How to make hand-painted denim with Juliet Johnstone
The artist turned designer's custom jeans caught the eye of Bella Hadid and sell out in minutes on Instagram. Here, she tells us why her signature pieces transcend fashion.
Photography Elena Mudd
As the pandemic continues to alter buying habits and send many on a more sustainable shopping path, supporting local designers and figuring out ways to rework and rewear the clothing you have seems more important than ever. There are few wardrobe items more customizable than a pair of jeans, often bespoke or bedazzled throughout history, making them a natural canvas for artist Juliet Johnstone, who began hand painting denim after she ran out of canvases one day.
Juliet customized her first pair of jeans in December and was inundated with interest while wearing them around LA. Posting her first pair for sale on Instagram in February, her hand-painted, overlapping flowers and playful positive affirmations took off during quarantine, piquing the interest of Bella Hadid. Juliet unintentionally launched a thriving clothing label, and now spends 12 to 16 hours painting a day to keep up with the high demand — a pair sells on Instagram in three minutes and she offers custom orders on her website.
Hand-painted denim is having a major moment in the fashion world. From Rhee Studios’ detailed ornate chairs to Doublet’s sushi set, and the signature sprayed flowers from Emily Dawn Long, designers are reviving hand painting through skilful, unexpected illustrations. Luxury brands have even followed suit, including Simon Miller and Ralph Lauren. While it’s important to support smaller brands at the front of the trend, the endless possibilities of a paint brush can leave many eager to try and create their own pair of custom jeans at home.
For Juliet, her designs transcend fashion; they are a way to make the art world more accessible for everyone. We spoke to her about balancing her work as an artist with her newly-founded fashion label, and how we all can get a bit more artistic with our denim.
Tell us about your background. Have you always been drawn to creative work?
I grew up in the suburbs right outside of LA in a super creative family. We were always encouraged to try creative things because my mom used to work in fashion and my dad's the guitarist in Elton John’s band. That was my first introduction to fashion, wacky stage clothes, and I think that really influenced the stuff I’m doing now. I grew up always painting, decided to go to Parsons School of Design in New York and started studio assisting.
What led you to making the move from painting on canvas to denim?
Honestly, I was feeling like so much pressure when it came to painting. I think the art world can be really intimidating at times. I was having a really hard time figuring out where my place was within the gallery space. Art isn’t accessible and is super intimidating. One day I just ran out [of canvases] and so I painted on my carpenter pants. I wore them around LA and people were stopping me in the street asking where they can get a pair. I had just painted on them for fun and because I wanted to. It feels like a more accessible way for people who aren’t educated about art to enjoy beautiful things.
How did the Bella Hadid moment happen?
I don’t know her personally, but my friend Reese Cooper connected us after she started liking my posts on Instagram. He has dressed her before, so I just asked him if she wanted some trousers. He came back saying she did but that he was leaving for Paris Fashion Week that night. I painted all day and was so stressed. He hand-delivered them to her and then maybe a month or two later she just went off. It was so sweet, [she] posted all these amazing Instagram photos wearing them.
Tell me about the designs and your materials.
I definitely am drawn to painting super positive things. I love flowers and colors and fun type typography. I feel really lucky that my role within the fashion industry can be to make people happy. I wanted everything to be one of one just because they do come from an arts background. I want to keep everything special and it's important to me that everything's unique and sustainably made. I think people are definitely looking towards slow fashion at the moment.
All of the trousers are vintage. I work with some awesome resellers in LA. For the tanks and track pants, I work with my friend Charlie who owns a clothing factory here. He helps to manufacture them sustainably and then those are printed designs. Before I paint anything on the pants, I dye all of the pants myself in my garage.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to try painting their own pair of jeans?
You can paint on anything and I think people are oftentimes — and I was in this place for a long time — afraid to just try putting paint on something. But if you're creative and you have the means to paint on some old clothes you have laying around, why not? It’s a lot of work. I take days to make one pair of trousers so there’s a lot of love and research that goes into every pair. I get invested and then am sad to send them away.
What are some of the most important things to consider technically?
I learned, for me, the most important thing by far is having good brushes. Good pressure and soft brushes, not grizzly ones. I’ve also found that I love to experiment with dye to create the colors. For people who are getting started with DIY stuff, you can even just use the RIT dye that you can buy at Target or Michaels. That stuff is amazing. I think learning that you can color old, stained clothes by just throwing it in a pot of dye is really fun. As for painting, I developed my own paints, but if you’re just having fun with it I think fabric paint would work fine.
What are your future plans for your newly-founded fashion label?
It still doesn’t feel like work, so I’m just grateful that people like what I do. The demand is high, so I definitely think for people who want a pair, the easiest way is to order custom through my website. That’s the only way currently, as I don’t work with any retailers at the moment, but I’m open to the right partnership, and the new fleece pullovers will be available in fall. For now, I’m just having fun getting to know the people who order, chatting through their favorite flowers and phrases and enjoying learning about someone — then putting my twist on it and making it into a piece of art.
Photography Elena Mudd
Styling Aly Cooper
Models Charlie, Davey, Elliot, Juliet and Kay Johnstone.