Ottawa Fashion Week: Birds of a Feather

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Tess Johnson's empire-waisted gown with a skirt of pheasant feathers was displayed in Sak's Fifth Avenue

Designer Tess Johnson creates pieces with an avian angle

When Tess Johnson was looking for a motif to connect the pieces of her graduation collection at New York’s prestigious Parsons design school, she chose birds. Specifically, Johnson was fascinated by the work of photographer Richard Barnes, who snapped the flight patterns created by of flocks of thousands of starlings over the skies of Rome. His black-and-white photographs of the specks coalescing in patterns in the sky evoke organization in chaos.

“The way they fly and the way they move is so fluid,” says Johnson. “If you look at a feather, it has so much beauty and structure.”

Johnson, whose intern experience at Parsons ranged from working at Marc Jacobs and Victoria’s Secret to costuming for the Broadway musical Wicked, liked the sense of texture and movement in Barnes’ photographs. But she also appreciated what birds represented.

“Birds take off and take flight. I wanted this collection to be my jumping off point,” says Johnson, who grew up in Kansas City and has lived in New York for about six years. “I really believe you make your own destiny.”

The most dramatic piece in her collection was an empire-waisted gown with an overskirt of pheasant feathers and a bodice decorated in Swarovski crystals. Johnson fell in love with the long, sweeping pheasant feathers she found in a shop in New York, and asked the owner to help her track down longer feathers. Eventually, she bought about 200 pheasant feathers and also used them to create a vest and a cuff for the collection.

“I wanted it to be the big bang at the end of my show,” she says.

A big bang, indeed. The gown was exhibited for two weeks at Saks Fifth Avenue and has been photographed for the cover of the online magazine Papercut.

Draping is one of Johnson’s trademarks. Another piece in the collection was a gown made of white silk jersey, which she dyed grey on top and dip-dyed purple at the hemline, hand-knotting the textile to give it texture.

“I like to create things by manipulating the fabric. I like to work with my hands,” she says.

Johnson’s next collection was a resort-wear collection shown last spring in Miami. She likes to play with contradictions and used leather and featured an aluminum cummerbund she designed and had produced by a metal fabricator on Staten Island.

“I really wanted to make a statement. It’s resort wear, and it’s sunny, but I wanted to use leather and metal,” says Johnson, who added that the cummerbund is remarkably wearable because it has an elastic back.

Now, less than two years out of design school, the 23-year-old designer has landed a spot on the roster of Ottawa Fashion Week, which runs Feb. 8 to 10. She plans to bring 40 pieces for a total of 18 looks to Ottawa Fashion Week.

She creates all of the prints in her collection, which will debut in Ottawa.

She prefers natural materials and used silks, leather, fur and mohair and was inspired by the ocean.

“When you go deep down, you get these deeper colours — coral, and barnacles and schools of fish,” she says. “It’s a very print-heavy collection with a layering of print.”

Besides designing her own collection she also does freelance work, including an assignment as a project co-ordinator at Via Spiga Shoes.

This former figure skater who designed costumes for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships has a connection to Canada’s capital.

For more than a year, she has been dating Ottawa-born world champion figure skater Patrick Chan, who is being coached by her mother Kathy Johnson, a former modern dancer.

Working in costume design helped her when it came to designing costumes for figure skaters.

“It was a great way to work with a client and really listen to their needs and translate that into a great costume that made sense with the music, choreography, and the skater,” she says. “My background at Parsons and my time interning really exposed me to great design and techniques.”

She credits working as an intern at Wicked preparing costumes for the London opening of the show as a major learning experience.

“My favourite part of the internship would be going to the theatre in New York City and going backstage to look at the costumes,” she says.

“We would do this almost every week to maintain the costumes, repair anything, make changes.

“It was really great to learn the difference between costumes and street wear.”

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