WASHINGTON POST | Roxanne Roberts It started with sneakers. When he was about 10, Brett Johnson began customizing his white Nike Air Force 1’s, adding fabrics and touches to make them one-of-a-kind. “I felt they told a story,” he says. “And my mom would preach that women always look at a man’s shoes.”
Then again, the son of BET founders Bob and Sheila Johnson always had a leg up on other kids when it came to exploring his creative side. His personal shoe collection now numbers 600 pairs, and last fall he launched the Brett Johnson Collection, a line of luxury streetwear for men.
“Dude, I didn’t know you were ballin’ like this!” says former Redskin Darrell Green. “I look good.”
Green showed up at Johnson’s trunk show Saturday in Middleburg, where he slipped on a baby soft leather bomber vest with sheepskin trim. At $1,695, it’s the most expensive item in Johnson’s small collection; Green was also eyeing a black wool vest with leather trim ($695) and another casual jacket. According to its young creator, it’s contemporary clothing designed for fashion-savvy guys who rarely slip on suits but like high-end fabrics and craftsmanship: artists, celebrities, tech moguls and athletes of any age.
“I’m 54 next month and I’m still cool,” Green says with a laugh.
Sold. Johnson is one more satisfied customer closer to his dream.
His self-made parents are worth $1 billion or so, which they split when they divorced a decade ago. That fortune launched their children into a world of almost unlimited choices, with all the advantages and pitfalls extreme wealth can bring. Daughter Paige, 28, fell in love with horses as a young girl and is a champion equestrian; Brett, 24, wanted to be a fashion designer — one of the most challenging and competitive businesses out there.
“Brett always knew he wanted to do this, but I didn’t pay much attention to it because I thought it was just a phase he was going through,” his mother says. Loving fashion — and wearing Louis Vuitton and Lanvin — didn’t mean he could design clothes himself. Both parents insisted he go to college, where he studied sociology instead of business because, as he explains, “I have two of the best professors at home.”
But he quickly bored of classrooms and was itching to start a career in design. His mother was skeptical: “Do you understand what you’re really getting yourself into?” It took two years and a “bit of a tussle” before his parents finally agreed to let him, at age 21, dive into the fashion business.
At first, he just focused on shoes, trying to create a high-end sneaker that sold for $295, something between Nike and Gucci. He started with three styles — all with a signature orange footprint — which he shopped around. The feedback? Cool, but he needed more to create a viable line. Johnson added outerwear and polos for his first collection. (And then pants, sweaters, belts and scarves for the second.)
He headed to Florence, where he picked out leathers and fabrics and began the “very intricate” manufacturing process. Spliting time between his Arlington County home, a Bethesda office and a New York showroom, he’s both boss and student — up at 4 a.m. to micro-manage details via Skype with the Italian factory, touring tanneries to discover new leathers and finishes.
His vision: A line of “contemporary luxury” for “creatives,” all those young power players in hoodies. His designer role models are Brunello Cucinelli, the Italian designer who specializes in cashmere, and London-based Ozwald Boateng, best known for his classic bespoke suits. Johnson is trying to create a brand that blends the best fabrics with a street sensibility. “I look at it as art,” he says. “I’m tired of seeing terrible product.”
Affable but a little shy, he’s humble enough to admit he hit the family lottery and smart enough to understand how hard it will be to be taken seriously. “Being the son of Bob and Sheila Johnson creates another hurdle,” he says. “I just want my work to speak for itself.”
Easier said than done: One of the few VIP heirs with a serious fashion career is Stella McCartney — daughter of the Beatles’ Paul McCartney — who got her start in 1995 when supermodel friends Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss modeled her design school collection; just two years later, she was named head designer at Chloe. Some groused that the McCartney name jump-started her rise, but the designs established her as a talent in her own right.
Johnson has a famous name, famous friends and, like almost every other newcomer in fashion, his family as primary investors and cheerleaders.
As chairman of New York’s Parsons The New School for Design for seven years, his mother introduced him to designer friends such as Donna Karan and Tim Gunn, loaned her private plane and traveled with him to Italy to tour factories. “He had more knowledge than I had ever thought,” she says. “It was a matter of me sitting back and letting him blossom.”
Although she stayed in the background, Saturday’s trunk show was held at Sheila Johnson’s new Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg. Waiters offered prosecco and hors d’oeuvres as well-heeled men and women wandered in the resort’s gift shop, where Brett Johnson’s outerwear and sneakers were set up amid sweet-smelling designer soap and golf shirts. The party was something of a two-fer: A couple of family friends dropped by to offer Johnson congratulations and to wish his mother a happy birthday.
His father put up most of the start-up capital for his son’s venture. “Brett’s business model is not just a wealthy dad indulging his son,” says Bob Johnson, well aware that that’s how a lot of people might see it. “He believes in it, I believe in it, and I have some smart outside people who are advising him and encouraged by what he’s trying to achieve.”
As the biggest investor (he declined to discuss the amount), the elder Johnson required his son to come up with a business plan and said he was persuaded by his son’s passion, work ethic and design team. He’s not concerned that Brett didn’t go to design school because, well, he didn’t go to business school before founding BET, and that worked out just fine.
As investors go, a designer couldn’t ask for more: There’s no timetable in years or cap on financial support. “He’ll have time,” Bob Johnson says. “Some things will work and some things will fail, but he’ll have the time and resources to recover.”
Money, time, even fame are no guarantee of success: Rapper Kanye West had all three when he launched a women’s line in 2012. It was largely mocked by fashion insiders as a disaster, mostly because West had the resources to do anything he wanted — and (shocker) didn’t listen to advice.
Most designers last three seasons or less, doomed by a crowded field and store buyers reluctant to give floor space to unproven brands. African American designers have a harder time getting recognition: Only a handful appear in New York’s Fashion Week, and even fewer are featured in top department stores. Tracy Reese, one of the most successful black designers in business today, failed at her first attempt to launch her line. Despite all the talented African American designers working behind the scenes at major labels, none has won a prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America award, the industry’s top prize — except Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, a celebrity who does not design his own line.
“Breaking into the market today can be challenging for young designers because there are so many brands competing for attention, but there are definitely opportunities for designers that make a strong statement or offer niche collections,” says Robert Burke, chief executive of Robert Burke Associates, a luxury retail consulting group. “If we think about designers like Alexander Wang or Jason Wu, they’ve both achieved success and recognition because they offered fresh perspectives and distinguished themselves from what others were doing.” Johnson’s resources will certainly help, he says, “but the success of that label will ultimately depend on how strong the product is, how focused it is and if it captures the attention of its target audience.”
At this point, nobody knows whether Brett Johnson will be another Stella McCartney or simply another rich kid with his logo on some shoes. The big challenge now is to win over store buyers and then customers. The collection was introduced in a soft launch at parties last fall, and he’s hoping for a New York show. There’s a Web site, ads in luxury magazines and famous friends (the Redskins’ Josh Morgan and Pierre Garcon, celebrities Kevin Hart and Bradley Cooper) interested in helping out. Johnson says he’s sold about 40 pieces of outerwear and 200 pairs of sneakers in the past two months.
“Some good traction,” he says, with a relieved smile. Or, as his father aptly put it, “He’s got runway.”