“People need a reason to show up at retail,” said Johnson of the 3,000-square-foot organic, modern, artisan furniture-filled store. With a secret garden, light-filled solarium and 16-foot indoor Brachychiton tree, it’s as transporting as the New York designer’s exotic haute handmade runway collections.
“When I first started looking at spaces, I stayed at The Proper hotel in Santa Monica. And I just thought the design was quite incredible and that we were very like-minded,” Johnson said of Wearstler and her work for the luxury hospitality group. “I recognized so many of the objects in her collections, there was a lot of incredible sourcing, and that is something I do also both with ready-to-wear and in my homes — gathering and then making things feel different from their original context by putting them in a new environment.”
Johnson wanted to work with someone from L.A. “I’m not very interested as we roll out retail to have this boilerplate design that we then just slot into various environments,” she said. “Kelly is obviously incredibly steeped in not just the vibe of L.A. but also the local craftspeople. She also has a major affinity for handmade things, and for discovering artisans for collaborative work, so when we met it just felt like there was a shared language.”
The store, the brand’s third after New York’s SoHo and Amagansett, is located in the former Stella McCartney space on Beverly Boulevard near Robertson, in West Hollywood’s Design District.
“I have an affinity for interiors, and this whole space has been an exercise in residential design,” said Johnson, who has a small home collaboration launching soon in London with an eye toward expanding into the category sometime in the future. (The designer, who released a limited-edition Erewhon “Super Bloom” smoothie to celebrate the store opening, also has beauty on the horizon, hinting at a “big announcement.”)
The store entrance is on the side of the building, allowing the front to make a clean first impression for passersby with its weeping mortar brick finish, which Johnson describes as “organic and weird and drippy.”
“There’s a secret garden in the back, which does have parking, but also beautiful trees and a lot of plantings. We wanted to create this oasis, which a lot of people have in their homes in L.A., but that is essentially open to the public. The sense of welcoming the outside in and having a real connection to the neighborhood as well as the community was super important.”
(Johnson and landscape architect Miranda Brooks originally had plans to create a bigger garden where the existing parking lot still stands, but the City of West Hollywood scuttled the idea.)
Inside, the airy two-story space has a double-height feeling, with the tree planted in the center.
“I went with my daughter over a year ago to this nursery in Malibu and we had this whole epic escapade,” Johnson said of finding the special tree.
There’s a Burl wood room, “which is this concept of a jewel box exploded,” she explained of the whirling, textured area showcasing accessories and objets.
And there’s a glass solarium in the back where the fitting rooms are. “The idea is to let in the golden California light and blend the indoor and outdoor. All of the doors can be opened and in my mind, we want to have a lot of events back there and have this seamless transition from the interior to the exterior.”
On the second floor is a generous VIP fitting room, which will be the brand’s home for press events and celebrity dressing.
“The space embraces the natural world, timeless design from the ’70s and ’80s, and modern commissions from some of our favorite artists,” Wearstler said.
Among the incredible pieces are a sculptural resin bootcut leg table by Ross Hansen, colorful jigsaw tables by Canadian artist Jeff Martin, a Moisart chair by French artist Christian Astuguevieille and a custom clay stoneware chandelier by L.A.-based French ceramicist Olivia Cognet.
Contemporary works are complemented by vintage pieces, such as a pair of Carlo Scarpa 1970s Cornaro wood-framed armchairs, Ingo Maurer’s fan-like Uchiwa wall lights, and a high-backed carved wood hall chair by Urano Palma. The latter inspired the purchase of a light fixture by contemporary designer Minjae Kim in fiberglass, bamboo and Douglas fir. A sense of the handmade extends to the handwoven textiles used as upholstery throughout.
“This is truly our flagship store, it’s more than twice the footprint of our others,” said Johnson, who has a personal history with the city.
Although the designer grew up in New York, after she had her first child in 2007, she and her husband moved to L.A. for a year and a half.
“I moved to Silver Lake and I wanted to be somebody who rode my bike everywhere. But I lived on a street that was at a 90-degree incline,” she said of how it turned out. “l was also coming back to New York every week with an infant to keep my business here…but in the end, I did fall in love with L.A. and certainly put some roots down. I feel very connected to L.A., not to mention it’s a huge market for us.”
L.A., with its reputation for bohemian casual dressing, also rubbed off on Johnson. “A lot of times people do ask me if I’m from L.A. because of that sense of effortless elegance and playfulness that are important to me,” she said. “But I think the stereotype of New Yorkers has also changed. It used to be all New Yorkers only wore black and everybody is super stern. I’ve made it my life’s work to prove we are very fun and do like color.”
Johnson’s love of the handmade is in her DNA. Her globetrotting parents were both archaeologists.
“Our house had myriad collections of fibers and pottery and found objects. And everything had a story. My mother was really not somebody who ever bought anything off the shelf. She is Serbian and collected a lot of Serbian ethnic costumes.…We lived in Germany, and she brought back 7,000 handblown glass ornaments for the Christmas tree. Everything had a sense of place and time and and who the maker was.”
That sense passed on to Johnson. “I’m a collector and gatherer in my heart..I was just in South America and discovered these incredible horsehair weavers making these little sculptures that we are thinking about using for runway. I just get so wildly excited and inspired seeing that one-of-a-kind touch that happens only when something’s made by hand. It gives me a great delight, not to mention continuing to expand the network of humans we work with,” she said of the brand’s partnerships with artisans in India, Peru and Uruguay.
Having her own stores will let her bring in more experimental handmade products that are not necessarily scalable, and story tell around them.
“It’s very difficult for women especially who are in a caregiving role with children to have access to meaningful work, especially if they’re in smaller communities. So I hope that we’ve made a lot of measurable difference,” Johnson said.
For her burgeoning denim category, she turned to L.A. for manufacturing. “The denim factory that we work with is one of the best in the world. Each of these pairs of jeans takes like 30 hours of handwork to get the exact type of abrading. And they are very much at the forefront of sustainability which within the denim space is important because there is so much toxicity that has been part of that industry.”
Recently, Johnson signed her first license, for shoes, with an Italian manufacturer invested in its own artisanal traditions. “Visiting this factory outside of Venice was mind blowing because everybody working there was in their 20s. It wasn’t like it was a dying art. It’s something the Italian government has invested in.”
In ready-to-wear, she’s been seeing success courting the ultra-luxury customer, with pieces at the higher end for her, in the $2,000 range. “It’s very exciting to see that we have that appetite…but at the same time, we’re not interested in leaving behind the woman who has been with us for 25 years, nor are we interested in having a diffusion range. So being able to have this breadth and depth within the brand under the same name is very exciting.”
She’s seeing growth in tailoring and eveningwear too. “We’ve been working more with stylists, and I think it’s going to be fun to play between those two spaces in L.A. where you have both hyper-casual and hyper-occasion.”
The L.A. store is a milestone for the brand, which will celebrate its 25 anniversary in 2024.
“This took a bit longer than I might have wanted, but I think it’s going to be something impressive within the L.A. retail landscape. And we’re certainly interested in making our mark not just as a ready-to-wear brand, but truly a lifestyle brand that has relevancy on the West Coast, but also internationally. We’re really setting ourselves up from a design point of view as well. This is not a space that a lot of American brands invest heavily in, so I think it’s going to open people’s eyes to a whole different part of who we are as a brand.”
Johnson is the sole owner of her brand, which has 80 employees and which industry insiders estimate is a $100 million business.
“At this time, there is no desire to bring in any outside investment. The company is profitable and able to make significant investments in a sustainable growth strategy,” said chief executive officer Donata Minelli Yirmiyahu.
“We’re experiencing double-digit growth; it has definitely been more conservative growth going into 2023. But overall, our business is trending a 50/50 split between wholesale and direct-to-consumer, which is really exciting for us. We still tremendously value our wholesale partners, their partnerships are really about brand marketing, as well as brand trajectory,” she said, adding that more Ulla Johnson shops-in-shop will be opening in Neiman Marcus, and the one in Bergdorf Goodman will be expanding to 500 square feet.
She’s also seeing growth in wholesale internationally, with the recent opening of a pop-up in Le Bon Marche in Paris. International business is 30 percent of sales and growing.
The recent launch of PreLoved, a peer-to-peer resale component on the Ulla Johnson website, has been a success, with items selling for 40 to 50 percent of their original price, Yirmiyahu said. “Ulla has always spoken about future heirlooms, it’s been a tagline of the company for many years, and it’s exciting to see the customer feels the same way about the product.”
The brand is looking to open more stores, with Miami in its sights. But it’s in no rush.
“We view our retail strategy much more as flagship opportunities in both size and locations. So the decisions that we’re making are not only based on market opportunity, but are they locations that offer extensive global visibility, as well as feel instinctive to Ulla,” Yirmiyahu said. “It’s really about finding these unique experiences.”