how liam johnson went from south wales to working with galliano
The final instalment of our six part series in partnership with 1 Granary, we present six profiles on some of the best young London fashion designers right now, taken from their latest issue. Welcome to the future of fashion.
Growing up in the valleys of south Wales, Liam Johnson would dream about his wedding day. "I was obsessed," he says, in a melodic Welsh accent. "I would pretend marry girls from my class, except I wouldn't just be their husband. I would be the one making their wedding dress." Not your typical fantasy - then again, not your typical Welsh teenager. "It sounds like a cliché," he says, reflecting on his background. "But it's all true."
So, yes - Liam Johnson is a cliché. But he is fashion's favourite kind of cliché: a Cinderella story. His childhood was spent watching his parents, "killing themselves", working at a garment production factory. Though there weren't many copies of Vogue to hand, it was there that he first saw the financial potential of the industry: "You'd see the fabrics, and how clothes were put together, and I thought this could be something. You could go onto bigger things with this."
After 16 years of dodging the rugby pitch and playing dress-up to escape the more mundane trials of school, Johnson specialised, settling on three years of fashion and art BTECs and countless 'central saint martins' Google searches. He secured a place on the college's foundation course, and subsequently, the BA Fashion Print. There was one catch though: his parents would need to sell their house for him to accept the offer. Enter one Alexander McQueen: "I just got an email that said, 'apply for this.' It was very vague. But, I got shortlisted for an interview, took the National Express to London, and Sarah Burton sat there with a panel." He stepped back on the train with a full scholarship for the degree.
I don't feel like the industry is accommodating for me. It just seems like a beast I cannot even begin to battle with.
Two years down the line, another break arrived when a whisper in Johnson's ear about Galliano led to a gig at Maison Martin Margiela. "I thought I was going to be working for John privately, as I thought he was going to be doing something on his own again," he says. "We worked in secret. It was just me, Galliano and two other people. We worked in Paris, in this private salon, stuffed with flowers, all these antiques, and rails of Charles James, Schiaparelli - just all these amazing things. We thought we were working on small, private pieces. Then the news broke, and we moved into the Margiela studios the next week." The internship was a unique opportunity to be touched simultaneously by two designers who have long inspired Johnson, as he worked closely with the Margiela archives as well as the house's new creative head. "The experience that I had at Margiela has completely impacted me as a person, in the way that I approach, look at and digest fashion design. I was really lucky to be there," he says.
Looking at Johnson's own designs, it's unsurprising to hear who he takes influence from. His final year collection, presented at the BA press show, was bold. Oversized foam coats stormed the catwalk, with models' feet housed in razor sharp winkle pickers and appearing hunched in angst thanks to exaggerated shoulders. For Johnson though, the aesthetic wasn't overly conceptual. "If you look at the garments I made, they are just propositions for coats, jackets, dresses," he explains. "I suffer a lot with anxiety, depression... So I just thought to myself, how do I show all this frustration?" Designing turned to therapy: "I was trying to find ways of expressing the feeling of being overwhelmed. I wanted it to be this erratic, insane, manic… thud. If I had to describe it as a sound, that is how I would describe it."
It's not a long time since that show, and Johnson is back at the Central Saint Martins library. He's spent the day working with underprivileged teens with an interest in art and design, and is now contemplating his next steps. "I got onto the MA at CSM and RCA, but I'm back in the same situation of funding. If I don't get any funding for the MA then I don't do the MA." Does he need it? "Doing the MA would really give me the opportunity to push my vision more, and really refine it," he responds. "If not, I'm not sure what I'll do. I don't feel like the industry is accommodating for me. It just seems like a beast I cannot even begin to battle with." Paying the rent is also a concern: "I just don't know how we're supposed to get a break in London. It feels like you're not allowed to even try, because there is no way of doing it, other than getting a job, and then all your fucking wages go on rent anyway."
I was trying to find ways of expressing the feeling of being overwhelmed. I wanted it to be this erratic, insane, manic… thud.
And so, as he struggles to map the industry as a graduate designer, Johnson evolves into a new cliché. Still, he remains doggedly determined to do things his way, regardless of the risk. "I think I'm pretty naive in thinking I can walk out of CSM and start my own brand, get on schedule, get it out there," he concedes. "But going to a design house… I don't know if that's an option for me. I mean, who fucking knows, maybe I'll be a sell out. But the idea of having to not do my own thing doesn't appeal." You sense, looking at this boy from the valleys, that starting with nothing makes him feel like he can have everything. "Well, I've got nothing to lose, so why fucking not?"
Text Hannah Rogers
Photography James Robjant