17 Years After Launching Her Line, Designer Ulla Johnson Is At The Top Of Her Game

Tracing her unconventional path to success.

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2017 has been a tipping point for Manhattan-born designer Ulla Johnson. Not only did she present her first runway show in February — it happened to be the same day New York was hit with a foot of blizzardy snow — and get stocked on Net-A-Porter (she was among the top three most searched–for names before being on the site), but Johnson opened her first retail store on Bleecker Street’s quiet east end. If this all sounds like the necessary first steps yet another new designer takes it to make it in fashion, you're not wrong. But, unlike others, Johnson is doing this 17 years after launching her eponymous line. And that's, well, not so conventional.

Taking The Long Road

“I feel like a lot of people almost think we’re a new brand,” laughs Johnson, who often dresses actress Michelle Williams and stylist Kate Young. “In some ways, I guess we are.” Her designer story goes a little like this: After starting her namesake label impulsively, Johnson traded her East Coast home for Los Angeles and had three children; when her she had her last daughter five years ago, she decided to “reconnect” with her work.
“I had this very long arc that kind of took me through different levels of commitment to my business, different ideas of what I wanted,” she says, noting that a knitting trip to Peru when her youngest daughter was two months old was the sign she finally needed. “I got obsessed with knitting and I was very dispirited about the nature of the business — with its Zara moments and crazy six-week trend driven cycle.” she says. “I think I had been doing quite a bit of soul searching and what I cared about was to actually fly in the face of that and to just start doing things that felt extremely intimate and close to my heart.”

Paying Attention To The Hard-To-Come-By

What came next weren’t runway knockoffs that seemed to be on the frames of every woman with a curiosity for fashion, but intricate embroidered knits and diaphanous floral printed dresses — pieces that aren’t readily scalable and don’t often adhere to the stringent delivery windows demanded by retailers or consumers. “It was this emotional, visceral thing from our customers,” says Johnson, many of whom she connected with for the very first time through Instagram, where she shares photographs of Warren Platner’s furniture mixed in with close-ups of her frothy Ikat designs — ice cream also makes frequent appearances. “I hadn’t had a very direct connection to the woman who bought my clothes prior to [Instagram], because I didn’t have my own store. Nobody really knew anything about where our hearts were at, or what the vision of the brand was, the lifestyle,” she says. “My work was always rooted in travel and my love of flowers, color, textures, family, all of these things were a true part of our narrative and not something we were ‘creating.’ I think as soon as we were able to disseminate that message in a very quiet way, it was filled with discovery and the product resonated and really propelled our growth.”

Connecting In Real Life

Johnson, however, doesn't necessarily believe in retail's demise. While she considered opening her first store in Los Angeles, that idea was quickly nixed because Johnson — who touches every button of every garment — wanted to be physically present in the space as much as possible. “Having our own retail enables us to be adventurous in a way that multi-brand retailers just can’t be right now because they have so many brands,” she explains. “We didn’t make that many safe choices.” That includes a push in seemingly un-Ulla-like categories, like denim, trousers, shoes, bags, and, even Swiss cotton and cashmere underpinnings. “They aren’t very cheap and they are very basic and wholesale was not really that receptive, but we really blew them out here and people love them,” she says of the intimates. Even her Fall 2017 eyewear with Garrett Leight, which she plans to collaborate with in the future, is unexpected: “Personally I am motivated by optical, not sunglasses,” she says.
Johnson understands that, at least for her, the store, and ultimately, her brand, isn’t just about making money. “I think there needs to be a real reason for people to go to a store and they need to be able to see something that’s absolutely new and different from what they thought they were seeing before,” she says. “Shopping in general is so overwhelming. I know people go [into our store] to just hang out with the girls and have some dried mangos, sit on the bench outside. It’s more than just a place of commerce. There isn’t this idea of shoving product out the door. It’s part of the neighborhood.”

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