Article by Chloë Catán

W
orking from her studio in Toronto, Canadian textile designer Virginia Johnson has built a hugely successful brand of colourful prints on clothing, shawls, home furnishings and children’s wear. Founded in 2001, the collection is now carried in stores all over the world such as Barneys, Holt Renfrew and Liberty’s. After attending Parsons School of Design she worked as an accessories designer for Helmut Lang in New York. She is also an accomplished illustrator with clients such as Kate Spade, Vogue US and InStyle. Ornamentum’s Associate Editor, Chloë Catán, talks to her about the inspiration and process behind her designs, and about how she manages to remain both relevant and rooted to her local environment while expanding her business on a global scale.


CC. What started you off in textiles?
VJ. I loved clothing from an early age and always wanted to be a fashion designer. I started illustrating clothing at the age of ten but it wasn’t until my late twenties that I discovered a common element in the clothing I collected was print and pattern. My mother suggested I take a screen printing course at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology on Saturdays and I realized that this was what I had been missing – a way to combine drawing and illustration with textiles.

CC. Describe your process, from beginning to end.
VJ. The process starts with collecting inspiration, which I do all the time. When I travel I collect anything that catches my eye. This could be an old box full of ribbon or a children’s book or an image in a newspaper or magazine of an animal, flower or texture. It could be a rubbing from a bathroom window or even the imprint of a string shopping bag.
Everything I collect eventually makes its way upstairs to my studio and I find that some themes emerge without me having planned them. I organize them together and start playing with them until it becomes clear what they should be. I then paint them either in watercolour or black ink. I don’t always have the end use in mind when I am painting. If something interests me I just draw it repeatedly and might come back to it months later.

I then work with our in-house textile designer on how it should repeat and decide on the scale. The finished artwork is sent to our printer either in India or Toronto (depending on what is being produced) and they make screens from the artwork. They will make up samples based on the colour swatches we provide and send them to us for approval. My team and I make changes if necessary and our final collection is then sent to our sales showrooms and trade shows in Canada, the US and the UK.

CC. Given that watercolours have certain effects
that you have said you want eliminated in the printing
process, why do you start by painting?
VJ. I have become much more interested in
using watercolour effects in the printing now
and have used digital printing to highlight this
technique. It seems to work well with textural,
painterly work. However it is not going to supplant
my screen printing anytime soon because
I like the fl at, graphic look of it.
I start by painting because that is how I formulate
the image and it seems the most natural
way to experiment and play. I’ve never liked to
design on the computer. I love the natural imperfections
and wobbly lines that occur when I draw with a pencil or paintbrush and though
the watercolour effect might be eliminated in
the end, I try to keep the irregular outer lines
and blotches in the print.

CC. Why does screen printing work well with your
designs? Why and how is this split between Toronto
and India?
VJ. We do all our printing in Toronto for clothing
because we prefer to have it close by and it is
easy to manage when it is done locally. We began
printing in India when we started to print on
shawls because pigments cannot be used on wool
(pigment printing is the primary screen printing
method in the US and Canada). Pigment sits on
top of the fabric and is not absorbed. It is thick
and scratchy on wool. India prints instead with
dyes, and the effect is rich and soft, which is why
all of our shawls are done in India.

CC. How do you choose your colours?
VJ. I collect colours wherever I go as well, whether
I clip a piece from the hem of a garment I own
or fi nd fabric scraps here and there, or I make up
some batches that I dye in my basement. When it’s
time to come up with next season’s colour story I
just go by instinct and look at what feels right as a
story. I am often drawn to the same colours so I
have to be careful not to repeat myself.

CC. The way you integrate material, image and object
is fascinating. You must need a thorough knowledge
of the way textiles work, not only to design motifs
but for their end use – whether on a body or on a
fi xed object. You have said that “Everything starts as
a textile and I use the clothing as a canvas for the
textiles….but I’m not just a textile designer.” You also
have strong feelings about how your textiles are used.
VJ. I like to see art and design in a context. I
have very strong feelings about how a textile relates
to its end-use, both in terms of how motifs are
chosen as well as the use of proportion, scale and
colour. It’s not very complicated, I just see that
something should be presented a certain way. So I
would be uncomfortable with the idea that I could
just hand over a motif or textile design and let
someone else decide how it is used. I also love
fashion, so designing the shapes and proportions
of the clothing is something I like to do myself. It’s
fun for me to play around with my illustrations, incorporating
the textiles. It’s a very fluid way to
work. Sometimes I will have a commission for an
illustration for an outside client and I will feel it
needs decoration of some sort and will incorporate
a textile design. Other times I will develop
illustration ideas for a client, a book cover for
instance, and end up finding inspiration for a textile.
I recently illustrated a cover for a book called
Lunch in Paris: a Love Story with Recipes. They wanted
something that had to do with falling in love
and food. One of my ideas was to paint a simple
string bag used in the French markets. That idea
was rejected because they wanted to use figures in
the end, but I liked it as a motif and used it as a
textile in my next collection.

CC. What qualities do you look for in a pattern to
be multipurpose, one that would work just as well on
a dress, on a scarf or on a cushion? Are there certain
patterns that are limited in their use?
VJ. I find most of my textiles make the transition
easily. I sometimes have the end-use in mind
when I am creating textiles, and sometimes not. I
just play around and then try to assemble a little
collection that works together.
Shawls tend to be good for bold patterns.
People are more willing to wear something bold
for an accent than on a dress. For instance my
alphabet print, which reproduced the signlanguage
alphabet, looks appropriate and interesting
on a shawl, but would look too gimmicky
on clothing. Likewise some prints such as shark
afternoon are more delicate and ‘pretty,’ and are
better suited to cotton voile resort wear. Pillows
I find, take a bold print better than smaller intricate
patterns.

CC. Tell me about the repetition in your designs.
What are the effects you are looking for when you
choose a tight systematic repeat of a motif rather than
a looser, more seemingly freehand design?
VJ. Some motifs lend themselves to something
tighter, more cheerful or ‘fun,’ whereas others
seem more rambling, exploratory, organic. I’ve
also become more interested in texture and I
like images that have been created by pressing
or scratching or creating marks in a different
way than just by drawing.

CC. What were the challenges in setting up a business
in Toronto as a young designer? Is Toronto a
good place to be right now?
VJ. I would say exposure and access are challenging
here in Toronto. I believe that to succeed
here in the fashion industry you have to
be selling to other markets, like the United
States. Therefore it is important to be exposed
to US buyers and media and not just focus on
Canada. We don’t have a big enough population.
I don’t think my clothing is wildly expensive,
but it’s not cheap either: and it would be
very diffi cult to keep a business going if you
only had ten customers.
I had just spent seven years living and working
in New York when I moved back to Canada
to start my business. I felt comfortable here and
I wasn’t afraid to approach stores and editors
and show them my collection. If you want to
access foreign markets, you need to have sales
agents in those markets to represent you, and if
you have that, you can operate the business
from anywhere.
I do think that Toronto has changed a lot in
the last decade. The particular area I live in
and where I have my offi ce and shop is full of
creative people. Even in New York I didn’t experience
this kind of energy and creativity in one
area. There is a strong sense of community in
and around Ossington, and there are many attractive
features: Trinity Bellwoods Park,
Queen Street, College Street. I feel very fortunate
to live here.


Image: Motif, repeat, colour and texture come together in the berries print.