Aliyah: Interview with an Autistic Clothing Designer
Aliyah Naomi from AVIV is a successful costume and clothing designer.
Aliyah provides handmade costumes, apparel, and designs through her business AVIV. She creates some of her products for the disabled and LGBT communities.
She comes to us from the New Orleans, LA and Pittsburgh, PA regions, and she has some great wisdom to share with you!
How did you think of the idea for your business?
The idea for my business came about as a natural extension of a lifelong interest in costumes and design and the realization that there was a need I could help fill in my performance, LGBTQ+, and disabled communities.
For most of my life, I treated sewing and design as serious hobbies rather than a professional option. However, in 2015, I started dancing Salsa and Bachata and quickly got roped into creating costumes for my team members. I discovered that I had a gift and a passion for it, and that there also was a real need within the dance community for someone who could create costumes and interact with clients in a way that lovingly and respectfully celebrated who they were as individuals, particularly with regard to gender, sexuality, race, ability and size. I decided to try my best to be that person, and to create a business that offers commission-based custom design and alterations services, through which I can both express my own creativity and provide a safe, affirming alternative to what many folks experience in the performance wear and apparel realms.
How did you fund your business in the very beginning?
In a way that many would consider to be fairly irresponsible! I started to take paid commissions while still working in a full-time position at a legal aid non-profit, but quickly realized that I wanted to make the transition to full-time creative work as soon as possible. I didn’t really have savings (see: non-profit) and I’ve largely depended on a few very large commissions to fund the rest of my work.
How long have you been running your business?
I’ve been working on commission since 2016, but just finally formalized my business as of February this year!
Did you have any previous experience in your field before you started your business?
I have loved creating costumes and working with textiles since as long as I can remember. It’s definitely been a consistent special interest! Over the years, I’ve taken some courses in sewing and design, but am almost entirely self-taught. I got my first sewing machine for my 10th birthday and taught myself how to sew, learning something new every time I had an idea that I didn’t yet know how to execute - at this point that comes out to almost two decades of direct hands-on learning and experience, along with extensive experience with other art media.
Now that your business has been running successfully, is there anything you wish would have done differently in the beginning?
I absolutely wish I had believed in my own talent more fully and pushed myself to self-promote more confidently. It sounds a little cheesy, but, from day one, my greatest obstacle has been my own self-doubt. It became an early roadblock to my success and growth, both creatively and financially. The more experience I have, the more I see the value of the “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality - I’m someone who will always be uncomfortable with feeling at all disingenuous, but I am coming to learn that others will recognize the worth and talent you possess even when you struggle to see it yourself, BUT you have to dare to put yourself out there.
When your business was merely an idea, what steps did you take to make it a reality?
I began to offer my services to the people who were already around me - my dance community members, family, friends, etc. - and to start talking through my vision of what I could offer. I found a few local people to work with on a consistent basis, who were invested in seeing my business grow and believed and celebrated my creative vision. Through them I was able to connect with more clients and continue building my portfolio.
How has being autistic helped you succeed with your business?
I want to preface this by saying that, for the majority of the time I’ve been doing this work, I didn’t even know I was autistic. I was aware of my autistic traits, sure, but, like a lot of AFAB people, didn’t know what they meant or that they were all connected to something that explained so very much of my life experience. Now that I know and am gaining a growing understanding of my autism, I am only starting to examine and reexamine the ways in which it affects all aspects of my life, including my business.
At a very practical level, my autism has given me a remarkable eye for detail and an incredibly vivid, visual imagination, both of which are powerful tools when it comes to design and craftsmanship. I can quite literally see and feel things in a way that makes my creative process extremely intuitive and produces an aesthetic that is visibly unique.
I think that my autism also allows me to see things differently in a figurative way, too. My business is completely client-driven - everything I make is entirely custom and one of a kind, with the idea that we all have unique, specific needs and desires when it comes to how we present ourselves and how we feel in our bodies, and those should be valued and respected. I think that my autism contributes greatly to this perspective, because I do not register a sense of obligation to social standards and norms as “givens”, and I find that it’s easy for me to ignore socially-constructed ideas of what is gender or size appropriate with regard to clothing, and because it allows me to relate to the feelings of discomfort and alienation that so many people experience with image and identity. Plus, quite literally, it allows me to understand the physical discomfort and sensory needs of my fellow ND folks with regard to clothing.
Has being autistic created challenges for you? If so, what helped you overcome or cope with the difficulties?
Being autistic has definitely created some challenges in starting my business, particularly with regard to perfectionism and hyperfixation. I have to be very careful to take breaks from my work or I can forget to eat, drink water, or go to the bathroom for prolonged periods of time. In the same vein, I also have a hard time transitioning in and out of work at the beginning and end of the day. I’m working on giving myself “transition time”, about an hour or so, to readjust slowly between work and non-work time, rather than expect myself to be able to abruptly switch gears and feel frustrated and bad when I can’t.
I also struggle with some social interactions, particularly phone calls (I have a very hard time if I can’t see the other person’s face), and have coped with it by conducting client conversations in writing when possible and by leaning on my masking skills when not. I’ve come to learn that if I have to do a lot of masking, I can expect myself to be stressed and worn down afterwards and try to be preemptively patient with myself about it.
What advice would you give a fellow autistic person who is thinking of starting their own business?
Find the person or people that believe in you and your gifts, focus on them and your own internal drive. When you’re in doubt, call yourself back to the reason you wanted to start in the first place. It can be understandable to fear or second-guess your own capability, particularly with the ableist messaging most of us have internalized since childhood, but you will find the tools and systems that you need to support yourself as new needs arise. Your unique way of interacting with the world and approaching problems really does have revolutionary power, and society needs more of it.
Does your business have a social media profile or a website where The Autistic Innovator readers can follow you and learn more about what you do?