Native New Yorker Ulla Johnson has had a long-standing obsession with fashion. After college, she moved back to the city and began sewing pieces for herself. When some friends of hers opened a store in Nolita, she designed a few exclusive items for them. From there, her business grew organically, and it wasn’t long before her talents were picked up by Barneys.
Whitewall spoke with Johnson just after her Spring/Summer 2020 presentation in September, and she said her vision was clear from the start. What was important then is what is important now—integrity of materials and process. Johnson’s aim is to create future heirlooms and pieces whose beauty and value transcend trends.
Johnson—who is also an avid art collector—shared with us her dedication to discovering and preserving craft around the globe and to repurposing fabrics for new collections, and why, even with great growth, her core values have remained the same.
WHITEWALL: You have a very distinct personal style. How does that impact your designs?
ULLA JOHNSON: My style is quite eccentric; I find the combination of a lot of strong color and silhouette very exciting. With that, becoming a mother changed my style a lot. There is an increased sense of ease that has become important to me, and I love having a wardrobe that’s not defined by a space and time. I would say our brand is definitely very feminine, but within that there are a lot of different ways to wear the clothes. The women who wear our collections are perhaps a mother, possibly a professional, maybe both, or neither. She is self-possessed and optimistic; she embraces color and pattern and cares deeply about the integrity of what she loves. Through her clothes, it’s our job to empower her in all these roles.
WW: You studied women’s studies and psychology. Today, you create clothes for and by women. Tell us a bit about your educational background and how it impacts your design decisions today.
UJ: School influenced me enormously. I was particularly interested in fashion theory and the way clothes make women feel—how they can serve to empower the wearer. This point of view informs everything about the way I design and why I create clothes for women. I had actually wanted to study fashion at college, but my parents felt strongly I should get a proper liberal arts education, so I really came to this career after graduation.
Thinking about and fighting for women’s voices is at the core of everything I do, and every choice I make personally and professionally. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities that I have had, for the ability to be both a mother and a business owner. I know these freedoms were fought for and earned by women before me, and I hope the struggles and challenges I face every day will expand the horizons of my daughter and the generations to come. I embrace any opportunity to use the platform this business has given me for the greater good.
WW: Tell us a bit about your Fall/Winter 2019 collection, available now.
UJ: It is a celebration of pattern and form. It tells a story of emboldened and poetic femininity where a myriad of global influences are brought into harmonious dialogue through texture, print, and color. As ever, we worked with the most extraordinary artisan groups globally in the development of our collection. We feel strongly that handmade pieces carry a distinct emotional weight and connection between the maker and the wearer, and we love to see and celebrate the hand of the artist.
WW: For your Spring/Summer 2020 presentation, you collaborated with an array of people from around the world, such as women in Kenya and Madagascar, and the Irish designer Grainne Morton. Can you tell us a bit about your direction for the collection, and collaborating with these diverse artisans?
UJ: We went on a journey of color and pattern inspired by the rising and setting of the sun, together with the rich heritage and traditions of saturated hand-dyed cloth. The preservation and evolution of traditional handcraft is something that is very important to me. I traveled a lot with my archaeologist parents growing up, and it’s something I love doing with my family now. I’ve always been exposed to different points of view.
I’m also a New Yorker, so am endlessly inspired by the rich cultural weaving of the city, its distinct and diverse voices, and their complex dialogue with one another. We have always worked with communities around the world, particularly female-led groups in Peru and Africa. Their work and sense of community is extraordinary. It’s something I am very committed to.
WW: How are you thinking of sustainability when creating your collections?
UJ: It’s something I care very much about. We are always looking at how we can make improvements within both what we produce but also how we operate as a business. I don’t like any waste from fabrics, so we are always repurposing extra textiles, which actually is how our childrenswear collection came to be.
The earrings and hairbands from our Spring/Summer 2020 show are made from hand-blown glass beads and flowers entirely made from recycled bottles by Kenyan artisans. They are so gorgeous; I’m obsessed with them. Even the chunky brass rings were created from recycled doorknobs by our incredible teams in Africa.
Everything we do is done with great thought and is a labor of love. Jewelry is something I’m very interested in and has become increasingly visible in our shows. I love Grainne’s work, its delicacy and nod to the natural world as well as the fact that each piece is unique. The pieces for Spring/Summer 2020 used found shells and corals and are elegantly strung into elevated yet earthy necklaces and bracelets.
WW: Tell us a bit about your relationship to the art world and what you are drawn toward collecting.
UJ: My husband works in contemporary art, so it is very much a part of our life and the way we live. A lot of what we collect speaks to the natural world and is very personal to us. I’ve been obsessed by Sheila Hicks since I was a little girl, so the fact that we own one of her pieces and I see this beauty every morning is endlessly exciting for me. I also collect weavings, basketry, and ceramics and always find special pieces from travels with my family. Everything has a story.
WW: You’ve mentioned that Peru and Paris are big inspirations for you. Have you been anywhere recently that’s given you new inspiration?
UJ: Exploration and discovery of local traditions and craft is something I find very exciting. Inspiration for me comes from everywhere—travel, fine art, feminist theory, and streets back home in New York City. I am a devoted pedestrian and am influenced every day by those whose paths I cross. In terms of travel, I spent time in Sicily and the Dolomites this summer, which was heaven, and I’ve just returned from Paris, which is always so beautiful.
I’m currently most excited about my next trip to Kenya! It’s with my design team as it is somewhere we have a close working relationship with— particularly with a group of Maasai women we have been collaborating with for beaded runway pieces. My brand is not just about the clothes; it’s the story, the process, the travel, and lifestyle. A commitment to local craft and helping talented artisans elevate their standard of living, as well as working with them to create unique and beautiful products that reach a larger audience, is something I am deeply dedicated to.