Quality Control: Norwegian Wood’s Angie Johnson

Norwegian Wood feels entirely organic. A lot of it is, in the material sense of the word: designer Angie Johnson tries to use bamboo and organic textiles wherever possible, outsources knit and detailing work to small local suppliers, and recycles existing fabric, vintage and old surplus leather stock in her clothing.

Her business model is equally organic: she finds collaborators and suppliers through personal relationships and shared workspaces, and she sews and assembles each piece herself, only occasionally contracting friends to deal with a particularly large order. Even after releasing collections with Silver Jeans, Top Shop and Anthropologie, her own flagship boutique is a little joint you might have heard of called Etsy.

Preview of Norwegian Wood’s fall 2012 collection
Photo by Manon Parent.

While locally made clothing can never be as cheap as stuff made off-shore in tremendous batches, Norwegian Wood is clear evidence that there is still a market for slightly more expensive garments that are better constructed. As Johnson puts it, “If people want to know that something’s locally made, then they’re going to seek it out.”

Collaborating locally also affords a lot of benefits for designers as well, including the ability to have input at every stage of production. Discussing the components of the fall collection she’s assembling — pieces of which lie in tantalizing piles around her studio — she describes how, “I worked with an amazing knitwear factory in this building, Capraro. They have all these amazing knitting machines. They’re local and they’re willing to work with small designers, and most knit factories are NOT. There are probably only about four knit factories left in this city. And they do amazing knit panels.”

Continuing, she adds that, “They also have a machine so that they can do repeat patterns, like designs. There wasn’t a huge amount of time for me to come up with my own design, but they have a computer with a library of hundreds of designs, so I combined some different designs together, and we did a knit pencil skirt and knit little booty shorts and a maxi dress with knit sleeves. That stuff’s the fun stuff, working with a local place so that nobody else is going to have this fabric. That’s why people will buy from an independent designer and not from H&M. They know no one else is going to have it.”

Orange, brown, chunky knits, tweed, fringe, cut-outs and clear plastic details have a pronounced presence in the fall collection, which is a bit of a departure for Norwegian Wood. “I thought about all the ’70s clichés,” she tells me. “I thought about living rooms, so I did clear plastic details on stuff, like a plastic-covered couch. And ’70s kind of textures, like nubbly tweeds, but not scratchy, and then I did some clear plastic accessories because I thought they were really fun.”

“I’ve been feeling a ’70s vibe again,” she admits. “It kind of surprised me because the ’70s vibe comes back every couple of years it seems, but I’ve never really been into it since I was in high school. Since grunge.”

'70s style: Norwegian Wood FW12. Image by Manon Parent.
’70S STYLE: Norwegian Wood FW12
Photo by Manon Parent.

Strangely enough, the ’70s feel of this collection brings Johnson back to her design roots, when she was a 16-year-old sewing clothes at home in Winnipeg. After enough stuff piled up, her mom insisted she take them somewhere to sell. She assembled a little look book, and began selling her line in independent clothing stores around town, mostly at rave boutiques.

She recalls how, “I made the stuff, and I was not even allowed to go to the parties yet, that people were buying the clothes for. And then someone asked me to take part in one of the fashion shows at one of the parties, and I was like, ‘I’m in! My mom’s totally going to let me go now!’ So I started going to raves and making clothes for them. But ironically I was using clear plastic all the fucking time. Clear plastic pockets on things, and clear plastic cut-outs. It was very Dee-Lite, ’60s-’70s but raver-y, and now I’m using clear plastic again.”

Johnson’s quick to confess her need for creative control over Norwegian Wood. She admits that, “I like doing the photo shoot and having — maybe it’s a control-freak thing — but I like creating head-to-toe looks. If I could do the shoes, I would do them too. I would love to do shoes.”

Her utter fascination with clothing is evident as she relates the story of a recent surgery, during which she woke up a bit when she was supposed to be anesthetically unconscious. “Luckily,” she says, “I was stoned enough that I didn’t freak out, but I started talking to the doctor about shoes. They started engaging with me a bit, and I was going on and on about how I’d love to design shoes in the middle of surgery. So clearly it’s a deep dream of mine.” ■

Check out Norwegian Wood’s fall 2012 collection on the Norwegian Wood site.

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