STORY BY SHELBY DEERING ✷ PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONAS JUNGBLUT
In numbers not seen in many a decade, the American populace has been knitting and canning and gardening and breadmaking and yeast-feeding and sewing at a kind of breathless pace. These heritage activities even have their own burgeoning hashtags—#cottagecore and #farmcore. It’s a social trend that some credit to the chaotic times. Seriously, who doesn’t want to claw back to a simpler past right now?
This heritage movement has now taken fashion along for the ride, creating what many fashionistas have called the fashion subculture.
California apparel designer Kara Thoms Johnson was out in front of this trend with dresses that flow right down to the prairie floor, edged with the right amount of ruffle and cinched with insouciant bows. Launched in 2017, her eponymous line brims with collection names like “Poppy,” “Willow,” and “Juniper.” The clothing is made of organic cotton, linen, and hemp fabrics—and looks right at home on models pictured outdoors against a frontier backdrop.
Previously, Kara worked as a print model for two decades, but now, she sticks close to the Santa Barbara, California home that she shares with her husband, celebrated surfer Jeff Johnson, and her five-year-old daughter. Kara has turned her business into a slow-fashion, family affair. Jeff shoots all the photos on the Kara Thoms website and her daughter models clothes for the “Maiden” collection made for little ones. Kara has all her designs manufactured by a small, family-run operation in Bali.
The Naturally team caught up with Kara to learn about her inspirations. She—and the gorgeous images on these pages—may be just the inspiration you need to consider making the switch to slow fashion.
Naturally, Danny Seo: What is your background?
Kara Thoms Johnson: I was born in Fiji [Kara later moved to New Zealand when she was five]. My mother grew up there, and there’s actually a few generations going back in Fiji. My mum’s from Fiji and my dad’s Kiwi. My fondest memories are of spending time at my grandparents’. They lived in a pretty remote part of Fiji on a little coconut plantation. Going back there, it’s like stepping back in time. I think it sort of ignited this love for Old-World things, that sort of nostalgia.
NDS: How do your roots in Fiji lend themselves to the clothes you design?
KTJ: My grandmother used to sew clothes to sell to the tourists who came in on cruise ships, sort of these Fijian-style print pieces. Then my mother instilled designing in me because when she was younger, she would get magazines from America and make her own clothes from scratch. She was sewing my clothes all the time as a kid. I was so obsessed with clothes—like from two years old, I dressed myself.
NDS: What inspired you to start your label?
KTJ: I started working on the label before I was pregnant. I came across this vintage 1940s dress one day, and what turned out from that was my original dress, which was the “Poppy” dress. I took it to a pattern maker, and I had that made. That’s when the juices started flowing. I took the pattern and the samples to Bali, and that’s what I had them make up. Today, it’s still my staple piece that I’ll always keep making. Also, I just didn’t want to be modeling anymore, being a new mum.
NDS: Why is sustainability important to you?
KTJ: Basically, I would like for the fashion industry to see small brands like myself and want to move in that direction. There are a lot of brands trying to be more sustainable. It’s very hard, but the more that small brands like me are trying to push for the same things, it will become easier to break through and have things like botanic dye houses readily available for everyone. With all these organic fabrics coming in, I think it’s also bringing this awareness. I just want to be kind to the planet, and I want to make things that people will have for a long time. They might spend a bit more money, but this will be like an heirloom.
NDS: What lessons have you learned in starting a business?
KTJ: I’ve always said that I was going to grow slowly and organically and learn as I go. I think that’s the key—just enjoying it. I’ve learned that my business model of selling direct-to-consumer has shown me that I’m on the right track. Being able to communicate with my customers directly has been incredible. If I was doing wholesale, I wouldn’t really be able to have that. I’ve been able to know what people want and what they like.
NDS: Have you made any mistakes along the way?
KTJ: Yes, there’s one thing that’s hard for me. I’m not a super-structured person with the timeline, like when to release collections. I’ve learned that it’s best to release collections with the seasons. The timing is always a little bit of a struggle.
NDS: What are your thoughts on fast fashion?
KTJ: I think fast fashion should be non-existent. Bringing awareness is really important, just to at least be trying, because it isn’t easy. More people are trying now and it’s getting into the mainstream.
NDS: Do you think clothing is too sexy nowadays? You clearly lean toward a throwback, vintage sensibility in your designs.
KTJ: Living in Hawaii [Kara and her family recently rented a home in Hawaii for a year and a half], I found that the styles were so not me, the tiniest little swimsuits. The fashion over there is just a different kind of sexy. I’m quite fair, and I need to keep the sun off me, so I’m always all for designing things that can keep the sun off your shoulders. I’m making mini dresses and skirts and things now that are sexy in a different way, more sultry—with just a bit more fabric.
Ready to adopt a slower, more eco-friendly approach to your wardrobe? In her own words, Kara shares her advice for newbies.
Find brands that are making things ethically and trying to be more sustainable. There are a lot of brands out there, and you can find them all through social media.
Invest in pieces that can go with a lot of different things. With my personal taste, I like solids because I tend to get tired of patterns really quickly. I would buy fewer things with patterns if you’re one of those people who gets tired of things easily.
With investment pieces, you kind of just love them more. You might spend a little bit more on them, but you’ll feel better when you’re wearing clothes that you know were made with love and kindness to the planet.