After years of arranging visual displays, Atlanta’s Ali Howell decided to channel her creative energy into something different, something just for her. She asked herself why on earth fun and interesting statement jewelry had to be so expensive. Couldn’t beautiful, quality designs be produced at affordable prices? The success of her jewelry line Ali & Bird proves that countless other fashionistas had been asking the same question. The answer is a resounding “yes.” From Barbara Corcoran’s “Shark Tank” necklace to a Belk Southern Designer Showcase win, the popularity of Ali & Bird pieces continues to soar.
How did you become interested in designing jewelry?
I grew up in a creative family, and that definitely influenced me. Growing up in Memphis, my mom, Bettie, was a caterer and budding painter. She had a great eye and loved dressing up. My sister enjoys painting and has recently launched her own line of pimento cheese.
Did you take any classes?
No. I am completely self-taught. I’ve learned a lot from my own mistakes.
When did you decide to make jewelry? What was your first sale?
After my son was born, I started experimenting with creating my own jewelry. I didn’t see anything that reflected my taste at my price point. I was looking for pieces I could wear from work to play and everything in between, to be quirky and classic at the same time. My first sale was when I was downtown buying supplies, and a woman bought the necklace off my neck. It was a turquoise statement necklace; there are versions of that early necklace still in the line today.
Tell us about the company name — you’re Ali. Who is Bird?
Everyone in our family has a nickname. I’m Ali, and my daughter’s nickname is Bird. When she was born, she looked like a baby bird, with turned-in feet. The nickname stuck, and she’s been Bird ever since. She’s also the design inspiration for our bracelets, which are called “birdy” bracelets. She puts together many of the color combinations that make the line unique. She’s already got an eye. Sometimes, I’ll have combinations spread out on the table for days trying to make a decision; then Bird walks by, points at one and it just works.
Where do you get design inspiration? How long does it take to create a collection?
For years, I managed marketing campaigns and visual merchandising for Herend USA in Atlanta and New York. I started in the wholesale china business and get inspiration from many places — what I see people wearing on the street, design publications, InStyle and, of course, travel. Great design comes from all over. Collections tend to be ongoing. I essentially do four collections a year and continue to refine based on retailer feedback, color combinations I love and textures.
What have been some of your biggest hurdles?
Starting my own business has been the biggest challenge I’ve faced. Being a one-woman company — designing, creating, selling and invoicing for many years — taught me a lot. I’ve learned I can’t, and shouldn’t, do it all. I now do more design work and have been fortunate to put together a great stringing team to execute those designs. Now territory managers cover accounts from New Jersey down to Florida, up to Milwaukee and as far west as Texas. Next, we’re working to get coverage on the West Coast and looking at developing the e-commerce capabilities on our website.
What has surprised you the most in the growth and development of the company?
I’ve been incredibly touched by the loyalty of my retailers. We work with more than 80 U.S. and Caribbean boutiques and shops. I see the retailers at market several times a year and at trunk shows, and it’s always great to catch up with them. I’m honored to be in select Belk locations — Birmingham, Columbia, Charleston, Dallas — as well as on Belk.com. We stand behind every piece we make. Retailers have embraced the line and actively market it in their stores and social media, and for that we’re thrilled.
What’s been your best professional advice?
Go with your gut and treat your people fairly. I’ve been fortunate to work with some really talented, interesting and smart people here in Atlanta, New York and Dallas. I’ve taken pieces of these experiences and incorporated them into how I operate my business.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about starting a business?
Go for it! Looking back, it seems that the odds were against me in launching my line when I did back in 2008, when other businesses seemed to be falling apart. Once I got started, I never looked back. I wish I’d started earlier.
Running a successful business and maintaining creativity while balancing family life can be overwhelming. What are your tips for staying focused and organized?
My family and friends are supportive and behind me. They pitch in at critical times and have been great resources. I’m lucky to have an assistant now who keeps me organized and a family that keeps me grounded. I attempt to shop and buy local as much as possible.
How do you decompress?
I’ve taken tennis back up over the past few years, and we enjoy playing as a family. Travel helps fuel my design inspirations and is a great way for me to reset myself.
What are some of your favorite splurges?
A great bottle of wine, a facial and a great vintage purse are my rewards.
If someone handed you a free round-trip plane ticket to anywhere, where would you go?
Anywhere in Spain. Madrid has old-world charm, Barcelona has some of the most stylish people anywhere, and the food in Andalusia is amazing.
When you have visitors in Atlanta, what are your recommendations for dining, shopping or just enjoying the city?
A great banh mi at Lee’s Bakery can’t be beat. I love running into white-tablecloth chefs enjoying a sandwich and soup there. Rhodes Bakery on Cheshire Bridge is a family favorite — all of our birthday cakes come from there, and their cheese straws can’t be beat. The Fox Theatre is an Atlanta treasure whether you’re seeing a play, concert or a movie.
What books are on your personal reading list?
I love Southern fiction and want to re-read A Confederacy of Dunces soon. It always gets me laughing and craving a visit to New Orleans! I love a great mystery, too, so anything from Martha Grimes is on my list.
Other than faith, family and friends, what are three things you couldn’t live without?
- My quirky sense of humor
- My two rescue dogs (Little Dog and Lacey)
- Great design
Thank you, Ali! We’ve so enjoyed getting to know you a little better. Check out the Ali & Bird jewelry site at www.aliandbird.com and find your local retailer.
We send out special thanks to our FACES photographer, Cat Maxwell, for fantastic pictures. Thanks, Cat!