Profile: Tess Johnson
Photography by Nicole McLaren
Tess Johnson was one of the participating designers at Ottawa Fashion Week this season, showcasing her second full collection, Submerged.
As a young child, Johnson channelled her creativity in several ways, including designing her own costumes for figure skating. By high school, she wanted to be in New York, and set her sights on Parsons The New School for Design, one of the top design schools in North America.
During her fashion studies, she pursued a semester abroad in Paris, and had many internships until realizing that she wanted to transition from being a stylist to being a designer. Johnson loved sewing and making prints. After graduation, she was offered a chance to be on a television show and subsequently won the funds to create her first collection, a resort line.
For her current second collection, Johnson wants to focus on production and would love to see herself in Ottawa, and eventually in New York City. “I’ve spent the last six years in the U.S., but have also learned so much about the industry in Canada,” she says. “I would love to see my pieces in little Canadian boutiques.”
Like many young and budding designers today, Johnson’s goal is that her clothing is worn by “every woman”.
“I have pieces that are fluid, structured, for day or for evening. All of my clothes are made by a woman to look good on a woman,” she explained. Indeed, Johnson’s shirts are intended to highlight the smallest part of the waist and create an hourglass figure.
“My last collection was highlighting the height of a woman; this one is all about the waistline.”
Submerged is print heavy to say the least. “It’s all about classic shapes with cool prints,” says Johnson. “I found a lot of images of fish and coral, and scanned my favourites. I made about 30 prints, and the collection showcases the three that I liked the most.”
Essentially, the designer had a picture of a school of fish and put it into repeat to create a plaid with boxes and quadrants. Another print, which she dubs as “my bubble barnacle print”, was an image of a long rod covered in barnacles, which she cut in circles and placed into repeat to create a striped pattern on a maroon background.
“Stripes and plaid are classic and I try to have one of each in my collections,” she clarified.
“My interest lies in contradiction, whether that is with my fabric choices or silhouettes. For fall and winter, my inspiration was the ocean, which is normally a summer theme. I combined the winter cold with the ocean to create this contrast.”
Johnson’s fabrics of choice were silk jersey, cotton, leather and fur, while her most common style was draping for both the collars and hemlines.
Particular standouts were a green corduroy jacket with leather alligator-patterned sleeves, a double-faced wool jacket with a “fish gill” fold on the back, merino wool infinity scarves, a silk crepe-de-chine patterned jumpsuit that is flared at the bottom, and a shearling coat with printed fur and a big button that mimics sea shells.
The designer is also very proud of her exclusive red dress for Red on the Runway, an event for Style Week and the American Heart Association, where a few designers were selected and paired with a heart disease patient or care taker. Johnson’s muse was a pediatric cardiologist, whose style is much more subdued than what Johnson is normally used to. “Either way, I wanted it to be really fun and happy because she’s amazing and dedicates her life to saving babies!”