This story is part of Image Issue 21, “Image Makers,” our third annual celebration of the local fashion stars who are shaping the global future of fashion built out of Los Angeles. Read the full topic here.
It’s been eight hours and Juliet Johnston, designer of the fashion brand of the same name, hasn’t stopped drawing in her studio in downtown Los Angeles. Lush brushstrokes bloom on flowers and hummingbirds, their wings and petals extending across cargo pants and children’s T-shirts. The designs are collages of her mother’s elaborate bouquets that decorated Johnston’s childhood home, Malibu canyons, and illustrations of ancient botany. They hover over words like “love” or “hate” that creep down pant legs.
Deep color accents transform her favorite ’90s staples and 2000s fashion into something unique. These aren’t the velor jumpsuits that used to litter celebrities’ backs with rhinestones, but Johnston’s own version of SoCal luxury and escapism.
“I don’t make anything serious, it’s supposed to be fun,” she says. “It’s supposed to be ridiculous to have a butterfly on your ass.”
Johnston first painted flowers and butterflies on baggy pants because she needed to draw something joyful and unrestrained. She was broke and working as a studio assistant in New York, and her work trousers were low-risk fabric. It was a way to get around the crippling pressure she felt after graduating from art school in 2017 to make art that was politically charged and “life-changing,” she says.
Three years later, Johnston did the same work in Los Angeles, offering her first pair of hand-painted pants for sale on Instagram as an experiment. Soon after, Bella Hadid’s shipment-shaking post helped turn the 28-year-old painter into a fashion designer with drops of products selling out in minutes. Her work has been featured in Vogue and worn by Dua Lipa and Kendall Jenner, not to mention garnering a loyal online following dubbed the “JJ Girls.” It has done pop-up sales in Los Angeles and Paris, and has partnered with Levi’s. The work turned out to be life-changing.
Creative stimulation was never far from Johnston. She grew up in a household of musicians, with her six siblings following in the footsteps of her father, who was the guitarist in Elton John’s band. Her mother, a former fashion designer, stayed home with the children but was always creating her own art, too. There was a craft room in the house in Calabasas where Johnston first became involved in painting in between playing drums, guitar and piano. This was just what she did in her family.
While visiting her father at work, Johnston got a glimpse of John’s impressive wardrobe, which looking back may have inspired her. But her parents’ style is most evident in the designer’s product collections today.
“Everything I made now was a nod to something my mother had,” she says. “Whether it’s just a pair of sick sweatpants or a cute top.”
Think Uggs and shorts. Diesel pants. The early signature of gorgeous mom Juicy Couture fits. When Johnston was in high school, fashion was in an earlier cycle of casual luxury, synonymous with the fancy shoes and low-rise jeans found as Johnston strolled between Agoura High School and Malibu.
But Johnston was never interested in fashion trends, she was always an illustrator. She has found freedom in brushing since she was little. “Experimenting with colors and making my own, being able to create an image out of nothing, is the most fun part of my life,” she says.
This passion took her to Parsons School of Design, where she transformed her studio into Mars using silver emergency blankets, astronaut costumes and airplane seats—a satirical commentary on space as the next target of colonization. The atmosphere of her current, bright downtown studio is more functional, but still there is another world she has meticulously created. Racks of clothing sit among the oversized painted butterflies and collections of vintage Playboy shoots that adorn the walls. Marigolds, crystals and incense are scattered on the tables. Floral pillows brighten up the white sofa.
“I’ve always delved into things,” she says. “Now I’m obsessed with this world I’m creating.”
Clothes were her first canvas outside of school, but she wouldn’t be as excited about making clothes if it had nothing to do with painting. A half-finished canvas hangs on the wall in her studio: her signature flowers stretch across the turquoise paint, fading and deepening. It’s a blank wall you can dive into, a vast space to explore. With fashion, there are limitations: she has to think about how the design will wrap around a pant leg, for example. But clothing is another form of visual art, another way to conjure an image, and express her desire to make something beautiful.
“It all comes from my hands and my brain, so it’s all in the same universe,” Johnston says. “They’re just different little planets.”
Through a friend, Johnston sent Bella Hadid a pair of her pants while she was at Paris Fashion Week, just a few months before the pandemic hit. (The model admired her pants on Instagram.) The lockdowns soon left Johnston at her parents’ house, figuring out how she would pay the rent again. That’s when Hadid spread her pants. Within minutes, Johnston’s direct messages exploded with hundreds of requests for custom pants. Keeping up with orders was initially a family affair, with Johnston’s mother dyeing pants over the stove and her father shipping orders, until demand prompted her to move into her own studio in September 2020. Her friends are local in the fashion world, including an up-and-coming designer. Her friend Reece Cooper helped her set up the store. Johnston released a second JJ product by the end of the year: tank tops, all with distinct designs, which now number in the thousands. The slow rollout of each new item helped build hype and strengthen its brand as a women’s clothing brand.
Now, most of the drops are designed with their own style: baby t-shirts, sherpa fleeces, hoodies, and swimwear. She combines natural elements with images from old magazines and concert posters, as well as catalogs from more recent analogue eras, such as Delia. She injects nostalgic references into her clothes: ’90s girl power meets flower power, with skulls and the occasional spiky rose too. She likes fonts because they’re like “time stamps,” like the cheery letters from 1970s band posters — they remind her of her father’s musical heyday. Spelling out words like “fuck” or “faith,” she also uses gothic fonts that have jumped into high fashion by other Los Angeles brands, like Born X Raised, and were originally pulled from souvenir jackets and city buildings.
In Johnston’s designs there is a combination of the strong and the soft, highlighting her whimsical style. “It started out as an attempt to do some juxtaposition because I was drawing a lot of stereotypically feminine flowers, bright colors, butterflies, all that stuff,” she says. “Mixing the two became interesting, and I like it because I’m feminine but also not very feminine, so it seemed natural to me.”
In GG’s world, “something beautiful” can include our raw emotions encoded in symbols of sadness, giant curse words, and the petals we picked from flowers in the hope that someone would love us. Sometimes requests come in for memorial pants: calla lilies, butterflies and names to honor a loved one. These collections feel personal, as wearing them is revealing, like bringing a unique work of art out of your home and into the world.
While Johnston used to buy her clothes from brands like Dickies, she now makes her clothes from scratch, collaborating with a Los Angeles factory to produce unisex pants that are a little more form-fitting than traditional work pants. Rivets and buttons are embossed with flowers and logo. She and her team still hand-dye the pieces in tamale pots in her studio in custom colors.
But painting each product is a hard labor of love. Custom pants can take days to paint (they now cost $600), so, for the sake of her neck and back health, Johnston began offering simpler versions on the site for upwards of $200. Other items containing prints of her designs will be released soon, allowing her to expand and make more of her work available. She hopes this development will free her up for more partnerships or projects to paint on new platforms. She wants to paint on cars, on stages, on furniture, on private planes, and she wants to practice public art. “My goal is for my canvases, clothes, furniture, or anything else that the world extends to, to be an extension of me and my artwork.”
Veron Salnecker is a writer on food, style and culture with a focus on identity, origins and systems. They also organize food and spirit events across the country. She grew up in the Bay Area and is based in Los Angeles.
Letters by Jake Garcia/For The Times