By Erin Brassey
Tucked inside of a fashion incubator of her own creation is a woman with a heart for fashion who likes to see it done the sustainable way, even in an industry that is known as one of the most polluting in the world.
Ten percent of the world’s carbon emissions come from the fashion industry, and 13 million tons of clothing and footwear waste came from America in 2018, according to Bloomberg. These are just a few of the ways that fashion pollutes the earth.
Angela Johnson, an Arizona native, has spent her career looking to avoid these problems. She sat in her office one morning recently with a twinkle of pride in her eyes as she talked about the work she has done in her career and with the incubator, FABRIC.
She was wearing a hot pink sweater, a black pencil skirt cut just below the knee, and black Dr. Martens with floral socks peeking out the top. She finished off her outfit with translucent pink statement earrings and a series of rings – one ring belonged to her grandmother, the woman who inspired her love of clothes. It read “Love” across the top and had a secret curse word underneath, reminding Johnson of the incredible woman her grandmother was.
“I always wear something of hers every single day,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s a piece of jewelry or it’s one of her clothing items because it just keeps me connected to her.”
Johnson works everyday to help people create their brands. She supports the community through free fashion education, events and fashion recycling programs at FABRIC. Most recently, FABRIC has expanded to include a collective retail space – Wear+ – that allows different designers working with FABRIC to present and sell their work.
FABRIC stands for Fashion and Business Resource Innovation Center, and it has grown a great amount in recent years.
It has moved a lot of its production to a new digital system from Kornit Digital and Gerber Technology that allows designers to print custom designs on any fabric and have it cut out cleanly. The new system also allows the designers to create small batches at a lower cost.
The brand creation classes have been moved to an online road map that is accessible from anywhere, which means that FABRIC has been able to help hundreds of people all around the world.
Johnson dreamed up FABRIC after she returned to Arizona with five years working in Los Angeles under her belt.
Before FABRIC, she created LabelHorde, a directory of pattern makers, designers, fabric shops, and others in the Arizona fashion industry. She hoped it would help bring small fashion manufacturers to the state, but it didn’t happen.
At the time, Johnson was working as a fashion instructor at high schools and colleges around the Valley. She realized that she was helping great new designers blossom, only to watch them move away to work in Los Angeles and New York. Based on her experience with her first clothing brand, Monkeywench, she knew that these designers had to be in the same city where their clothes were being made so that they could closely check every step of the process, a requirement if they wanted to be successful just as she had done.
In 2016, Johnson was “a starving artist and a teacher,” as she put it. She partnered with Sherri Barry to co-found FABRIC, where clothing is made and small brands can begin, but the maximum number of garments that each brand can produce is capped at 200. This way, she said, there is time to help the small brands get established and ascertain that no one is overproducing.
The scraps from the manufacturing are not thrown away. They are repurposed and sewn together to create new pieces under the organization’s brand ReFABRICate.
But FABRIC does more than manufacture clothing. It gets used banners from Arizona State University and works with the Centers for Habilitation, where people with disabilities turn the banners into reusable bags. During the pandemic, its employees – a combination of designers, brand owners, students and interns – made over 800,000 reusable isolation gowns for local hospitals to help alleviate the shortage of medical supplies. Each gown could be washed 100 times, saving millions of single-use gowns from ending up in landfills.
Johnson’s start: All signs pointed to fashion
Johnson grew up sharing a home with her grandparents because her mother was only 18 years old when she was born. She said her grandparents were more like parents to her and were the biggest influence on her fashion career. Johnson’s mother has always given her love and support, she said, but they were “complete opposites” when it came to fashion.
Johnson graduated from Northern Arizona University (NAU) with a degree in speech communication. After she graduated, though, she sat down with her grandparents and told them that she was still unsure about what she wanted to do with her life.
They looked at her and said, “Well, what’s the thing that you love?”
Johnson knew she loved fashion, but was unsure about her chances of making it as a fashion designer. Then she took a career quiz, and all signs pointed to fashion.
She decided to attend a one-year fashion design program at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles.
“It was the hardest year of my life,” Johnson said.
She would drive an hour and a half to spend six hours a day in pattern-making classes and three hours in other classes, ending the day with another 90-minute drive home followed by homework. She would only get about three hours of sleep a night. Every week she would create a pattern for her pattern-making class, drape something for her draping class, sew something up for two classes, create an entire collection in a portfolio, do 100 illustrations for another class, and finish with some sort of business project.
“It was ridiculous, but it was fun,” Johnson said.
Before she graduated from the fashion institute, Johnson was hired as a cutter – the person who cuts the patterns out of fabric and a stiff manila paper – for a brand called X-Girl and its partner company X-Large. Johnson knew from the beginning that this is where she wanted to work because of the brands’ connections to music – another interest of hers – and the fact that these were not fast-fashion brands. That means that they did not overproduce their clothing, which is what leads to so many textiles ending up in landfills.
X-Girl was created by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and Mike D of the Beastie Boys had made an investment in X-Large to help it take off.
Johnson explained that she was constantly surrounded by star power and was often trying not to fangirl if a celebrity came over to greet her.
With its graffiti-covered walls, the X-Girl warehouse was a fun place to work. This was not only because of the celebrities walking through, she said, but also because there was a skate ramp and a basketball hoop in the building for when workers needed a break.
She eventually worked other jobs including assistant designer and production manager, or the person who takes the design through each step of the manufacturing process.
“I got all of my experience that I use nowadays by working at that brand,” Johnson said.
She also used it when she decided it was time to create her own brand.
Johnson’s first clothing brand
Her idea for this brand originally popped into her head when she attended NAU. She loved to go snowboarding, but was often stuck wearing her boyfriend’s clothes and thinking to herself “I’d like to have my own clothing line for women’s snowboarding.” While in Los Angeles, she saw many skater girls also wearing guys clothes because there were no skateboarding clothes made for women.
Her boyfriend – and now husband – was working in a ski shop at the time, and one of his coworkers also had a girlfriend who wanted to solve the same problem. They brought Johnson and “Days of Our Lives” star Christie Clark together. Clark paid for the project, and Johnson brought on a friend from the fashion institute to assist with the graphics. That’s when Monkeywench was born.
Johnson’s grandmother sparked her passion for fashion at a young age. She had three closets filled with fancy, avant-garde dresses she had made throughout several decades.
Johnson remembers spending her free time going through all the dresses and her grandmother’s jewelry that filled an entire dresser.
“I’m surprised I didn’t go into jewelry design,” Johnson said. “I used to take all these pieces out of her dresser and wear them and they were like big grandma looking stones, just stuff that was really gaudy looking to most teenagers, but I was sporting those.”
With the excitement of chiffon and sparkles in front of her wide eyes hungry to see herself in every dress, Johnson would try on multiple outfits at a time “feeling fancy” and parade around the house while posing for the camera.
Her love for dresses never faded. In high school and college, she would wear the dresses to class – sometimes altering them with a few rips and tears to give them her own style.
“I didn’t know how to sew or anything in high school,” Johnson said. “But was really inspired by the stuff that she had in her closet and started to develop my own unique style.”
After her grandmother died in the early 2000s, Johnson inherited many of the dresses. She only kept a few of her favorites that can be found tucked in her closet ready for costume parties and sometimes award ceremonies.
During her time as a teacher, one of the first lessons she would teach in a design class was how to repurpose something. When she taught this lesson at the New School for the Arts & Academics in Tempe, Johnson wanted to show the students what that meant. So, she quickly stitched something together: a ball gown made of old T-shirts. Soon, Johnson had students asking her to make them prom dresses out of recycled shirts. Some were featured in fashion shows.
One of those dresses was made for a woman with breast cancer who was going to walk in a fashion show to promote the cause. Johnson remembers the woman always calling her “fairy godmother” as she worked on the dress made of pink shirts – the color of the ribbon that represents breast cancer.
Due to the fact that Johnson is busy helping FABRIC continue to grow, she hasn’t been focusing as much on these dresses. However, she did whip up a quick ‘80s themed dress that she made in honor of the “When in Rome” concert that was recently held in FABRIC’s event space.
She hopes to see other fashion incubators like FABRIC pop up around the country to help small local brands grow, while also helping them reduce the pollution that the fashion industry creates.
“I don’t want to contribute to the overproduction overseas and the unsustainability of this industry,” Johnson said. “It needs to be reinvented. It needs to be restored. We need to put the creativity and the responsibility back into the hands of the designers.”