By Shelley Hill Young
Heather Rose Johnson is carrying an old gray cashmere sweater with her. It belonged to her father-in-law and then her husband. Then, it shrunk after being washed, and now Heather wears it. There are holes in the elbows, but the sweater has a story.
Heather, who is one of 13 emerging designers – and the only one from Charleston – presenting collections this month at Charleston Fashion Week, loves clothes that have a story. The inspiration behind her Fashion Week collection is a vintage embroidered silk indigo kimono that she says her mom probably bought at an antique show. “It’s stunning,” she says.
She wondered if she could bring herself to cut it up. But she did. The embroidery from the kimono has a new life on a sheer dress that she’ll send down the runway March 15.
Heather says there’s a huge Asian influence in her collection, with references to the ’60s and ’70s. “‘Soul Train’ meets an undercover geisha; that’s the mood of the collection.”
“The runway show has to be entertaining,” but, she adds, there’s a fine line. “You don’t want it to be too costumey.” She says you want to create a “wow” factor, but you still have to edit the designs so that they’re something people want to wear. “That’s the challenge.”
Heather has been known as Charleston’s seamstress. She started doing alterations, which evolved into helping other designers with their supply chain, and she opened her own business called Charleston Garment Foundry. After she had her son, she strapped him to her chest and went to work, but she learned that wasn’t working for her. She closed the business and sold most of her equipment.
After you have children, “You are a different person in every way,” she says. “I had a little bit of an identity crisis.” She compares the experience to a cicada that sheds its shell.
Now that her son is about to turn 4 and will soon start kindergarten, Heather has started thinking about reinventing herself again. So when she read an old article about Fashion Week while in a waiting room this fall, she thought, “OK, I’m doing this.”
“I feel like a new person, I have new energy,” she says. “I know who I am as a designer, even though I’ve never called myself a designer.”
As a designer, Heather is an advocate of the slow fashion movement, often drawing parallels to the slow food movement. (Her husband is Ben Johnson, co-owner of the new One Broad Street.) It’s important to know where your clothes come from and the impact the manufacturing process has on the environment.
“People forget that clothes come from the Earth,” Heather says. A garment’s story doesn’t start with the designer. “You have to go all the way back to where the textile started.”
Heather’s ready-to-wear women’s collection will include 20 pieces for 12 looks. She’s using many sustainable, natural fabrics, including a handwoven peace silk that is harvested without killing the moth. “They are very rich textiles,” she says. “At first glance, you wouldn’t know that.”
The natural fabrics dictate her color palette, which features soft pinks, blues, black, white, green and gold. Heather plans to play with the fabrics to add interest – stamping, creating pleats and adding embroidery. She’s using some yarn that is hand-dyed with natural dyes from a woman who lives in her hometown of Columbia, Missouri. None of her clothes will use plastic zippers. Instead, she’ll use wooden buttons and drawstrings. “It matters,” she says.
Heather admits she’s “not a saint” and has purchased fast fashion, but this year she’s committed to sewing most of her wardrobe as well as continuing to support other local designers.
She’s recently learned to knit and plans to launch a knit collection after Fashion Week. She’d love to eventually open a retail store where she can sell her knitwear, serve coffee and offer workshops to teach others how to sew and knit. “That’s the big dream stuff,” she says.
“I want to make something people will want to spend their money on. I want to make things that are beautiful and people love and will last a long time.”