By: Hillary LeBlanc , July 12 2022

Fashion and disability are two worlds that rarely collide. Often people who are visually impaired have a greater challenge to take interest in fashion because there are misconceptions around being blind and being stylish.

Until recently.

Though she has always loved fashion, Alexa Jovanovic never imagined she would be labelled ‘The Braille Designer’. Jovanovic has taken her love of fashion and made a commitment to create social change through a brand unlike anything else, a brand accessible to the visually impaired, Aille Design.

For Jovanovic, fashion has been a part of her world since she was five years old, “playing dress up in my mom’s closet. I was drawn to feathers, costume jewelry, beaded clothing and high heels. By the time I was ten I knew I wanted a career in fashion and aspired to work for a magazine.” While studying fashion communications, her path in the fashion industry shifted. “Everything changed. I took courses on the importance of diversity and inclusion in fashion and for the first time, I understood the problems in our industry. I fell in love with design all over again, but this time, in a completely new way. I saw design as a way to help others and create social change. These experiences have led me to become known as The Braille Fashion Designer, and I couldn’t possibly imagine doing anything else!”

During the final year of her studies, Jovanovic was working on a research project when she had her ‘aha moment’. “I was out shopping and saw this beautiful beaded jacket. I had an aha moment and made the connection between the similarity in size of small beads and braille, then questioned why this beaded jacket couldn’t have a function beyond its aesthetic value. I instantly imagined all of the beads being rearranged to create functional messages in braille that were fully legible and described the item’s colour, textile, fit and care content. It was an opportunity to create fashion that could increase independence and empower an entire community that has been overlooked in fashion and misrepresented in the media.” Not long after that, Jovanovic continued to delve into research on inclusive fashion specifically for the blind and visually impaired community learning of a large gap in the market. “Not only was braille fashion non-existant, but there was also little to no information available on consumers with disabilities, let alone consumers of fashion. I built strong relationships with local blind and visually impaired individuals and we discussed everything from shopping, clothing trends and closet organization, to society’s misconceptions of what it means to ‘look and feel’ blind. As more and more people inquired about purchasing our designs, we decided to transform braille fashion into a business that was the first of its kind. In 2020, my research project officially evolved into the emerging designer fashion brand, Aille Design and we continue to work alongside the blind and visually impaired community to create each piece.”

Jovanovic has thought of every detail when conceptualizing Aille Design, down to the name. “Our brand name Aille Design (pronounced: eye) comes from the French verb Aller which means ‘to go’ or ‘to move forward’. We believe inclusivity is the direction the fashion industry needs to go towards and we are ready to help lead the change! The pronunciation of our name alludes to the personal ‘I’ since our products help to empower and increase independence. It alludes to the physical ‘eye’ because we work directly with the blind and visually impaired community to create all of our designs and the braille beadwork provides a form of sight.”

According to Jovanovic, the Aille logo also plays a significant role in showcasing their inclusive values. The two dots in the logo are the braille character for the letter ‘i’, which represents the importance of braille and normalizes its appearance while also helping the consumer remember the pronunciation of the brand name.

Although Jovanovic has no issues with vision impairment, she ensures that individuals with disabilities are involved throughout every stage of the business. At AIlle Design, “each item is created in a process called co-design where we work alongside a diverse team of sighted and non-sighted individuals consisting of braille readers, fashion stylists and disability advocates. This process ensures braille legibility, allows our products to maintain a fashion-forward aesthetic, builds awareness for the importance of inclusive practice and instills confidence in makers and wearers alike. Braille fashion can be used for the functionality of the legible braille or can be dressed up as a unique fashion piece. Customers love that braille fashion is empowering and also serves as a conversation starter to build awareness about what it means to ‘look’ or ‘feel’ blind.”

Photographer: Skylar Loverink
Model: Chelsea Langerud

Jovanovic came to a realization through her discussions that few people in the blind and visually impaired community have ever been consulted on their perspective of the fashion and beauty industries. Brands seemed to be assuming what these people may like instead of asking their audience, unlike Jovanovic and Aille Design. “I strongly believe that all products and services should be created through a co-design process with a diverse group of individuals that range in race, age, gender, ability, and size. When accessibility is taken into consideration at the beginning of the design process as opposed to an afterthought, the end result is significantly stronger and easier for all people to use and enjoy”, says Jovanovic.

Jovanovic’s partnership and care for this specific community has gone above and beyond creating garments. On Aille Design’s website, you will find stories from the Aille Design community about their experiences being visually impaired or blind. “Creating t-shirts with braille is just the first step towards building disability inclusion in fashion. We are a community-driven brand, which means every action we take has the goal of uplifting the blind and visually impaired community by helping educate how anyone can become a better disability ally.” Furthermore, Jovanovic adds, change is created through “authentic story stelling, which is why it is so important for us to provide a platform where community members can share their lived experiences, sight loss journey, how braille has impacted their life, or really anything they wish more people knew! For example, during several participant discussions, individuals mentioned that negative social commentary or non-accessible environments can be more disabling than the low vision itself. Other participants have mentioned a hesitancy to learn braille or use a white cane in public for fear of ‘looking blind’. Aille Design wants to sincerely be more than a retailer – they want to be a safe space for this community. “By leveraging the Aille Design brand as more than just a retailer, we can create a safe space for all people to learn how they can be more inclusive. Small changes to daily activities such as creating social media hashtags with #CamelCase (capitalizing the first letter of each word in a hashtag) or adding image descriptions and alt-text to digital content make a huge impact,”says Jovanovic.

Jovanovic can still recall the first time someone was able to read the beadings of one of her prototypes and how rewarding it was to her. “ It was the denim jacket and we just began testing a new technique. The smile that appeared on her face, the joy that this experience brought her, and how proud she was of what we accomplished together is why being a fashion designer is so important to me. In that moment, it really became my personal mission to be able to empower this community as much as possible with the skills and opportunities I’ve been given. Since then, the most rewarding part of this work is knowing the number of inclusive conversations that have stemmed from someone wearing one of our braille t-shirts or coming across our story in the media. I love hearing stories and getting messages from people about how meaningful the products are to them, whether it’s because wearing the shirt started incredible conversations, or because they simply love fashion, empowering women-owned brands, or value disability inclusion–and these are messages from both blind and sighted individuals.” 

Photographer: Shannon Zaller
Models (left to right): Constance Zaller, Hayden Zaller (visually impaired – actor in American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story), Lucca Zaller, Kai Zaller

While Jovanovic understands that wearing Braille fashion will not be for everyone, she hopes that those who see it and are curious about it will engage in conversation to encourage the creation of more accessible clothing. Jovanovic explains “even if someone doesn’t envision themselves as a customer of braille fashion, our goal is that when you hear about our story or see someone wearing it, you start to think about how many of the current products and services that you use aren’t actually accessible and it encourages you to be a disability.”

Where does Jovanovic hope Aille Design will lead? Making inclusivity mainstream. The goal at Aille Design is to create a new standard of inclusion. They are working towards growing the brand to a level that brings inclusive design to mainstream fashion on a global scale. They want to help normalize the inclusion of individuals with disabilities in all areas of fashion, from clothing design and modeling to accessible shopping environments and digital spaces. Notably there has been a shift in the fashion industry towards celebrating diversity and inclusion, but even when the conversation is specifically about inclusion, individuals with disabilities are often excluded or overlooked.

Since launching in 2020, Aille Design continues to collaborate with various organizations and individuals – reinforcing the need for inclusive fashion. They have collaborated with and partnered with incredible organizations and individuals, such as the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), Fashion Group International Toronto (FGI), visually impaired jazz phenomenon Matthew Whitaker, and young blind actor Hayden Zaller. These collaborations have reinforced the need for their services as an inclusive fashion brand and have validated goals to increase representation for the blind and visually impaired community. Aille Desig is committed to producing a high quality fashion products with a social impact that empowers communities and creates equal opportunity for all.

Photographer: Freya de Tonnancour

“As Aille Design continues to grow and build momentum, we aim to create the Braille Fashion Movement. This will involve increasing the number of brands, designers, and individuals we collaborate with to help normalize the inclusion of disabled creators at every level of the fashion industry. Through these collaborations and limited edition collections, we can provide first-hand experience to numerous companies on how to effectively implement inclusive practices into their ongoing operations and future milestones,” says Jovanovic.

To support this movement, check out the Aille Design website or follow them on instagram @ailledesign .

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Published: July 12 2022  |  Author: Hillary LeBlanc  |  Tagged: blind, braille, diversity, fashion, inclusion, inclusivity