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Jul 18

How Ulla Johnson Merges Fashion and Fantasy—On and Off the Runway

For Ulla Johnson, fashion is personal. The designer, whose dreamy ready-to-wear has become a mainstay within the wardrobes of perennially cool stars like Gwyneth PaltrowAlicia Vikander, and Sienna Miller, feels “quite passionately about every single piece,” she says in her Soho office. Though her ethereal dresses are currently having a moment on the red carpet, Johnson, who began her label in 1998, takes pains to ensure that every look taps into something deeper than a trend. “The whole design team, we all wear the clothes, we all kind of live the lifestyle,” she says. “We design from a place that is emotional. We’re all excited about not just the process, but the final garment.”

Johnson takes her craft seriously—she’s a perfectionist who for years tested each garment personally—but when it comes to her personal look, she has a sense of humor. “Do I wear gold lamé dresses everyday? No. I wish I did!” she says with a laugh. “I design things that I love. Not every piece is for me personally, but we now have this ability to make the kind of clothes that we dream about.” An avid traveler, Johnson draws inspiration from a global range of influences: the bustling energy of her New York City home, textiles discovered on one of her many trips to Peru, or her favorite galleries in Paris. “I’m not one to have a uniform,” she says. “Some days I’m quite stern and I wear huge nerdy glasses and trousers. Other days, I love feminine, ruffly things, and sandals and baskets.”

Johnson’s look reflects the realities of the busy life of an entrepreneur and mother. The challenges of helming a brand, raising her three children (Soren, Asher, and Agnes) with husband Zach Miner, and designing four collections a year have made her conscious of practicality—without ever losing her joie de vivre. “That’s what is so fun about fashion: You have the ability to kind of reinvent yourself every day,” she says.

Here, the designer reflects on her evolving style, starting a conversation with clothes, and why she’s never giving up her heels.

Great style runs in the family.

I feel like it’s so cliché, but as a little girl I was so obsessed with fashion magazines that if I stayed home sick from school in first grade, my mom would buy me Vogue to look at. I’ve always loved fashion. And my mom—I think a lot of the things we gravitate towards sometimes with children comes from a touchstone at home—she was incredibly into fashion and also a traveler and collector.

Photo: Courtesy of Ulla Johnson

Ulla Johnson Fontaine midnight floral organza cotton-silk dress, $575,; Ulla Johnson Yasmina booties, $625,; Ellery hammered face-motif bangle, $318,; Boy Smells Cedar Stack candle, $29,

Photo: (from left to right) Courtesy of; Courtesy of; Courtesy of; Courtesy of

Design runs deeper than aesthetics.

I was interested in going to study fashion in college, but my parents are both academics, archaeologists, and it was very important to them that I have a proper liberal arts education. In retrospect, I’m very happy to have done that, because I studied women’s studies and psychology, and that definitely impacts every single thing about the way that I design and why I create clothes for and by women.

Photo: Courtesy of Ulla Johnson

Ulla Johnson Finn blouse, $275,; Ulla Johnson Ellis jeans, $290,; Kathleen Whitaker rhyolite earrings, $2,495,; Moleskine notebook, $20,

Photo: (from left to right) Courtesy of; Courtesy of; Courtesy of; Courtesy of

Don’t be afraid to change your look—even in the middle of the day.

My style is quite eccentric. I would say the brand is definitely very feminine, but within that, there are a lot of different ways to wear the clothes. I would say [my look] really depends on the mood, the season, the moment, the occasion. Even during the day, sometimes I get bored and change my look halfway through, because I mean, what we do is look at millions of things every day. So I think it’s really fun to be quite free, and [be] who the clothes inspire you to be each day.

Photo: Courtesy of Ulla Johnson

Ulla Johnson Bettine pullover, $350,; Ulla Johnson Niko jeans, $380,; Ulla Johnson Milana heels, $550,; Sonia Boyajian Buren 3 panel black-and-white earrings, $700,

Photo: (from left to right) Courtesy of; Courtesy of; Courtesy of; Courtesy of ; Courtesy of

Clothing is the ultimate conversation-starter.

We live in a city that’s very public, and it’s wonderful because people have this emotional engagement with strangers every day, on the train, on the street. And people are very affected, I think, by other people wearing color, pattern, or things that feel a little unexpected. I have a whole part of my life that is like a dialogue with strangers based on what I’m wearing, which is kind of wonderful. There’s this idea that New Yorkers are uptight, or unfriendly. I mean, everybody in my office, all the girls who work there, they’re like, “Oh, I wore this dress. Ten people stopped me on the street.” I think that [style] creates almost this community, or this connectedness with passersby, which is really fun.

Photo: Courtesy of Ulla Johnson

Ulla Johnson Mirella top, $595,; Ulla Johnson Rhodes pants, $360,; Alice Cicolini Memphis ring in brandy citrine, $1,965,; Ulla Johnson Tautou basket, $265,

Photo: (from left to right) Courtesy of; Courtesy of; Courtesy of; Courtesy of

Evolve your style to suit life’s changes.

Becoming a mother changed my style a lot. I used to wear high heels all day every day, I had a different way of being in the world. And I think certainly the sense of ease has definitely informed my day-to-day style way more since I had kids. Becoming a mother and constantly traveling have made me appreciate things that I can sort of mix and match that work equally well in the city, or maybe when I’m in Montauk, or on the weekend with my kids going out, or when I’m traveling in Peru, or when I’m in Paris. I like having my wardrobe be one that’s not necessarily defined by a space and time.

Photo: Courtesy of Ulla Johnson

Ulla Johnson Hollis coat, $670,; Garrett Leight x Ulla Johnson Imogen sunglasses, $365,; Kathleen Whitaker quartz-slice earrings, $3,945,

Photo: (from left to right) Courtesy of; Courtesy of; Courtesy of

Stop and smell the roses.

I think my brand is quite closely affiliated with flowers. I personally arrange a lot of flowers. And I think that the unexpected combinations that nature brings forward is something that really informs the work as well. There are certain colors that you would just assume are garish or weird together, and then once you start playing with things and different shapes and saturated hues, it just takes on a real excitement. And I think we definitely bring that into the collection as well.

Photo: Courtesy of Ulla Johnson

Zeus + Dione Alcyone striped silk-blend pants, $700,; Ulla Johnson Chandra blouse, $415,; Ulla Johnson Annita pillow, $345,

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Style and beauty come from within.

I think that with makeup, with my clothes, with everything I do, it’s really about enhancing whatever the woman herself is bringing. Healthy, glowing skin is, like, the most important thing to me.

Choose clothes that help you carry yourself.

I love a lot of color and a strong shoulder. Those two things just make me feel excited. I also wear a ton of jewelry, and I’m very over-the-top there too. I love huge earrings and layering rings. I wear a lot of old Victorian jewelry or sculptural things. I have friends who make jewelry out of ceramics. We’ve collaborated with quite a few amazing jewelry designers like Pippa Small, who does these beautiful belts that you can layer on top. So I would say jewelry and color are my [style] essentials. And then I still love heels when I go out and I want to have that strong, self-possessed feeling. I know we’re in a time of utter practicality, but I still do love a really high heel. I’m a tall woman anyway, so it’s the physical presence, the way that it transforms the way that you walk and carry yourself.


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