Angela Johnson has been a harbinger of Arizona’s fashion community for the past 15 years. Through her talent, shrewd business tactics, and unteachable ambition, the fashion maven has managed to cultivate exciting changes and spearhead new opportunities for Phoenix. Curious by this steadfast pillar in the southwestern creative hub, I interviewed Ms. Johnson. Aiming to expand on the stamina that has carried Angela while realizing her dreams. I’m deeply inspired by her endurance, creativity, and hidden talents (which she fortunately shares with me.)
A.Y.W. Tell us about your history with fashion.
A.J. My grandmother was really into fashion and had a unique style. My grandfather was a U.S. District Attorney stationed in the Panama Canal Zone when I was a little, and I lived there with them. They used to host dinner parties for important people like governors and ambassadors. And my grandmother used to dress really fashionably for these parties. She saved all of her dresses, and as a child I played in her closets. As I got older, I borrowed her clothing and wore them to school, and altered them by cutting and pinning them, and pairing them with combat boots and things like that.
Even though I loved unique/vintage fashion, I never knew you could make a career out of it. So when it was time to go to college, I actually earned a degree in Speech Communication instead of something fashion related. But after graduation, I realized that I now had the ability to speak in public, but had nothing to to really speak about. I also had a love of snowboarding, which was a new sport at the time, and there were no clothing brands for female snowboarders. So, that’s when I decided to move to L.A. and go to FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising) to learn fashion skills so I could create my own snow/skate/surf brand for girls.
After graduation, I ended up working for the Beastie Boys clothing line X-Large and Sonic Youth’s line X-Girl. I worked my way up from cutter to Production Manager. And along the way I made a lot of contacts with material/trim suppliers and contractors. So, I decided to finally start my own collection of board sports clothing for girls called Monkeywench. I found a partner who was an actress that played Carrie Brady on Days of Our Lives and she had the money to invest. We were in stores internationally, and were in business for about 5 years. Eventually, she moved to Europe and I had to move to Arizona to take care of grandfather when my grandmother passed away.
When I moved to Arizona, I was unable to manufacture my collection from here because of the lack of resources. There are no wholesale fabric/trim suppliers or manufacturers/contractors in Arizona. And it is not cost effective to travel back and forth to L.A. as often as I would have needed, in order to take my product through the manufacturing process. So, we closed the business and I started my current brand of up-cycling t-shirts into ballgowns instead. Because it’s feasible to create one-of-a-kinds in a city without an apparel industry….just not manufacturing hundreds of the same thing.
I started to show my collection at the local museums, and meet a ton of other designers, stylists, photographers, models, etc. ….and eventually all of this inspired me to want to unite the local fashion community in Arizona by providing a directory of fashion businesses. So that everyone in fashion could find each other, and it would make sourcing easier. I hoped that one day this would encourage manufacturers to relocate to Arizona. But after 15 years of working on this, I found that there was a huge fashion community, but still no manufacturing. That’s when I really started to think about how I could provide more resources including consulting, classes, co-working studio and possibly manufacturing.
A.Y.W. Angela, your history in fashion is completely fascinating. Thank you for sharing your experiences. You currently teach fashion education classes. Is teaching merely a day job? Or are you passionate about instruction?
A.J. When I first moved to Arizona from L.A., and had to close my brand, I turned to teaching as a job in order to survive. I found that I actually loved teaching as much as designing. I’ve taught in fashion programs at Arizona State University, Mesa Community College, Art Institute of Phoenix, Collins College and New School for the Arts. Currently, I teach private lessons and do fashion brand start up consulting as part of LabelHorde because I really enjoy helping others learn.
A.Y.W. Angela, you have been working feverishly to create a reputable fashion community within Arizona for well over a decade. How did you preserve with the onslaught of so much adversity?
A.J. It has been about 15 years of constant dedication to this mission because I totally believed that it was important and that it needed to happen. Since moving to Arizona in 2000, I have consulted countless designers and brands. And taught them all about the steps in manufacturing but then I had to break the bad news that there were no local resources, and that they would have to try to find what they needed in L.A.. The majority of these brands ended up failing because of the cost of travel, and the inability to quality control product from across state lines. And other obstacles that go along with trying to manage the production of a product without being in the same state. It was really upsetting to see all of these bright eyed designers get their dreams smashed, and their bank accounts drained.
I knew that having a local resource for all things fashion related was a necessity. I also knew it would be a huge undertaking, and it would be very expensive to make this happen, so I worked on it slowly through the years. It started as a directory which was in print form as a glossy magazine, that listed every fashion business in town. This was the early 2000’s and it was really the only significant thing happening in Arizona fashion at the time.
We then started producing multi-designer fashion shows for the museums and resorts. They were selling out, but the designers were just making one-offs….basically fashion for entertainment. So, that was also something that was bothering me. I knew that this would run its course, and these designers would need to be able to take it to next level, and manufacture in order to make money and stay in business.
So, I started teaching and consulting and providing a monthly newsletter that kept all of the fashion community informed about events, jobs, opportunities, etc.. All along, there were many obstacles. I would run out of my own money trying to print the magazine, and I wouldn't be able to pay my own bills. I also ran into a lot of divas and people who took advantage of me. And people who were convinced that I had an ulterior motive. I’m very sensitive and there were so many times I wanted to give up. And I even stopped printing the directory and officially closed LabelHorde for a few years in the middle.
But I never stopped sending the newsletter and doing the consulting and teaching. Eventually, the local industry did grow and I got to see the fruit of my labor start to blossom. So, I picked up where I left off and re-opened LabelHorde-online this time and have been moving forward steadily ever since. I still didn't have enough of my own money to really do what I wanted to do, but I now had a community of people who understood the mission, and were willing to donate their time and skills to help build it and keep it going this time around.
A.Y.W. Now that you have access to the factory, do you feel that fashion manufacturing will rise inside Phoenix?
A.J. The factory is making all the difference in the world. Without the factory, LabelHorde was just an entity online and some lessons/consultations out of my home studio. Sherri Barry, my strategic partner, opened AZ Fashion Source which is the manufacturing part of the equation. Our facility now allows us to offer manufacturing, classes/lessons/consulting, co-working, design services, sourcing, design supplies, events and more.
This is a game changer. Now that we are able to offer everything under one roof, it’s like an entire fashion industry is in one building. Now all of the designers/brands and students who want to get into fashion, have a resource for everything they need. This will most definitely make fashion rise in Phoenix.
A.Y.W. Now that is exciting news for Arizona. That’s an enormous triumph for you, LabelHorde, and the surrounding fashion community. But, I must ask you-Why Phoenix? Why not move seven hours west to Los Angeles? (The fashion district dwarfs even that of New York City.)
A.J. Personally, it was because I had to leave L.A. to move to Arizona for family reasons. But there are a lot designers/brands who are now living outside of traditional fashion industry cities because of the internet and the whole re-shoring movement, and the trend toward locally made items, etc.. So, this is actually a need in every state. In fact, there are similar models popping up in other non-traditional fashion cities around the nation. One of my future goals with LabelHorde is to branch out the directory to other non-traditional fashion cities around the nation to provide the beginnings of sourcing for them as well.
A.Y.W. How do you balance your artistic need to create with being a mother of two?
A.J. I’ve always included my kids in everything. When my son (now 17) was an infant, I was living in L.A., and I used to strap him to my back and take him with me to the fashion district daily to deliver my cuts and pick up my patterns and fabrics. He used to be backstage at every fashion show that I did as well. My daughter comes with me to the factory now. In fact, this might be TMI, but I used to sew and breast feed at the same time. Now that’s a skill to brag about! So, the kids just go with the flow. So, there is no real need to balance the two because they just exist together.
A.Y.W. How do you keep yourself artistically sustained year after year?
A.J. Throughout everything I have been doing over the years with LabelHorde, I’ve always kept my up-cycled t-shirt brand as my hobby/side business. It allows me to be creative because each dress is made from whatever t-shirts I can find at the time the order is placed. I love making them.
A.Y.W. You’re clearly a self-starter and innovator. How do you keep yourself organized and accountable?
A.J. I think my greatest skill (besides breast feeding while sewing) are my organizational skills. Everything starts with good organization. You can’t really do anything well unless you are organized. I’m organized in every part of my life. I love to organized things. When I need a break and want to relax, I clean out my drawers. So, I think that is just part of who I am.
A.Y.W. Do you have a mentor, or do you mentor? If so, how did those relationships unfold?
A.J. Over the years, I’ve taken many students under my wing as interns and mentees. It’s been very rewarding. I also have a lot of people in my life who are very supportive and encouraging. I had a few mentors in L.A..
A.Y.W. What’s next for you, LabelHorde, and the factory?
A.J. Boy you ask good questions! The next move is that we are getting a 23,000 square foot building free of rent by an Arizona city who believes in this mission! We can't say which city it is until the final draft of the operating agreement has been signed. But we will be moving into this building at the end of August and I’m so excited. It’s like my dream is finally coming true.
This building is large enough to allow us to really be an entire industry under one roof. There are enough rooms to offer co-working offices to multiple local designers/brands and to do manufacturing, offer design services, shared studio space, sourcing library, support services like a photography studio, and even enough room to host every huge fashion show in town. I’m so excited!
Thank you Angela for sharing your sharing your journey in both fashion and business with Sillin. I am confident that you will continue to persist at making dreams a reality. Your patience and work ethic inspire. I personally look forward to seeing what’s next for you, LabelHorde, and the endless opportunities unfolding at the factory. I tip my proverbial cap to you for never losing sight of your vision, while being family oriented, and true to your core values.
Photography: Larry Alan, Hair: Ethan Murray, Make-up: Tara Hutchinson, Models: Carolina Kenney, Tara Hutchinson, Location: Ethan Murray residence, Shirts: unicorn, dragon, fairy shirts provided by The Mountain