How Designer Ulla Johnson Got Big by Starting Small

The head of her own New York-based brand tells us how she's making it in fashion.
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The head of her own New York-based brand tells us how she's making it in fashion.
Photo: Courtesy Ulla Johnson

Photo: Courtesy Ulla Johnson

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

The way New York-based designer Ulla Johnson has grown her business is very much in line with the look and feel of her clothes. She started small in 2000; grew slowly, organically and quietly; gave lots of attention to details and did just about everything herself — at least in the beginning.

Similarly, her pieces have the feel of something made meticulously and slowly by hand — and much of it has, by artisans in Peru and India. Her clothes look and feel soft and effortless, like something that's been in your closet forever, and yet they don't look crafty. Her easy dresses, blouses, sweaters (and, recently, swimsuits and shoes) are just polished and chic enough to keep you from looking like a beach bum, and despite the homespun feel, Johnson is getting big: Barneys is a huge supporter and Jennifer Lawrence recently wore one of her dresses. Plus, she just showed at New York Fashion week for the first time in September and debuted her first ever pre-fall collection (following demand from the aforementioned luxury retailer).

We chatted with Johnson in her sun-drenched SoHo studio about her organic approach to growth, how she produces most of her clothes in Peru and India, and much more. Read on for our interview.

What’s your background? Had you always been interested in fashion?

I actually studied psychology and women’s studies so I didn’t even come from a fashion background. But my mother was a huge collector and archaeologist so we traveled and a love of textiles was definitely something that had been instilled in me, but they were professors and they steered me away from fashion and then despite their best efforts I still ended up doing this. I actually started my business very soon after I finished school. It was the beginning of this whole market and I really wanted to offer things that were beautiful but also not outrageously expensive — that were accessible. A good friend of mine and I opened a store and I put a few things in there and it sort of organically grew from there. Then Steven (Alan) picked it up and Barneys picked it up and Louis Boston. It was me literally showing things to them at their hotel rooms and dragging a garment bag around and it was great. We had an amazing response, then I sort of took a step away for a few years because I had three children. The business still existed, but it was in a much different capacity, I feel like it was a time of really honing the message and thinking about what we wanted from the brand and how we wanted to grow it and then really in the past few years we started doing a lot more international sourcing and really emphasizing the handmade component of the collection. I feel like that’s now become the whole direction of the brand, of the future growth of the brand.

Ulla Johnson Pre-fall 2015. Photo: Ulla Johnson

Ulla Johnson Pre-fall 2015. Photo: Ulla Johnson

Now that you’ve honed your message, who would you say you’re designing for?

I always kind of start with myself. At some point I didn’t and I think I was picturing my girl in a more obtuse way and I realized that ultimately I really am designing for myself, so being that I travel a ton, I live in the city, I go to the beach in the summers, I want things that are extremely versatile and also can be elegant, can be easy, can be beachy, can be refined, but look great after you’ve been laying on the beach for 10 hours, look great when you’re walking in Nolita. I also have children. I don’t think all of my customers do, but I think there’s something about the need for effortlessness that has really been accentuated since I’ve grown my family and the kind of things that I want. I don’t like dry cleaning; I don’t like pressing. The touch of a garment is really the first thing that I look at and I think that’s what people come to me for — things that feel really soft that have an integrity on the hanger but then when worn really communicate a warmth and a sense of having been touched. I think there’s a lot of things that feel very large-scale or unemotional and I think that’s what we’re trying to invest our garments with.

How did you fund the line in the beginning?

It’s been self-financed entirely and it’s just grown organically. I think a lot of it has been that we really try to hold back the growth, at this point we’re saying no to a lot of big accounts because we want to make sure that we continue to grow it organically and I don’t want to be everywhere overnight and we want to really maintain what’s special about the collection and also from a financial standpoint, to be able to really support the business.

How do you decide what accounts to say yes and no to?

More and more, there needs to be a significant representation of the line and not just…the stores that are doing well with our line, they really are all in now, they want the whole look. They want the shoe, they want the bag, they tell the whole story. They really have the Ulla girl who’s coming to them for our collection so those are the relationships we’re developing, as opposed to having three pieces that are in every door, we want to have amazing doors that are really showcasing the collection. Retail of our own would be the next step so that we can continue to really articulate our point of view. I mean it’s great to do that with amazing retail partners but obviously we would be able to do so in a different way on our own.

Can you also do that somewhat with e-commerce?

We just launched e-commerce but in a soft way, we hadn’t even done a proper buy, we just put a few styles up. We’re really going to launch it properly for spring. I still get people coming to me like, "Where can I get everything? I can get these things here and these things here but ultimately where can I find it all?" So we want to offer that. The thing is, it's very hard to inject this emotional aspect into e-commerce as opposed to a store, to really try and translate that. That’s kind of what our struggle is now — to try and create something that feels unique to our brand and communicate something different than what people know already within an e-commerce context is challenging.

You’ve recently started expanding into new categories. What’s the strategy behind that? What’s next?

Shoes were the first thing because I felt like we really had something to say with shoes. I couldn’t find what I was looking for. We were always shooting our shoes with major designers, with designer shoes. In this marketplace, you can always find an easy ankle boot, but in terms of finding a chic heel or something that feels elevated or a sexier boot is more difficult, so I really wanted to do that. I now want to do everything, I want to do robes, I want to do home, I want to do hats, jewelry, all of it. I have to sort of rein myself in, and shoes felt like that natural first step. Definitely bags would be the next thing that we want to explore. I did introduce some swim and we did get a great response from that. I wanted it to be fun, but still a good fit. I definitely would like to do hats. I think the knitwear range is also becoming a big statement as far as fall and even into spring but because I have these amazing Peruvian resources.

Ulla Johnson Pre-fall 2015. Photo: Ulla Johnson

Ulla Johnson Pre-fall 2015. Photo: Ulla Johnson

So are you working towards a lifestyle brand?

Being a designer it’s hard to shop for anything anyway because you’re always like, "I like it, but I wish it was like this or I wish it was made like this," so you’re like, "Well, I should just make it." But you want to do things in a steady fashion and not get to expansive; the same way we grow retailers organically we want to grow the collection organically as well.

You mentioned working with artisans in Peru and India. How did those relationships come about?

My sister and I went [to Peru] when my baby was two months old and we met with a ton of people. Peru is a very open society and everybody knows each other as far as the knitters here know the knitters in Arequipa and my cousin has a group in Cusco and there’s a lot of NGOs and government support as well for the development of the local craft, so it was just networking locally and we’re now working with a dozen different factories and knitting cooperatives in Peru. India had one amazing factory that came to me and they’re so head and shoulders above anything I’ve ever done in India. Really the bulk of our business is being produced in Peru and India and I’m doing the shoes in Peru as well. We still do some things in China. There are certain things that China’s amazing at but I’d say about 80 percent [of the collection] Peru and India.

Is a lot of your time spent traveling to and from those places?

I’m traveling to Peru and India twice a year each and then I do a lot of development research trips. I’ve been to Morrocco, I’m going to Japan. Part of the process is really educating myself about the history of the materials themselves so especially now that I’m not pregnant with babies, it’s a lot easier to take these kinds of trips.

How do you typically find people to join your team?

We’ve had luck with word of mouth with the exception of a few people who came to us through school postings and stuff. It’s hard because you want somebody that’s likeminded; it’s not just a question of talent, it’s also temperament and team orientation and all of it, it’s not easy. Finding good people I think is the biggest challenge in growth.

Has support from retailers like Barneys become the driving factor in how you’ve grown?

Yes that’s our outlet, but I think ultimately Barneys has come to us now too because of the fact that we feel more intimate, because we’re not a gigantic brand that’s in a big department store, because people want something that is not so insanely visible and just feels like product. It’s also having the right partnership with our showroom, we’ve had some really great press lately, I feel like it’s all those different things coming together and also just being true to our girl and to our product — consistency, knowing that somebody knows what they’re going to get from us, what they come to us for and staying true to our vision — I think that’s what’s gotten us to this point.

Has there been one moment or milestone that made you feel like you’d finally made it?

We had a meeting with Barneys where they sat down and gave us our two year projections for our brand with numbers that were really shocking. It was with the senior business people, it wasn’t the buyers, it was the corporate level, and we really felt like a different type of endorsement. But I guess I have those feelings in small ways every day, just seeing a girl on the corner wearing my stuff; Jennifer Lawrence was on TV saying our dress was her favorite thing she owned and she wore it every day. That definitely was like, wow, look at that. Even my kid was impressed by that. It’s the small and the big things that make you feel that way, even just getting a garment that’s arrived from overseas and it’s embroidered and beautiful and looks exactly like the vision in my mind, that’s a moment I feel like I’ve really achieved something.

Ulla Johnson Pre-fall 2015. Photo: Ulla Johnson

Ulla Johnson Pre-fall 2015. Photo: Ulla Johnson

You showed during New York Fashion Week for the first time in September. Why was it the right time?

I felt like a lot of people show during Fashion Week and I wanted to do it the right way and to make sure we had our message very honed. Ultimately this felt like the time we had the right venue, the collection, I knew how I wanted the presentation to feel and because Barneys has been doing this aggressive growth of the brand it felt like it was the right time to, again, have another level of showing our own point of view. We really didn’t want it to feel staged or stiff and ultimately I wanted it to be fun and have everybody have a drink and enjoy themselves and I think it was twofold; I think there is a certain amount of legitimacy that comes from showing and it was something that I felt like we needed to do at this level of business that we’re doing with the brand, with Barneys, but also with a lot of other top retailers. We do a lot internationally now, too.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own line?

To be unafraid. I think it becomes very daunting and I think actually the older that people get the more they think, I need to come with this huge marketing strategy because we’re living in this era of like Tory Burch and all these brands that come out of the box with huge financing, and it doesn’t have to be that way. I mean I started this with five garments and $5,000, so it was just really a labor of love and building a team and a network that was based on friendships and relationships and we’ve really been able to come quite far that way.