Alivia Celebrates World Down Syndrome Day With GiGi’s Playhouse NYC

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Instead of a one-and-done approach to fostering inclusivity, as some brands have been known to do, the contemporary sportswear company Alivia relies on creatives with disabilities for artistic inspiration on an ongoing basis.

For its latest initiative, the New York-based company has partnered with the nonprofit GiGi’s Playhouse NYC for its spring collection. The organization strives for acceptance for all and offers programming for families with children with Down syndrome. In honor of World Down Syndrome Day on Tuesday, Alivia is debuting printed and embroidered designs that were inspired by the artwork of 27-year-old Stephanie Portoviejo, who has honed her skills through GiGi Playhouse.

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By raising awareness about Down’s syndrome, Alivia founder Jovana Mullins aims to create greater acceptance. Approximately one in every 772 babies in the U.S. is born with Down syndrome, making it the most common chromosomal condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 5,100 babies are born with Down syndrome in the U.S. annually. A condition, not a disease, Down syndrome is named for the English physician John Langdon Down, who characterized the condition in 1866.

Recent advancements in clinical treatment, namely corrective heart surgeries, is helping to extend the lives of adults with Down syndrome. With as many as 80 percent reaching the age of 60, the need for greater acceptance and professional opportunities continues to exist.

Stephanie Portoviejo and a model wear Alivia dresses inspired by her artwork.
Stephanie Portoviejo and a model wear Alivia dresses inspired by her artwork.

Introduced in 2006 and observed by the United Nations since 2013, World Down Syndrome Day is held annually on March 21. The date was chosen to signify the uniqueness of the triplication of the 21st chromosome, which leads to Down syndrome. This year’s theme is “With Us Not For Us.”

That message of inclusivity is one that Mullins is on board with. While volunteering for an art therapy program for people with disabilities six years ago, Mullins said she recognized how art therapy empowered people and gave them a greater sense of purpose. She has worked as a designer specializing in prints at such firms as Matthew Williamson, Alice + Olivia, Coach, Sam Edelman and other contemporary sportswear brands. In 2020, she launched Alivia based on the practice of partnering with a different nonprofit and designer with disabilities each season. The alliance with GiGi’s Playhouse marks the first time that the company is working with artists who have Down syndrome.

“I always felt that fashion was so much more than the glamour and the materialistic side. Fashion has such a power to enable confidence and it is a form of expression,” she said.

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Although more companies increasingly focused on inclusivity and diversity, Mullins said, “There is still a huge lack of representation especially within fashion of people with disabilities.”

For the rest of this year, Alivia plans to work with five more artists with Down syndrome who are affiliated with GiGi’s Playhouse. As is the case with Portoviejo’s designs, and any future products incorporating her work, Alivia plans to donate 10 percent of all product sales that use the talents of artists from GiGi’s Playhouse to the organization. Each of their designs feature a scannable tag that highlights the person behind the design and the impact that the purchase makes. Each garment has a hangtag with an image of the artwork that was used as a starting point. Just as a contracted print designer would be reimbursed, each artist is paid upfront.

Having expanded beyond direct-to-consumer to wholesale in 2021 with small boutiques, Alivia has built upon that and will be offered in about 50 specialty stores nationwide including Neiman Marcus this year. Given that, the brand’s six-digit annual sales are expected to increase substantially, according to Mullins.

Shaking the stereotypes that some mistakenly label people with Down syndrome is one objective of the spring initiative. “I see them as I would see anyone else. A lot of times people may [mistakenly] assume that if you look different or talk different, that means you’re not as smart or capable. But just like any neuro-typical person, people with Down syndrome have so many capabilities, incredible skills and creativity,” Mullins said.

Her hope is that more people will look at people with Down syndrome as they would anyone else. “If you have ever met anyone with Down syndrome, you know how much joy and love they have. They are so unique and full of life. We have so much to learn from them,” said Mullins, who raved about the models at the recent runway show hosted by GiGi’s Playhouse before an audience of a couple hundred people.

Last year, the Puerto Rican-born Sofia Jirau became the first model with Down syndrome to front a Victoria’s Secret campaign for its Love Cloud Collection. Another model with Down syndrome Madeline Stuart has also helped to break barriers by modeling in runway shows in New York, Paris and other countries.

Another fashion-related program that is designed to raise awareness about World Down Syndrome Day is the “Lots of Socks” campaign. The idea is for people to wear colorful, attention-getting or mismatched socks to prompt conversations about why they are being worn. That is meant to be a springboard into a discussion about Down syndrome.

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