Virginia Johnson: following her own path

Toronto-based textile designer Virginia Johnson shares her journey as a creative entrepreneur

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Virginia Johnson

Virginia in her Toronto studio. Photo, Alexandra Gater.

We love Toronto-based textile designer Virginia Johnson. She transforms her drawings and paintings into beautiful clothing and homewares — from pretty, flowy dresses to her punchy printed pillows and Canadian-made candles — to create a unique brand that is both bold and delicate. Virginia Johnson Lifestyle is sold in more than 100 stores across the world, including Holt Renfrew and Liberty’s. We got a sneak peek at her Spring ’15 collection and sat down to ask her a few questions on what it means to be a creative woman who has carved her own extraordinary path in the design world.

Chatelaine: What inspires you?

Virginia Johnson: I tend to pick up inspiration when I’m travelling, whether it’s something from a flea market, or a vintage hat or books — I love vintage books. It could be a new artist I discover when I’m in a museum. I’m also inspired by watching people on the street.

C: Once you’ve drawn an array of things, how do you pick what’s going to be in your collection?

VJ: I try to draw a lot of different things, so that I have lots of options. Some things I’ll have a gut feeling about — they will feel more compelling in that particular season — so I will start designing around that. I tend to jump in and start drawing and pull out different elements that I feel really work well together. Then I spend more time narrowing in and picking my favorites and then build supporting prints around that.

C: You went to Parsons [art and design school in New York City] to study fashion design. How did you begin venturing into other territories like home decor?

VJ: Just personally, I’ve become more interested in it. I have two kids, and home is more important to me now because I spend more time there. We renovated our house a few years ago and spent a lot more time reading and learning about interior design. It was then I wanted to bring my patterns to life in that way.

C: Your art is so unique and your brand is very individual. How did you find your style as an artist; was it a difficult process?

VJ: I was really surprised to see what my style looked like, because I really didn’t know until I actually did it. I was surprised at how colourful and graphic and print driven it was. I discovered I loved silk screening; it was a way for me to put my drawings on fabric. When I went to create a whole collection I almost felt embarrassed by how bright it was. And then it just became my hallmark from the beginning; it was all I knew how to do and all that was in me.

C: You started out as an entrepreneur. What were the challenges surrounding that? What were the really great things?

VJ: I hadn’t really planned to start a business when I started designing; it was really just an organic way of wanting to create something, share it and then sell it. I would say starting out, ignorance is bliss because you don’t know how hard it could be. On the plus side, you’re very free to experiment with whatever you want and the rest is a learning curve. It took me a while to understand that right out of the gate I couldn’t approach the large department stores to carry my line because I didn’t have a brand. This time around, I started on a much more realistic level of just doing a little collection with $1,500 that wouldn’t kill me if I lost it, so that my skills and experience were at the right level.

C: What advice do you have for young women who want to start out in the creative world?

VJ: It did help me to have experience working for someone else in the industry and to actually learn how things were done, even though I was very impatient and wanted to do it all right away. That’s not always the case for everyone, but for me I did need to learn more. It’s important to stay true to yourself, and to find the thing you are really passionate about because you will want to work really hard at it. I worked really, really hard to be able to carry out all aspects of the business. But because you’re having to deal with things you’re not familiar with, like production and sales and marketing, you end up spending very little of your time designing. But the passion of being able to realize that and put your creations out there, for me, has always been worth it. I’ve come to actually really enjoy the other areas because they’re very creative as well, having to make business decisions all the time. It’s also nice to follow your own path.

Check out some of our favourites from Virginia’s Spring ’15 collection below.