
Also keeping Aille Design busy is a new feature allowing customers to send a phrase in Braille they want beaded on a garment.
“Customized text allows people to share their story in their own way,” Jovanovic adds.
This form of inclusive and adaptive fashion gives visually impaired and blind people an outlet to express themselves. It’s a responsibility Jovanovic finds deeply fulfilling.
She says, “I really want to impact the fashion world and, thanks to all we’ve achieved so far, I know the possibilities are endless.”