Georgina Johnson: "Anything radical or innovative takes a while to be adopted"
The author of 'The Slow Grind' on sustainability as a way of living and how creative industries, and particularly the fashion industry, can amend socioeconomic imbalance.
Georgina wears all clothing Issey Miyake. All jewellery model’s own.
This story originally appeared in Up + Rising, a celebration of extraordinary Black voices, and is the first chapter of i-D's 40th anniversary issue (1980-2020).
i-D chronicled over 100 activists and artists, musicians and writers, photographers and creatives, in Atlanta, Baltimore, Minneapolis, LA, London, New York, Paris and Toronto.
“It feels a bit like a comedown,” Georgina Johnson says, sitting in her airy Croydon studio. “My friends and I were saying that June was so wild. It was a black hole, in multiple senses. But we're past that time now. Things are settling and it feels like we’re in this deep hollow where it's like, 'Oh, was this a trick? Was it a lie?' Not what happened but the response and the commitment to that response.”
It’s a sobering thought, for sure. But it’s one that has flickered in the minds of Black people the world over. Less than two months ago our cities’ streets were filled with people of every colour rallying proclaiming that our lives matter; they emptied almost as quickly as the Eat Out To Help Out deals appeared, tempting us with the pretence that our lives could again be lived as they once were. “True to form, now that things are easing – in Britain, at least – you see things just ramping up again,” she says. “It’s symptomatic of having such a well-oiled machine, we just go straight back to the same behaviours.”
It would be foolish to mistake the unflinching realism of Georgina’s perspective for a sign of abandoned hope. If anything, that’s what she’s fuelled by. Long before the pandemic she’d begun work on The Slow Grind: Finding Our Way Back to Creative Balance, a collection of essays, think pieces and conversations from a community of contributors that includes members of the i-D family like Ib Kamara, Caryn Franklin and Campbell Addy. “I think that now that people have been at home, they can see how social care and health care and social justice issues all interrelate,” she says. “They not only affect the livelihoods but also the safety of people, especially people of colour, and specifically Black people.” The rhizomatic nature of systemic inequity acknowledged and taken into account, it quickly becomes clear that “it's an environmental issue as well” – that institutionalised tactics of social oppression impoverish us all, even if they do seem to benefit a privileged minority in the short term.
The primary arena for this discussion is fashion – an industry which, particularly in recent years, has revealed itself as an incubator for toxic social and moral conduct, the full brunt of which Georgina bore during her time spent working within its parameters. She trained as a designer, graduating with a first class honours degree in Womenswear and Pattern Cutting from London College of Fashion. Her experiences of founding and running an independent label straight out of school brought her face-to-face with the dramatically unrealistic pressures the industry places on the mental and physical health of its newest, most vulnerable members, and during an internship at an esteemed couture label, she experienced both systemic and overt racism firsthand. “There was a lot of time, especially in my education, and then beyond that working in industry, when I wasn't happy at all,” she shares. “There’s a blindness towards how these industries don't facilitate safe environments for Black people, as well as the fact that they're not creatively or economically sustainable at all.”
The decision to look beyond fashion for vocational – and existential – purpose wasn’t one taken lightly. “For a long time, I felt a lot of shame for walking away from design, and what that said about me,” she says, highlighting the industry’s self-important belief in a toxic make or break culture. “In the industry, there is this feeling that if you can't make it, then you're nobody, you don't matter. And I constantly find myself railing against these weird ideas, because failure is not odd.” Her decision also led her to realise that the horizons of her potential expanded far beyond the limits of any one industry or field, and she’s since demonstrated the power of her voice in curation, writing, art direction, filmmaking and production, not to mention art and design. “I'm not just one thing. I'm not this person that you can only speak about race to. I'm not this person that you can only speak about mental health to. I have multitudes,” she proclaims. “Me working with loads of different mediums is me claiming space, and saying that I'm not just one thing.”
What braids the different strands of her practice together is a holistic approach to and understanding of sustainability — not the sort of ‘sustainability’ that’s packaged and sold to you as a pair of trainers, or the clean covetable lifestyle associated with them, but “sustainability as the ability to practice a mode of living that isn't draining your self, as in your person, your body, and isn't draining the natural world. That's as simple as it means to me.”
“It's about trying to expand a conversation that has felt very narrow and very white for the communities that are affected the most, who don't have the economic mobility to shop at Whole Foods,” she says, underscoring the potential that lies in the amount of “energy in peripheral communities.” That energy, she argues, requires economic activation if its potential is to ever truly be realised. “Ownership and authorship are so important – it’s so incredibly powerful to be able define the things that you own and define how those things are shaped and characterised outside of dominant dynamics and ideas. We need to grapple with the idea of the pay gap. We need to ask: Why are people of colour squeezed out of money and opportunities? Where does that happen and what are the knock on effects?”
Through the distribution of The Slow Grind, she’s showing businesses in the creative industries, and in fashion in particular, how they can actively seek to redress this socioeconomic imbalance. She’s created the Black Futures Pledge, an initiative that asks institutions across the industry to purchase copies of the book to distribute to Black youth. “It's the first stage of a few things. I'm slowly building an agency. The second stage of the pledge is going to be going back to these brands and asking them to commit economically to support the building of this space and its future actions. I just said to them, ‘Hey, put your money where your mouth is. Do something more than these weird social media posts.’”
It’s certainly an ambitious move – not to mention one you’d think that brands would jump at for the PR value to be gained. “I've mentioned that they're not going to be credited,” is Georgina’s response. “It's not something for you to go and say to your board of directors that we support this Black girl. And this is the first stage. I've roped you in now – what are you going to do after this point? How are you going to commit to black futures?” she says. Granted, it’s just one first step along a rocky, winding path to lasting change – something she’s acutely aware of. “Anything radical or innovative takes a while to be adopted. I do think that if it's going against the grain, it takes a long time to adopt,” she says. It’s a slow grind, after all — and it’s about time we all got to work.
Photography Rafael Pavarotti.
Styling Ibrahim Kamara.
Hair Virginia Moreira at MA+ World Group.
Styling assistance Mark Mutyambizi and Marina de Magalhaes.
Hair assistance Charles Stanley.
Casting Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.
Casting assistance Alexandra Antonova.