A Fashion Talk With Norwegian Wood Designer Angie Johnson

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Angie Johnson is one of the most talented Canadian fashion designers right now. (I know, it’s a bold start, but it’s true.) While many local creators prefer to use a neutral palette, she has made an art of mixing unexpected colors and prints together. Patterns that she creates herself, because that’s what Angie is: an artist, from beginning to end.

I met her a couple of years ago when I modeled for her brand Norwegian Wood (and when one side of my head was totally shaved, but that’s a different story). Since then, I must admit, everything Angie does, I like.

Unluckily for Montreal but happily for her, she recently moved to California to reunite with her fiancé (+1 for love). I had the chance to chat with her before her big move.

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Tell me about your background.

I grew up in Manitoba, in a very small town with 300 people. When I was 16,  I started going to raves and making clothes for the people around me. I lived there until I was 18 and then I moved to Winnipeg. The city was kind of falling apart, so there was a lot of warehouse spaces where we’d have giant parties and fashion shows. That’s when I started selling clothes in boutiques.

Meanwhile, I was studying clothing and textiles in university while working for Silver Jeans. Back then, they did all their manufacturing in Winnipeg. I was able to experience an actual factory and see the whole production from beginning to end. First, I was managing the sample section and playing their fit model. I also ended up doing graphic and garment design work. Then, I met my then-boyfriend and we decided to move to Montreal. For about six years, I worked on Chabanel street for different fashion companies and then I just had enough. That’s when I started Norwegian Wood.

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Why “Norwegian Wood”?

I love The Beatles (Norwegian Wood is one of  their songs) and my grandfather is Norwegian. My family has many origins: Swedish, Irish and British, but Norwegian was the one we were always around the most when we were kids.

Could you describe your creative process?

I usually start with a general vibe, for example 1960s psychedelic or 1970s rec room. Then I try to find fabrics that fit that mood and then I design based on current silhouettes.

It really is a balance between creativity and practicality. If a style sold very well last season, we’ll do a new version in a different fabric for the next collection. I want to give people what they want. I’m not the kind of designer who says: “This is what you must wear this season”. As long as I still feel that it looks good, I will make it.

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You did tons of collaborations with different artists and organizations – one of which was with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Do you have a personal favorite?

I love them all, they’re all so different! But collaborating with Kimberly Fletcher on leather bags is always good. We’ve been working together for five season and she’s such a pleasant person to work with. She’s smart with business, but she’s just a nice person too.

You create prints for those bags as well as the ones in your collection.

Yes, it’s really fun, I love doing it! It started when digital printing became accessible. Some of them are printed here, in Montreal, with Art of Where and others with Spoonflower, located in the States.

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You’ve also collaborated with huge brands like Topshop and Anthropologie. How did that happen?

I used to be very active on Style Bubble, Susie Lau’s blog. I would have conversations in the comment section, so she knew who I was. At some point, she was looking for custom clothes and she suggested I make some for her. I think that’s how Topshop found out about me.

They first did a small 3-month pop up, which was called Edit, with me and other designers. A year later, they asked me if I wanted to sell clothes at their London flagship store, in Oxford Circus, which has a section dedicated to vintage fashion and independent designers. I tested it out, but it was just not cost effective. I had to have employees there, but I only had one rack. It was so expensive, the store was opened from 9am to 8pm! I also had to ship new stuff every week, which would have been okay if I had had six months to prepare, but they contacted me a month before starting the project. After some time, I crunched up the numbers and I was practically working for free.

At the same time, Anthropologie approached me to make a capsule collection. Every season, they would work with smaller designers for a concept called Made in Kind. The problem was that I had bought all my fabrics for my spring/summer collection already. Then they came in and asked for 600 dresses, but I was only planning on making 20! Laughs. On top of that, I only had three months to do the whole production. It was such a stressful and crazy period in my life.

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On another note: fall is here! What’s the collection like this season?

A couple of months ago, I went to Joshua Tree for the first time. It was so beautiful! The collection is inspired by that: a sparse desert with lots of browns, rusty tons and sage green. It still has a lot of prints, but the colors are much more toned down. It’s very 70s, but also modern.

What is the best and the worst thing about fashion in Montreal?

The people that are nice and want to build a community are REALLY nice, but there’s not enough of that. People ask me sometimes about my resources, like where do I get my printing done, and I always tell them and they will say: “Thank you so much, no one will ever tell me”. It’s very competitive. If I have a good contractor, I’m going to let people know about it, because they’re closing at an alarming rate and they need business. Montreal needs to connect more. We would be stronger together.

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Do you remember the first thing you made?

My mom taught me how to embroider when I was 5, which seems irresponsible now that I think about it, with all those pins and needles! Laughs. Once, I embroidered the piece to my dress and decided to cut my dress instead of cutting the thread. The embroidery meant more to me.

Who are your style icons?

I love Patti Smith and the way she mixes clothes. She’s so cool. Diane Kruger flies under the radar, but she always looks amazing too. I also really like Jemima Kirke. She’s a really interesting person with a bohemian feel. I’d be really proud if she was wearing my clothes.

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Is there a trend that you wish would go away?

Some people will hate me for saying that, but normcore! You’re 22, you’re so hot, this is your time to dress really hot. If I wear that, I just look like a dumpy 35-year-old. I understand, it’s about the contrast –  you’re super young and you wear something unexpected – but god, it’s so boring!

Is there a trend that you wish would come back?

I think about the 70s and how men had such daring styles… Now I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard guys say: “I’m gonna look gay if I wear that”. I hate that so much! Maybe it will happen again, when everyone will be on different levels of gay or straight and no one will care. People won’t be able to assume someone’s sexuality by what they’re wearing anymore.

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How would you describe your personal style?

All over the place! I have 1950s cotton dresses, leather leggings and hippie flowy 70s dresses. It’s like playing dress up. I had a friend in university who was the same and we would call it “theme dressing”. One day it would be rocker girl and the other, bohemian goddess. It was creative, like making a mini photoshoot on your body every day.

What is your #1 advice for someone who wants to work in fashion design?

If you want to start your own business, go work for somebody else first, even if it’s just for a year or two. Learn on their dime. I don’t think I would have been able to do what I’m doing now if I hadn’t work at bigger companies first. Even if you don’t get your dream job, you’re working around all those people. Ask them questions and learn about what they’re doing, because you’ll have to do it by yourself one day.

Photos by Naomie Tremblay

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