By Ashley Naftule, September 2019 issue.
If fashion in Phoenix was a web, Angela Johnson would be the spider at the center of it. She’s a born weaver of strands — connecting people together, sharing knowledge, and stitching together a couture culture with the same care and grace she applies to her own eco-friendly vintage shirt ballroom gowns.
Johnson is the co-founder of the nonprofit 501-c3 AZ Apparel Foundation and the Fashion and Business Resource Innovation Center (F.A.B.R.I.C.), a fashion incubator.
Both organizations are devoted to furthering fashion in the Valley of the Sun by providing up-and-coming designers with the resources and institutional knowledge they’ll need to succeed. She’s also founded LabelHorde, Arizona’s fashion industry directory.
In addition to designing clothes, she teaches classes on fashion. She’s also an advocate for reusable materials, gaining attention for designing beautiful dresses and outfits sewn together out of all old thrift store T-shirts.
We got a chance to talk to Johnson about common misconceptions about her industry, what got her interested in design, and what hot trends she thinks may hit the fashion world soon.
Echo: Outside of the fashion world, where do you draw aesthetic inspiration from?
Angela Johnson: I usually pull from music. Pop culture is a big inspiration for me. So, a lot of times when I’m designing a collection or just tiny pieces, it almost always stems from hearing a song or a type of music. And I always go directly to thinking about what a runway show would look like with that music playing. And it’s always music that’s the complete opposite of what you’d normally think of show music.
It’s almost like you’re having a conversation with pop culture — that fashion is in dialogue with everything else that’s going on.
What you wear is a statement. It’s starting a dialogue about who you are, what you are, what you’re putting out there in the world. So, it is like a conversation.
What first sparked your interest in becoming a designer?
My grandfather was a U.S. district attorney in the Panama Canal Zone in the ’70s. I basically grew up with my grandparents. My grandma would host events: dinner parties and balls, formals, things for governors. She would dress up for all these things and then she held onto her clothes over the years. When I was growing up, I would play in her closet and get dressed up in all that stuff. When I became a teenager, I would take some of her clothes and do things to them: cut off a sleeve or shorten it and wear combat boots with them. I didn’t know how to sew or anything. I just knew that I wanted to use them and turn them into other things.
As someone who’s worked as both a fashion professional and in education, what’s one of the biggest misconceptions you’ve seen about the fashion world?
People often don’t understand the difference between making one shirt or dress and making a thousand of them. It takes more of a business brain to manufacture and make multiples of the same thing. Starting a brand of clothing is developing a product and just like developing any product, there’s prototyping involved, there’s technical engineering involved, there’s the sourcing of all of the materials they’re testing. It takes like six months to develop a full collection and then get it ready for manufacturing and then another six things to make the entire collection. It’s a yearlong process that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Is it that lack of knowledge about the business side of fashion one of the reasons why you developed your non-profit work in the Valley?
Absolutely. When I was a designer in L.A., I would go to piece out each thing and manage the production. I’d go to pattern makers and I’d take patterns to somebody who sizes them called a grader. And then I’d take my graded size patterns to another company to do the cutting. I’d pick up fabric from different companies and deliver all the cuttings to the sewing factories. And there were all these different factories and things to manage in order to produce larger quantities. But when I moved to Arizona, none of those resources existed here.
That’s why I created F.A.B.R.I.C. and the nonprofit: so that other designers in town can find all the resources that they need under one roof.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a more inclusive spirit start to emerge in fashion — especially with the rise of plus-size clothing lines. Do you think part of the reason why it’s taken so long for new voices to rise in the industry is that it has such a steep price of admission? That the buy-in is so large it’s hard for change to happen?
That’s exactly it. The industry has been the same since manufacturing was developed. To make a profit you have to make thousands and thousands of the same thing, and you have it so cheap in order for it to be affordable. So, you end up using illegal methods overseas in places where people don’t get paid what they should be so you can afford to make a $20 H&M shirt. It’s a very unsustainable model and you can’t be very niche within that model. If I wanted to make a big and tall men line for people with one arm, something super niche like that, there’s no way that I’m going to have enough sales to be able to meet that minimum at giant factories overseas and make it cheap enough for my customers to be able to afford it.
Do you find that people in Arizona are supportive of these initiatives?
I think people have this misconception about fashion being super cutthroat. And that probably comes from movies and TV shows like Project Runway where they make it seem like everybody’s a diva. But when I was in Los Angeles, I never experienced anything like that. When I came to Arizona, I did find a bit of that attitude from some designers at first, but I chalk that up to a lack of experience. A lot of designers here don’t have industry experience, so they just think that’s how you’re supposed to be.
Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to tell our readers about?
We’ll be doing a fundraiser — a plated dinner gala — for our nonprofit on Sept. 28. It’s gonna be called Fashioning Arizona’s Future and it’s going to be a futuristic-themed dinner. And on Dec. 7, we have our annual LabelHorde fashion show that I’ve been doing for 15 years. It features as many local designers as can find in one show.
We’ve just got one more question. What are your predictions for upcoming fashion trends? What do you think is going to pop in the fall and winter?
I haven’t had these books that are called forecasting books that are there for our industry. So, people in our industry get a sneak peek into the upcoming trends that you get to see one year in advance. And these are so important to our industry that they’re really expensive — they cost like $10,000 a season. So really only the big brands get access to this information.
It’s like a science — these companies do some serious research into why the trends change and what’s affecting them. They look at the haute-couture runway shows from Paris, they look at the music festivals, they see what’s going on at every level of fashion and bring it all together. All designers use these books as inspiration. That’s why you go shopping and everybody’s using plaid or camouflage or whatever it is because they’ve all seen the same forecasting book.
I’ve been so busy recently that I haven’t had time to pay attention to that. It’s kind of ironic: I have my fingers on the pulse of anything that’s fashion in Arizona for the last 18 years. That’s all I eat, breathe, and sleep.