OfÂ all the muses fashion has tapped over the years, Bob Marley is not at the top of the list â€“ 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 Marleyâ€™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 â€śJohnny was a good manâ€ť 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. Itâ€™s an antidote to fast fashion.
â€śThe embroidery, the prints and the colour combinations are quite different from any other brands I have seen,â€ť 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. â€śI was in Paris checking out the stands at TranoĂŻ [the international fashion trade show],â€ť she explains. â€śIt 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 havenâ€™t regretted that decision. And that was seven years ago! I still love it that much.â€ť The Johnny Was woman is confident and free-spirited, McLaughlan adds, whether sheâ€™s dressing up, jet-setting around the globe or just walking out of the surf. â€śEach piece can be worn in many ways, from beach to dinner. Itâ€™s all in the styling.â€ť
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 â€“ including her own labels Episode, Marilyn Seyb, Marilyn Seyb Jeune and Marilyn Seyb Glamour â€“ McLaughlan says Johnny Was will always occupy a special place in her heart. â€śI canâ€™t help myself. I have so many pieces,â€ť she laughs. â€śI think my new favourite will be the divine silk print I just saw in the Los Angeles showrooms. I canâ€™t wait until delivery in 2016.â€ť