Most of us throw our t-shirts in the back of a drawer. Sometimes these concert tees or event freebies make an appearance as pajamas or an outfit for laundry day, but usually, the t-shirt collection merely grows in the back of the drawer, collecting dust and morphing into a smushed pile of unworn cotton.
Not Angela Johnson.
She sees the fashion potential of these t-shirts and spins them into something glamorous. This “something” includes the t-shirt ball gown, and they form the foundation of Angela Johnson Designs. “I love making it because at this point I’ve made so many of them I can do it with my eyes closed,” says Johnson. However, the inherent nature of the piece’s patchwork and the subsequent variety of t-shirts used in each gown make it “new and fun to design every time.”
So how exactly did the t-shirt ball gown come to be? According to Johnson, she didn’t exactly come out of the womb sewing dresses. “I was a late bloomer when it comes to finding my calling,” she explains. “I had always liked fashion because I had always played dress-up in my grandmother’s closets, but I didn’t think about pursuing a career in fashion until I had already graduated from college with a degree in Speech Communication.”
Soon after graduation, Johnson realized she wanted something more. “I now had a skill in public speaking, but didn’t have anything to speak about,” she says. However, Johnson’s creativity and design skills prevailed. It was a career quiz that recommended she pursue a career in fashion, and she soon found herself at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.
While still in school, Johnson worked her way up at the L.A.-based collections X-Large Manufacturing and X-Girl, providing her with the skills, experience, and contacts needed to start her own collection, Monkeywench.
Family obligations brought Johnson to Arizona, leading her to close Monkeywench. Arizona may have the sunshine and palm trees of Los Angeles, but the fashion industry in the Grand Canyon state wasn’t as booming as it was in California. However, Johnson refused to let her skills go to waste. Even though a lack of industrial resources would make it difficult to manufacture a clothing collection in Arizona, she realized she could still make a living as a truly unique designer.
“I did have the skills to make my own patterns and sew them so I could do one-of-a-kinds,” she says. “I had to figure out a a way to make these garments unique to justify the high cost of making one-of-a-kinds so I came up with the upcycled t-shirt idea.” Cutting a t-shirt into a tank top or adding some fringe to the bottom is a classic way to revamp an old piece of clothing, but taking dozens of t-shirts and turning them into a gown? Now that’s creativity.
Johnson’s collection goes beyond ball gowns. On her website, viewers can scroll through photos of skirts, jackets, jumpsuits and ties. Johnson sells garments to (and even makes customized pieces for) all kinds of people - women, men and children.
Johnson uses the personalities of her customers to inspire her designs, but she also draws on her own talent and creativity. She says that even though customers often provide their own t-shirts, “the silhouettes are pre-determined by me and are usually inspired by pop culture, vintage style, music and the need to satisfy a variety of silhouettes that compliment a variety of body types.”
Johnson also uses her platform in the design world to expand the fashion industry in Arizona. She teaches fashion design classes at Arizona State University, Mesa Community College and Collins College. She offers a variety of fashion lessons, from sewing to illustration. She is the Regional Director for the Fashion Group International of Arizona, an organization from which she received the Rising Star Award. Other awards she has racked up in her career include Artist of the Year from the Scottsdale Cultural Council and the Best Local Fashion Designer award from Arizona Foothills Magazine - which she has received not one, but four times. Johnson feels it is important to help other upcoming designers and aspiring industry professionals. “I feel like I have a lot of valuable industry experience from L.A. that I can share with students and new designers who live in Arizona and may not get the chance to work in L.A.’s garment district to see how it all works,” she says.
Johnson continues to bring fun and fashion to the desert with her latest venture: LabelHorde.com, an online directory intended to help local designers find manufacturing connections and services in order to get their business off the ground. Once LabelHorde launches in Arizona (which should be very soon), the plan is to expand it to other U.S. cities in order to boost the fashion industries in areas that are not traditional fashion epicenters. Johnson’s visions of expanding fashion industries across the country can make any fashionista’s heart beat a little faster, as the idea of fashion booming in every area across the nation, from L.A. to New York and everywhere in between, becomes closer to being a reality.
In addition to establishing crucial connections and gaining the proper resources, Johnson advises local designers to harness their own skills and be wise about financial investment.“Too many people try to start their own collection and shut down after a couple of years because they didn’t realize how much it costs,” she explains. “If you don’t have a large investment, you may be able to do a lot of the expensive work on your own if you are trained properly.”
The designs of Angela Johnson can teach fashion fans everywhere that sustainable clothing can be stylishly unique, and that your clothes should always have a little bit of your personality in them. Her career shows aspiring industry professionals that with the right strategy, and the enthusiasm to carry it out, designers can weave their passion into a career anywhere.
By: Libby Allnatt