Virginia Johnson is a Toronto-based textile designer and founder of Virginia Johnson Lifestyle. Her gorgeous and distinctive prints decorate clothing and shawls and adorn stationery and home furnishings. After graduating from Parsons School of Design and a brief stint at Helmut Lang in the 90s, she returned to Toronto to launch her brand. Johnson’s products are carried in more than 100 stores worldwide, including Barneys, Liberty’s, and Holt Renfrew. Johnson has also collaborated with J. Crew, Anthropologie, and Chronicle Books.
You’re the first textile designer we’ve interviewed – what can you tell us about your job? How do you describe what you do?
How exciting! I paint images with watercolour on paper and imagine them on garments. I always loved the idea of being able to ‘wear’ a print, and to decide how it will get placed and what scale it would be used on a garment. So either I’ll start with a sketch of a figure wearing something and then create that illustration for the print, or sometimes I’ll just get inspired by an animal or a tree and paint that, and then sketch a few versions to figure out the scale and colour.
How does a print come to life?
I start by painting it loosely in watercolour. I prefer things to be fresh and not tight or reworked, so often my first try is my favourite. Then I’ll scan it and play with scale. Then we send it to a printer, either a traditional screen printer or a digital printer, where it will be printed onto fabric in the colours I’ve chosen. Simultaneously I’ll work on the shapes with my team and start making the patterns for the clothing, so that they’ll all come together.
When you create a new print, how do you know that it will remain with your brand or sold to another?
Usually I create each season for my own collection, from beginning to end, two seasons per year. When we collaborate with another brand, say Anthropologie or J.Crew, we’ll send them some suggestions, either new art or art from my archive, and they tell us what direction they are going in, and provide colour palettes. Sometimes I will do custom artwork based on their inspirations and directions, and sometimes they’ll prefer to re-use something from the archive in a new way.
Do you enjoy collaborating with retailers? What’s the process like?
It’s really, really fun. You get to work with great people at companies who are the best at that they do, and you learn a lot from them about merchandising, how they put their lines together, what their parameters are. It’s very refreshing to have such a developed idea of the collection, as they have to, so that all their teams are on board with the same themes and colour stories so far in advance. It’s also much easier sometimes to design for someone else, where the task at hand is clear, and you can just be creative. And often creativity is sparked because of the input and exchange of ideas among all the people involved.
Have you worked directly with designers on collections? Is that a service you offer?
We haven’t done that yet, but I wouldn’t rule it out. Typically we have worked with larger companies to do collaborations combine both aesthetics. I love working with other people who have complimentary visions, whatever size the company.
You worked with Helmut Lang before launching your brand, was this when Helmut was still at the helm of his brand?
Yes, I worked with him in the late 90’s.
What did you learn while in the contemporary fashion world?
It was a fantastic experience working at Helmut Lang at that time. It was a small, energetic team and we all learned a lot. I learned how much I loved working on the design side, I learned about having really high standards for your work and for the people you work with, and really just having a vision and sticking to it. But I also realized that all the hype around fashion isn’t for me, and I’ve always felt grateful that I could establish my business back in Toronto and have a life at the same time.
As an illustrator and artist, how do you feel about showing your work on Instagram? About people re-gramming? Do they always credit?
I think it’s a great method for sharing my work and what is going on at the business. I have no idea if people credit or not (!) but I don’t really care. It’s a fun way for people to share what they do.
Have you ever encountered copyright issues?
I have encountered copyright issues with a a few companies (both large and small) copying my textiles. I protect all of my designs at the Library of Congress, and do enforce the copyright if I find out something has been copied. But beyond that there’s not much you can do, other than keep creating and creating unique things.
What’s an average day like for you?
My average day starts at home, getting my kids ready for school and out the door. My office is 3 blocks from my house, so it’s really close. We sometimes start with a team meeting so we’re all on the same page. This week, for example, we are working on a photo shoot next week for our spring home line, lining up the photographer, studio, stylist. We’re also reviewing samples that have just arrived from our factory, and dealing with spring production. If we are on deadline for artwork for the next season, I sometimes run home for a few hours in my 3rd floor studio. All of my artwork is created there, where it’s quiet. Clothing design and anything to do with production happens at the office. Generally the days are full and good, we have a great team now and we have a lot of fun.
Any fun projects on the horizon you can share with us?
We have a large collaboration that is being announced in January, that we’re not allowed to share yet. We’re also continuing our shawl collections for Anthropologie.