Founded in 1998, Ulla Johnson’s eponymous brand saw her quickly rise to prominence in the world of fashion for her unique use of print, colour and craft techniques. Drawing inspiration from her extensive travels, Ulla’s approach to aesthetics set her apart from other designers and won her a loyal following among the fashion press. Ulla also gleans creative energy from the city of New York, where she lives with her husband and three children. Her lines incorporate eclectic inspiration, from Japanese shibori techniques to Dutch wax prints and recycled glass jewellery, producing timeless pieces to be passed down to future generations: modern family heirlooms to be kept and treasured.
“I design for every woman. For all women. For myself, for those I love, for those I know and don't know. For women near and far, wanders, lovers, truth seekers and change makers.” ~ Ulla Johnson
STIL: Your parents are both archaeologists and travel was a big part of your life growing up. What are your strongest childhood memories?
UJ: I feel like I spent my childhood travelling with my parents which is certainly the root of my obsession with travel. As a child we spent our summers on the Dalmatian coast and memories of the Adriatic in July and August with its lavender scented breezes will forever be dear to my heart.
STIL: You studied psychology at university, then swiftly went on to launch your eponymous label Ulla Johnson in 2000. What was the catalyst in this career change of direction?
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. I am a native New Yorker and have a long standing obsession with fashion. After college I moved back to the city and started sewing pieces here and there for myself. Some friends of mine opened a store in Nolita and I designed a few exclusive pieces for them. The business grew very organically from there and the collections was soon picked up by Barney’s. I had a clear vision even from the start as far as what was important to me in the collection - integrity of materials and process, timelessness, craft, ease. The creation of future heirlooms, pieces whose beauty and value transcends trends. As we’ve grown these have remained our core values.
My brand is not just about the clothes themselves but about the story, the process, the travel, the lifestyle, the heart.
STIL: What inspired the silhouettes and prints for the AW20 collection?
UJ: AW20 offers an emboldened and assertive vision of femininity. Structured tailoring is juxtaposed against diaphanous silks and moulded leathers with sporty layering. It is a story of contrasts where a polished language for dressing is at once bold and subtle, charming and intimate, inviting you to celebrate the feminine in its myriad of nuances.
STIL: How would you describe the woman who wears Ulla Johnson?
UJ: The women who wears our collections is a mother, possibly a professional, maybe both, or neither. She is young and old, she is mother and daughter, sister and friend. She is self-possessed, and optimistic, she embraces colour 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.
STIL: Do you enjoy nature - perhaps you have a garden?
UJ: Very much. I'm so grateful for Mother Nature. If I can I like to start every morning outside, gathering some beauties from the garden to brighten up our home. We endeavoured to create a garden for all seasons. An oasis for birds and bees amidst our normally bustling city. We planted our plot heavily knowing that I would want to cut from the blooms in spring and summer. Watching the flowers shift from tulips and daffodils to peonies and lilacs to irises and lilies is a true delight. The height of summer brings to life the climbing roses and unfurled greenery at its most decadent. Leaving the garden is the one drawback to our summers abroad and in Montauk!
STIL: Can you share with us a typical working day?
UJ: There isn’t a typical day but as a family meals are very important to us. We all share a proper breakfast each morning. We're lucky that all our children now go to the same school so every morning we make that journey together as a family. I treasure this part of my day, it takes a lot for me to miss it. I try to keep professional engagements to one night a week. We have a standing family date night at our favourite restaurant each Friday and most of our weekend socialising is with other families. We’ve never over-committed to weekend sports and try and be low key and together when we aren’t working. We also travel a lot with the kids and these experiences are truly transformative for us all. I try and always put my phone away for a few hours at least when I walk in the door from work so that I can be more fully present. It’s a constant struggle between the demands of work and home - we can all only do our best!
STIL: What challenges does Ulla Johnson the business now face as we come out of lockdown? Do you think Covid-19 will have a lasting impact on the fashion industry?
UJ: I think there is a need for beauty in all its forms, now more than ever. That's what we're focusing on. Uplifting pieces that encourage us to dream and feel beautiful. There is great power in that.
We’re tremendously grateful to Ulla for taking time out of her busy schedule to speak with us. Her label truly reflects her values as a person: beauty, adventure, ease and integrity are woven through all that she does. Her intuitive understanding of how women feel when wearing beautifully designed clothes allows her clientele’s own sense of confidence, kindness and independence to shine through. Clearly Ulla’s rich appreciation of psychology, travel and family life has elevated her fashion brand to the realm of art - the art of living well.
With thanks to: Fritha Wolsak and Christine Polyblank