Fashion Designer Ulla Johnson Weaves the Free-Spirited & Baroque

Fashion Designer Ulla Johnson Weaves the Free-Spirited & Baroque

The fashion designer, who dressed Sotheby's specialists for our headline Masters Week auctions, talks about how art influences her craft.
The fashion designer, who dressed Sotheby's specialists for our headline Masters Week auctions, talks about how art influences her craft.
Ulla Johnson. Photo by Weston Wells

O ur headline Masters Week auctions at Sotheby’s brought in a record price for a Bronzino ($10.7 million) and the third highest for a Rubens ($27 million), but the live auction itself offered a key visual of life reflecting art. For this particular occasion, the Sotheby’s specialists taking the bids were dressed by noted New York fashion designer Ulla Johnson, with their thoughtfully chosen gowns showcasing the romantic, flowing lines, generously blossoming full sleeves and sculptural drape seen in some of the artwork, blending the atmosphere between reality and the works of focus. Johnson, who has long cited Renaissance art as a key aesthetic source for her designs, took a break from the whirlwind of New York Fashion Week preparations to answer some questions for Sotheby’s leading up to this natural collaboration.

How does art inform your work?

I derive a lot of inspiration from paintings and fiber art – unexpected color juxtapositions, textures, patterns, motifs often these inform the initial mood and spirit of our collections. I was brought up with this love of objects – especially ones that have a personal story or have been created by hand. The creation of future heirlooms, pieces whose beauty and value transcend trends, has always been a core value, and I think this resonates now more than ever.

The curving line in your design is reminiscent of Botticelli. Which old masters work do you most admire?

It’s funny that you should mention Botticelli as I have been a lifelong fan. I remember gazing in awe at Primavera and Birth of Venus at the Uffizi as a young girl – the beautiful, central female figures, the gorgeous depiction of nature, the poetic curvature of the shapes, the heartbreakingly delicate pastel palette.

EBN0JH Florence. Italy. Uffizi Gallery. Birth of Venus (c. 1484) by Sandro Botticelli. Nascita di Venere. adam eastland / Alamy Stock Phot/Alamy Stock Photo

You’ve mentioned that Women’s Studies were an area of academic focus for you. How does the femininity of today interact aesthetically with the look of the past, when things were so very different for women?

I feel my life’s work has been devoted to the creation of clothing that allows and encourages women to feel both powerful and beautiful: a dialogue around the meeting place between feminine and feminist. Femininity today means many different things to different people, but certainly it has begun to be freed from the restrictive and reductive notions of the past.

Are there any fashions in old master paintings that you wish would come back, and how would you re-conceive them for 2023?

Largely not, in that so much of fashion seen in old paintings involved corsetry and the unnatural manipulation and depiction of women’s bodies. That said, one can often trace incredible handicraft and materiality in the garments, fabrics shot through with silks and embroideries and brocades of a quality we can only dream of today.

From top left to bottom right: Katie Kremnitzer, Daria Foner, Georgina Hardy, Elisabeth Lobkowicz, Emma Woodbery, Calvine Harvey, Baukje Coenen.

Your work has been noted for a level of craftsmanship that illustrates the quality and workmanship of past eras.

I am committed to certain principles of timelessness and design integrity. The preservation of traditional craft and working with women’s collectives across the globe are deeply important to me and at the heart of all that we do – from Bangalore to Peru – on our handmade custom prints and natural fibers and techniques seen throughout our collections.

If you were going to dress some of the icons of Renaissance painting, like Botticelli’s Venus, what would you have them wear?

Dressing Botticelli’s Venus would be a sacrilege!

What artists have you been especially drawn to in creating your recent collections?

I care very much about working with living artists and women artists, both for personal acquisitions but professionally also. Lee Krasner’s energetic colors and brushwork inspired the impressionistic nature of the SS23 foundational palette and patterns, as well as the styled layering of variegated prints and hues. The extraordinary textiles of Louise Bourgeois conjured the delicate manipulations of fabric, particularly her remarkable handmade cloth book, Ode à l’oublie. This deeply personal work of both linear and arcing forms and artifacts echoes the essence of this collection’s reimagined textures and compositions.

Which work in the Old Master’s Week auctions would you most like to take home with you, and where would you put it?

I love the still life of garden roses and grapes by Anne Valleyer-Coster – one can almost read the dewdrops gathered on the morning's bloom and the delicate intoxicating scent of the flowers themselves. I love the informal arrangement flowing over the edge of a water glass. I also love its intimate scale – I would hang it in my dressing room or bedroom to be enjoyed privately in quiet contemplative moments.

Masters Week Fashion

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