Since becoming the Studio Manager at NY Studio Factory a few months back, I've been eager to get to know the members at work in our spaces. I've also been eager to incorporate my English degree into my work. (Take that, Mom & Dad! Told you this was better than a business degree!) Out of these admittedly self-serving interests sprang our Member Profile Series. Each week we'll feature a NYSF member whose work inspires and intrigues our team.
There's no cooler fairy-godmother of a girl to kick off the whole project than Joey Johansson. Joey moved into Studio 43 at 2 St. Nicholas about a month ago, and ever since, I've been curiously peaking into her studio at the yards of fabric splayed in the sunlight beneath her open window. She graciously sat down with me this week to discuss working with Betsey Johnson, meeting Prince, and finally starting her own pattern making business after 32 years in the fashion industry.
How long have you been in New York? Why do you choose to work here? What is your relationship like with the city? Why Bushwick?
I’ve been here for 30 years. I started out in the East Village in the 80’s. It was real artsy back then`but it was not safe. It was pretty crappy, but I liked it! It was awesome. And then I ended up in Queens because of the husband and kids. And now I’m a divorcee and the kids are grown, so now I’m back to this! I feel like I've come full-circle. Now, I’m back to doing my own thing. I ended up in Bushwick because of the price, but when I got out here, I thought, “I have to be in this neighborhood!” I love it here. I spend all day and all night here.
Some days, I hate the city. But I never thought I would leave. I’ve always been here. I was recently offered a job in California, but I said no because I had just moved into Studio 43. I had my own new things going on here! I don’t know why I have such a big love affair with New York, but I do.
How did you get your start in the fashion industry? What does it mean to be a "Pattern Maker?”
When I was a young designer in Minneapolis, I decided “Well, I’m gonna just be a designer! And I’m gonna just throw a fashion show! And I’m gonna just get an office space!” So I got an office space, but I had no place to live, so I just lived in the office. I lived underneath my work table on a mattress.
When I first got to New York, I was doing retail and the only thing I really brought with me was my sewing machine. I’m not even a great sewer! But I brought my sewing machine and I started making hats, and I sold them on St. Mark’s just to make some extra money. And then I helped make Pee-wee Hermon costumes for his TV show. Just random, weird shit! Then I got a real job because I had a kid! So I became a design assistant and somehow I ended up a pattern maker. I was the worst pattern maker. I don’t know why anyone hired me to make the patterns.
I always think of a pattern maker like an architect who tells you how the building should be built! A pattern maker is the same thing for clothing. I tell designers how to cut the fabric and then how to sew the fabric up to make a garment.
Somehow I ended up with Betsey Johnson. She’s amazing. As a person, she’s just really nice. There are a lot of bitchy people in the fashion industry but she’s super sweet. I worked for her for about 9 years. She would give me a totally whacked out sketch and then I would interpret it and send it back. I’ll put it on the mannequin, drape it out, I’ll send her a picture of the muslin, and then she’ll approve it. Afterwards, she’ll send me the fabric, and I send it back to her. I did 16 runway shows with Betsey Johnson. I think I did every single style in one of her last big runway shows.
Then I worked for Heatherette, which was these two crazy club kids. I did that for a year and a half and that was awesome! One day I would be going to the church social with my kids, and then the next night I’d be out with every drag queen in the city! It was crazy!
After Heatherette, I was at Alice and Olivia for 9 years. But I always had my own thing where I would help new designers get their production done or get their patterns made. Then I worked for Haute Hippie for a year. They got bought out. And now the new designer there is the old designer from Alice and Olivia, so I’m working with Haute Hippie again. But freelance! So all of the sudden, I had this chance to do that on the side and make sure I could pay my bills, but I could start my own thing again!
I was 25 when I got here, and I’m 57 now. If I don’t do this now, when am I going to do it? I put so many years into other people’s businesses; it’s time to focus on my own.
How has having a studio space changed your work? How do you envision the future of Studio 43 at NY Studio Factory?
I don’t want to do mass production. I want to do one-of-a-kind dresses. Ideally, I'd love to collaborate with Bushwick's mural artists! I’d have them paint fabric and then I would make something. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Fabric is weird to paint on and it’s a smaller scale, so I don’t know…
Another thing I want to do is to make sculptures. It would be cool to make clothes but somehow make them stiff so that they could be a wall sculpture and could stand alone!
I keep getting parking tickets, so I want to keep collecting tickets and make a dress out of the envelopes! Kind of like a Madonna dress - A “Fuck You, City!” dress. If you know anyone that has these orange envelope tickets, bring them to me!
Eventually, I’d like to have a store that is open to new designers and new artists! I’d also like to open a spot where I could teach underprivileged teens sewing and design.
I’ve been doing all of this from home, but the minute I got this space, everyone started treating it like a real business. I understand though, because I would never call someone up and say, “Hey, come over to my house.” I just wouldn’t. So having a studio here somehow made my business more legitimate.