It’s not difficult to feel immediately uplifted upon seeing Toronto-based textile designer Virginia Johnson’s lively prints hanging in her charming studio. “I just get happy when I see colour in my closet,” she says. This season, tropical gardens of palms and cacti mingle with dainty English florals and tribal-inspired geometries. Johnson’s designs have graced the racks of small independent boutiques as well as the grand spaces of department stores like Holt Renfrew and Barneys.
Johnson went to work for Lang after completing her associate degree at Parson’s School of Design in the late 1990s. Lang was a disciple of strict minimalism, and in his house, prints were rare, as was colour. “It was a magical time to be there, because it was at the height of his time in fashion,” she remembers. Her love of prints emerged after she took a screen-printing class at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “I had never realized before that you could draw something and actually print it onto fabric,” she jokes. Shortly after that epiphany, she returned to Toronto and launched the Virginia Johnson brand in 2002.
“When I did my first trade show, I felt very conspicuous. It felt very colourful and everyone had really sedated, nice, sophisticated grey and black clothes.” She soon discovered though, that there was a substantial clientele looking to brighten up their closets. A few years later, she expanded to home decor, adding decorative cushions, ceramics, and a selection of scented candles. It wasn’t long until other brands came calling. The designer has lent her watercolour skills to Anthropologie, J.Crew, and Kate Spade, and has illustrated countless books, most notably Deborah Needleman’s The Perfectly Imperfect Home. (As a freelance illustrator, she is represented by the Art Department in New York, a prestigious agency with an impressive fashion talent roster.)
Johnson recently announced she is closing her clothing brand in order to focus on other creative pursuits. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while,” she explains. “As the business has grown, my role has become less creative, and I wanted time to really get in touch with myself again.” Her choice to move away from clothing design in favour of artistic endeavours echoes the creative journey of her first employer, Helmut Lang, who left his eponymous clothing label for a career in fine arts. After the Virginia Johnson label closes its doors for good at the end of June, Johnson looks forward to taking a much deserved break and enrolling in painting workshops. Although she’s unsure where her career will take her, she already has creative projects and collaborations lined up. Johnson sees the transition as part of her creative journey: “I do see this as an evolution, and that part of what I’ve created with my clothing design will come out in some form or another in future endeavors.”
What began as a career in fashion fully blossomed into a prolific art enterprise.
The last day of online sales for Virginia Johnson pieces will be Sunday, June 28, 2015.