BY CHRISTY KEY
For two decades, Ulla Johnson has grown her eponymous label into a beloved New York womenswear brand, all while staying true to her core beliefs. Here she discusses how building her business with love, integrity and a feminist mindset has made all the difference.
Dress Ulla Johnson Earrings Personal
Christy Key As a child, you traveled the world with your parents who were archaeologists. That must have had quite an impact.
Ulla Johnson We were always packing some huge suitcase. My mother did not travel light! I don’t think I really felt that all of the traveling we did was unusual. It was such a part of my childhood, it really seemed quite ordinary. My parents would also ship me off to spend time with various friends and colleagues all over the world, so I think I became quite self sufficient at an early age- I traveled alone on an international flight for the first time when I was five. I think it has made me more spontaneous and free with regards to my own travel and that of my family- I am not deterred by long flights or rugged terrain. Also my mother was an avid collector of textiles and jewelry and found objects the world over and she definitely passed this impulse to me. I am happiest when exploring a new place.
CK What did you study at University and when did you decide to pursue fashion as a career? What did your friends and family think?
UJ I studied Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan and was particularly interested in fashion theory and the way clothes make women feel – how they can serve to empower the wearer. 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.
CK So, how do you take the leap to start your brand right out of college? What was the biggest challenge you overcame?
UJ It all happened very organically. I started sewing some things here and there and then some friends opened a boutique in Nolita and I designed a few things for them and it just sort of grew from there. I showed Barneys my second collection on the floor of the buyers’ office in midtown – I was very hands-on in all aspects of the business and grew the company with very little capital investment, but a lot of determination. I think learning to let go here and there and to trust others to participate in, and elaborate on, my vision has been the biggest challenge to date.
Full Look Ulla Johnson Hosiery Wolford Necklace CVC Stones
Dress Ulla Johnson Fishnet Bodysuit We Love Color Earrings Kathleen Whitaker Necklace CVC Stones Fishnet Socks We Love Color Shoes Ulla Johnson
Full Look Ulla Johnson Hosiery We Love Color Earrings Kathleen Whitaker Bracelet Celine Rings CVC Stones Luggage Courtesy of New York Vintage
“I think it is important to try and find enjoyment in the everyday. Not just to holiday or vacation or the weekend, but to find the joy in your work.”
CK You’ve been applauded for taking your time to truly build your brand and not rush your growth and expansion. What made you take this approach? How did the store come to be?
UJ I think the most important thing in growth is to remain true to your core ethos, to never compromise, to not lose sight of the things both big and small that define you. I never wanted to grow just for the sake of growth and in fact have turned down many growth opportunities because they did not feel right, or came too soon, or would have necessitated letting go of certain freedoms or creativity that I hold very dear. With respect to the store, I felt it had become very important to showcase our collection in a context wholly self-defined. It has been incredibly rewarding to have this laboratory wherein we can test new ideas, make products we are passionate about without worrying about the vagaries of wholesale, and create an oasis of our own making in the city I have always called home.
Left: Full Look Ulla Johnson Hosiery We Love Color Earrings Kathleen Whitaker Beanie Hat Attack Rings CVC Stones Shoes Ulla Johnson Right: Full Look Ulla Johnson Hosiery We Love Color Shoes Ulla Johnson Earrings Kathleen Whitaker Bracelet Mega Mega Rings CVC Stones
CK What can we look forward to seeing from Ulla Johnson next?
UJ Perhaps another boutique. Perhaps a home range. We are renovating a brownstone in Fort Greene, so I am now obsessed with furniture and finishings. We are really expanding our bag offerings, so that is a big focus right now.
Full Look Ulla Johnson
CK What are the three things that influence your designs the most?
UJ Travel, fine art, feminist theory.
CK For you, who is the ultimate Ulla girl and, more importantly, how can we all become her?
UJ She’s not easy to pin down – she is a traveler, a roamer, perhaps a mother, perhaps a professional, perhaps both. She is self-possessed, and optimistic, she embraces color and pattern and cares deeply about the integrity of that which she loves. We are all already her.
Handbag Ulla Johnson
Shoes Ulla Johnson
CK It is the 20th anniversary of your brand – congratulations! Looking back, what are you most proud of? Is there something you would tell yourself then that you know now?
UJ I guess I am most proud of having built this business with integrity and love and created a workplace of positivity and mutual respect for the lovelies that devote their hearts and minds to this brand.
All Models: Full Looks Ulla Johnson Hosiery Wolford Earrings Kathleen Whitaker Beanie Hat Attack Necklaces CVC Stones Rings CVC Stones
Thinking about and fighting for women’s equality is really part of everything I do, every choice I make personally and professionally.
Left: Vest Ulla Johnson Earrings Kathleen Whitaker Shoes Ulla Johnson Center: Full Look Ulla Johnson Hosiery Wolford Shoes Ulla Johnson Earrings Celine Necklace CVC Stones Rings CVC Stones Right: Full Look Ulla Johnson Hosiery Wolford Shoes Ulla Johnson Earrings Dannijo Necklace CVC Stones Bracelet Mega Mega Rings CVC Stones
CK You’re an unapologetic feminist. How has this influenced you as a business woman, and your brand as a whole?
UJ Thinking about and fighting for women’s equality is really part 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. It has been a very toxic political and social landscape in this country especially under the current administration and my hope is that these dark times will drive us to continue to find and exert the power in our collective voice. I embrace any opportunity to use the platform this business has given me for the greater good.
CK I read a great quote from you that said, “Life should be enjoyed.” How do you enjoy life?
UJ I think it is important to try and find enjoyment in the everyday. Not just to holiday or vacation or the weekend, but to find the joy in your work, or in simple times with your family, or in noticing beauty around you even in the most unlikely places.