Every so often, a designer comes along that is so special and unique they’re worth waiting for. Right now, that designer is Ulla Johnson. The name may or not be familiar to all, but her distinctive aesthetic is recognizable in any lineup. Johnson launched her business in 2000 after graduating from university. Born and raised in New York City, the streets have served as style inspiration for decades and now her label is synonymous with custom prints and natural fabrics, intricate embroideries, and lasting silhouettes. True bohemian luxe for the very busy woman. Having been a customer long before this interview – I can attest to the brand’s function and versatility. Others have taken note as well, Barneys was an early supporter of the brand and boutiques across the world sell the line. As Ulla Johnson expands into footwear and accessories, we won’t be surprised if a full, robust lifestyle brand isn’t far behind.
People may be surprised your brand has been around since 2000 – do you find this to be their reaction?
Yes, on occasion. Definitely we have been reaching broader audiences of late and I had three children since I started my business so there were some years I was less engaged with the collection. Then again, I meet women all the time who tell me of pieces they have had in their wardrobe for ten years and still love, so we do have that steadfast following as well.
With degrees in Psychology and Women’s Studies – what led you to fashion design? Did you receive any formal training?
I actually studied a lot of issues around women’s bodies and specifically the meaning of fashion within this – so my passion for the field was sort of enmeshed in my liberal arts training. I have always loved clothing and vintage and stitched my own frocks, but much of my training has come through the development and growth of my brand.
The aesthetic really mixes one-of-a-kind looking pieces that are textile and embroidery driven with a modern sensibility – was this combination a goal from the beginning?
I would say my aesthetic has evolved since the inception of the business, but a love of materials and a desire to communicate something lasting and timeless in the silhouettes has been with me from the beginning. My parents are archaeologists and I grew up traveling extensively – my mother was a collector of far flung textiles and embroideries and working within these paradigms feels very true to me. So I guess, yes, this has been a longstanding goal.
How do you balance the growth of an artisan-led production brand? Is the growth somewhat dependent on available resources in Peru and India?
This scaling of a handmade product certainly presents its challenges and we have had to work very closely with the artisans who create our product to enable us to meet the demand. In Peru, for instance, with our handlooms and handknits we have had to reach out to multiple weaving and knitting communities and cooperatives to really build the capacity while maintaining the level of quality we are known for. The good bit is that both Peru and India have continued to invest in their traditions of craft so these are by no means dying arts. If anything the growing demand for things that are authentically beautiful and singular is helping to bolster and renew these traditions.
Barneys has been an enthusiastic supporters of your brand – how did this come about? How has their input impacted the line?
Yes, Barneys has been an amazing partner and have really supported our growth and visibility. They are now carrying all of the components of the brand including shoes and bags and having this strong representation of the full collection has been very meaningful in the absence of our own retail. They have been encouraging us to add more deliveries and this has really opened up a lot of opportunity for us to continue to articulate our story.
Are you intentionally selective about your retail partners?
Yes absolutely. We say no a lot.
How would you describe the Ulla girl? Is she you?
Ah, yes, well I guess she is and isn’t me. She has children or she doesn’t, but she has a love of things that both feel and look beautiful, that are effortless and can travel across locales and contexts. She is a bit of a roamer, and an adventurer, is urban but loves the sea. She wants nothing fussy or ostentatious and believes time and love make garments more, not less, appealing.
Has she changed as you have grown personally?
I think so, yes. But then again I had much of the same vision for my collection in my twenties as I do now.
What have been the most valuable or expensive lessons you’ve learned as the brand has grown?
To try and remain true to ones own aesthetic, to value loyalty and build partnerships, to never accept good as good enough.
Fifteen years in business is a success story in itself! Do you feel like “you’ve made it”?
It is very rewarding to see the growth and positive response to the collection, however if anything, it has opened our horizons to all the the things we want to build. So I would say this is definitely not a time of sitting back and coasting. There are so many ideas and incredible opportunities that we are now able to explore – this is only the beginning.
Where do you see the brand in 5 years? 10 years?
I definitely have no intentions of being in every department store. We want to continue to grow as we have, organically and thoughtfully. Retail is definitely the next chapter we want to explore and with that the opportunities to broaden our offering into categories that complement the ready-to-wear. But staying true to our product, and to the level of love and craft that goes into the garments is something we never want to waiver from so that will serve as our guidepost to the next chapters.