Ulla Johnson’s daughter was just two months old the first time she visited Peru. “Everyone warned me not to travel to that altitude with a baby, but it was an incredible experience,” says the designer, who took the trip in search of knitters to collaborate with on her growing collections. “The women I was meeting work and parent together, so having my baby with me was familiar to them and an equalizing starting point.”
During that first visit to Peru, Johnson became enthralled with the talent and skills of the artisans. Their strong connection to traditional techniques was something she was having trouble finding in the US. “I love Alpaca and the materials and colour palettes from Peru, and I felt I had something unique to say. I could use their incredibly rich history, but inject our contemporary design aesthetic.”
Now, Johnson works with close to 20 different groups in Peru. “On one of my most recent trips, we flew to Cuzco, then drove for 10 hours, and then hiked down a little valley and across farmlands to a small house where one of my ponchos was being knit on a loom. It was mind-blowing to see that kind of reach,” she says. The production of Johnson’s pieces falls into the newly dubbed Slow Fashion Movement — a design philosophy that values quality, longevity and sustainability of products. “Since the inception of Ulla Johnson a lot has changed in the fashion landscape. My business came from a desire to create something of quality with integrity. I think that desire to craft handmade products that are a labour of love has only increased in the face of fast fashion and mass production.”
My business came from a desire to create something of quality with integrity and that desire only increased in the face of
fast fashion and mass production.
Of course, crafting clothing by hand comes with a unique set of obstacles. Garments that have been dyed naturally and touched by a number of hands are expectedly harder to scale. “At the end of the day there isn’t a pattern,” says Johnson, “each time a different person knits or weaves something the size or tension might change.” Quality and consistency are important, but it’s that distinct variation in the craftsmanship that adds a story to the pieces. “We’ve had to say no to partners to ensure the brand grows consciously and in a way that’s sustainable,” says Johnson. Yet in Ulla Johnson’s case, growing consciously doesn’t mean staying small. A-listers like Jennifer Lawrence, Alexa Chung and Kate Hudson are just a few of the style stars who have put their stamp of approval on the flowing frocks and cozy knits. And with regular presentations at NYFW, it’s safe to say that Ulla Johnson broken into the mainstream.
“I think people are drawn to the brand for the same reasons I was inspired by this process. It’s people’s fatigue with cheap mass produced garments. We let out consumer impulse get the best of us and I think people want to take a step back and learn about the products they’re buying.” For Johnson and her team, asking questions, being engaged and finding a more personal connection with our clothing is a welcomed trend.