Of all the muses fashion has tapped over the years, Bob Marley is not at the top of the list – at least not for a womenswear label. But the revered reggae star is responsible for at least the name of one fashion brand: Johnny Was, inspired by the eponymous track on Marley’s 1976 album Rastaman Vibration. In 1987, the Los Angeles-based label was founded by Eli Levite, who had played that infectious song, a favourite of his children, so many times he cemented the lyric “Johnny was a good man” into his consciousness. While not going as far as designing clothes in Rasta colours, Johnny Was does favour vintage and bohemian looks that reflect the artsy Californian beach lifestyle. It’s an antidote to fast fashion.
“The embroidery, the prints and the colour combinations are quite different from any other brands I have seen,” says Marilyn McLaughlan, owner of New Zealand fashion retailer Kimberleys. McLaughlan says she is proud to be the only one distributing the brand in New Zealand. “I was in Paris checking out the stands at Tranoï [the international fashion trade show],” she explains. “It was very crowded, with a huge number of designer stands, but to me this one stood out. I approached them to buy exclusively for New Zealand and I haven’t regretted that decision. And that was seven years ago! I still love it that much.” The Johnny Was woman is confident and free-spirited, McLaughlan adds, whether she’s dressing up, jet-setting around the globe or just walking out of the surf. “Each piece can be worn in many ways, from beach to dinner. It’s all in the styling.”
The Johnny Was brand falls into six collections: Johnny Was, JWLA, 3J Workshop, Biya, Pete & Greta and 4 Love & Liberty, all helmed by designer Biya Ramar with the exception of 4 Love & Liberty, a project of Christy Whitley. Each aesthetic is distinct but united by beautiful fabrics such as silk, voile and velvet as well as embellishments of lace, embroidery and beading, done in a vintage, beatnik style.
Although her fashion business, now with 13 stores in five cities around the country, deals in several international and homegrown clothing brands – including her own labels Episode, Marilyn Seyb, Marilyn Seyb Jeune and Marilyn Seyb Glamour – McLaughlan says Johnny Was will always occupy a special place in her heart. “I can’t help myself. I have so many pieces,” she laughs. “I think my new favourite will be the divine silk print I just saw in the Los Angeles showrooms. I can’t wait until delivery in 2016.”