Aille Design Integrates Braille into Fashion for the Visually Impaired

15 June 2022

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Canadian fashion designer Alexa Jovanovic doesn’t just care about how her clients look in her outfits; she’s intent on how the clothes feel under their fingertips. The founder of Aille Design (pronounced “eye”) makes high-quality garments for people who cannot see them and defines a space for the visually impaired in the highly visual world of fashion—one painstakingly hand-sewn a bead at a time.

While still a student in Toronto’s Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University) Fashion Communication program, a shopping trip inspired Jovanovic’s capstone research project. “I had been thinking about innovation and ideas that weren’t well represented, and I happened to come across this beaded jacket. Running my hands along it made me think of braille, and this idea evolved that these beads could have a message, to be functional and not just pretty.”

Jovanovic collaborated with the (national) blind foundation CNIB, Braille Literacy Canada, and other volunteers who told her about how people who cannot see fashion experience it. “It was really interesting, the conversation that we had,” Jovanovic recalls. “We talked about social misconceptions of blindness, the process of getting dressed—are trends important?—how they organize their closet in certain ways, what people think blindness “looks” like, the negative stigmas associated with disability that can be more disabling than loss of vision itself …, and how to address all that with a tangible, stylish piece that works for people both with and without sight.” Her objective was to create a wearable that was not segregated or limited to the visually impaired community but could be part of conventional clothing lines.

image description: five items of clothing, on coathangers, hanging in front of a window; from left to right, a denim jacket, a leather jacket, a white skirt, an offwhite skirt and a blue dress; each of the items has beads sewn on

Some of Jovanovic’s design prototypes. (Click to enlarge.)

The result was the prototype garment—a white collared shirt with black beading on the collar and front—that eventually led to the launch of Aille Design in early 2020. The name Aille is pronounced “eye” but also shares its meaning with “I,” underlining the company’s mission to enhance independence and inclusion for the visually impaired. With a brush of a hand across their wardrobe, a visually impaired person can find the Aille garment they want to wear. Putting the dots front and centre on clothing and in the public’s eyeline communicates the message even to those who do not read braille: fashion is for everyone.

To build her collection, Jovanovic had to go to the basics of fashion craft, starting with a focus on textiles with texture. “It’s always important to have quality fabric, but even more so for people who orient through touch,” she explains. Jovanovic has experimented with paint, ostrich feathers, and other elements to add tactility. Silky cloth and blends of polyester, cotton, and rayon are favoured for their light weight and softness, but also for their ability to support the beading.

image description: a woman wearing a white shirt, she is mostly turned away from the camera so we can see the back of the shirt collar and right shoulder; many beads are sewn onto the collar

Photograph by Ashley Gabrielle de Jesus, featuring model Kassandra Hazlehurst.

image description: two people embrace, a woman on the left, a man on the right; both are wearing black pants and white shirts; the shirts have beads sew onto the collar and the sleeve placket

Photograph by Ashley Gabrielle de Jesus, featuring models Jacob Walsh and Kassandra Hazlehurst.

Getting the braille right was crucial. “Others might use embroidery or puffy paint (to create the braille effect) but those don’t feel as nice or last as long.” For the prototype shirt, Jovanovic tested three different bead sizes with varied spacing and fabric weights before settling on the text curving around the collar in sharp contrast. Visually impaired volunteer consultants pointed out that rhinestones with facets and edges could detract from legibility. Through trial and error, Jovanovic eventually came to favour premium crystal pearl beads from Austria with a smooth rounded form that recreates the feeling of braille on hard surfaces.

She also spent hours on YouTube, researching different cultural practices, exploring what worked best, and determining what spacing format and techniques were most suitable for embossing messages on the clothes. Beads can start to wiggle a lot over time, so she tested several stitching techniques to maximize durability. Visual appeal remained a consideration, such as the idea of a black-on-black dress with matte (non-gloss) beads that would give texture and a very subtle shine while providing valuable information for the wearer without overtly signalling that it was Braille. “There is so much research, (that) has gone into the processes, no shortage of products, techniques, and designs. I just hope I have the time to implement them all as we keep finding ways to grow and come up with new designs.”

image description: a collage of two images; on the left, a close-up of a blue dress, with many beads sewn on the front; on the right, a woman is wearing the dress, she holds a white cane in her right hand

The Original Blue Dress Prototype. Photographer Julia Wagner, and visually impaired model Catherine Harrison. 

Aille’s signature pieces include a studded denim jacket with words beaded in braille that describe the garment and how to wash it, a universal closet staple that has “My Plain White T” lettered across the front in silver beads, silky pocket squares for men encoded with braille messages, and—inevitably for a company built during the pandemic—face masks with beaded braille messages like “Chin Up Mask On.” Jovanovic is particularly proud of the company’s most recent prototype, a royal blue evening dress with a constellation of some 700 beads that look like rows of shimmering sparkles to the sighted but provide paragraphs of detail and care instructions for the visually impaired.

image description: a young woman is seated on a couch; she is wearing jeans and a white tshirt, which has beads sewn across the front; she holds a denim jacket, which has many beads sewn onto the back

Diversity includes disability: Plain White T and the denim jacket. Photographer Freya De Tonnancour, and visually impaired model Samantha Moore.

While focused on building Aille as a business and promoting inclusive design, Jovanovic also remains the company’s primary employee and lone beader. In growing her collection, Jovanovic has also grown her self-taught skills. Her iterative design process has helped her optimize many aspects of the business, like the effort to make the items, sourcing the materials, and identifying which beads and techniques provide the most longevity. Today she is able to turn around an order in three to four days, depending on the complexity of the braille message involved. “I’ve gotten really quick,” she grins, although she admits the learning process has been hard on her fingers. While she plans to eventually outsource the handwork and teach others to put braille on the clothes, she’s adamant about staying closely involved: “Right now it’s really important to me to do it myself.” She gets absorbed in the quiet work and finds the rhythm of sewing and measuring spaces meditative. “I’ll be sitting and beading and thinking about a meeting I had with participants who had feedback, or listening to a blind musician, brainstorming future products and collaborations, or just thinking about the message on the garment and the person who ordered it… I keep myself in that headspace, always thinking about this business and whatever I’m making and the people it’s for. I’m always near a picture of that very first prototype shirt and a big poster saying ‘Diversity includes disability’.”

image description: a woman sits at a table; although the details are partially obscured she seems to be hand-sewing

The philosophy of inclusion extends to every level of Aille’s operation and includes ongoing consultation with visually impaired clients and organizations, descriptive text accompanying Instagram posts and deliveries in accessible packaging with tissue paper printed with braille.

“It’s a visual reminder to clients and the people around them that they’re being thought of.” The Aille style even extended to Jovanovic’s wedding last year, when she was moved to see her husband surprise her by wearing a braille-embossed shirt to express his commitment to her vision.

Now based in Chicago, Jovanovic plans to expand into the U.S. market to build a new standard of inclusivity and change mindsets. “How do we make accessibility and adaptive clothing the next big deal? A lot of people who could benefit don’t even know it exists. How amazing if our beaded jacket was made by Levi’s? I dream of a New York Fashion Week where models on the runway have white canes and guide dogs and disability is integrated, not performative.”

In the meantime, Jovanovic is focused on continuing to use the medium of beadwork to give voice to the constituency that has rarely been consulted or considered on the question “What should I wear?”

“Fashion is identity, and apparel speaks to who you are, and your values,” she says. “It’s not just about being pretty, it’s about being seen.”

image description: a package wrapped in blue paper, printed with dots; there is a white card on top of the package printed with text, below each line there is also braille

Inclusive packaging.

All images courtesy Alex Jovanovic, unless otherwise noted.

Copyright © Marichka Melnyk except as indicated.
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About Marichka Melnyk

Marichka Melnyk is a Toronto-based radio producer and broadcaster, photographer and compulsive traveller, who became an avid distance walker after completing the Camino de Santiago de Compostela across Spain in 2013. She hikes nature trails both inside and outside the Toronto city limits, including the entire Pan Am Path, and regularly writes and presents publicly about her travels. Follow on Facebook or Instagram @Marichpix and @seventy7sunsets, or to get in touch writemarichka@gmail.com.

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