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Career
January 9, 2024

Suiting Himself

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When your father is the first Black billionaire in American history, there’s a certain amount of pressure on you to follow suit and be successful too. Brett Johnson has risen to the challenge by carving out a name for himself in a world removed from father Bob Johnson’s diversified business interests.
While the senior Johnson challenged the status quo of the entertainment industry in founding BET and then applied his applecart-upsetting skills to other sectors—including the auto, hotel and investment markets—his son has demonstrated he is cut from the same cloth by… taking on the fashion world.
In becoming the first Black designer to break into the luxury menswear market—his designs are to be found in Saks Fifth Avenue, in addition to stores across Europe, the Middle East and Asia—Brett Johnson is hoping to bring a fresh sensibility to the industry with what Women’s Wear Daily (widely viewed as the fashion industry Bible) calls his line’s “signature relaxed attitude.”
Using the finest textiles, fibers and leathers from some of the top mills and tanneries in Italy—the heart of the classic fashion industry—Johnson has developed a collection described as “equal parts American eye and Italian hand.” The pieces don’t come cheap. A two-button wool and silk patch blazer will set you back $1,875, while a cashmere and silk pullover hoodie runs $2,575. A cashmere and silk polo can be had for $775.
Johnson has avoided street-oriented styles, which he says are trends that come and go, in preference for more classic styles that stand the test of time. It’s part of his goal of taking on some of the industry’s celebrated “generational” style houses—think Zegna, Brioni—that date back decades.
Three times better
“I want to present a different image for minorities and African Americans,” Johnson says (though his designs are not intended exclusively for those communities). “I think we’re underserved, and I think a lot of that has to do with the way that you present yourself. So, if you can elevate your look, I think the world perceives you differently. Whether it’s wrong or right, it’s just how it is.”
Take two guys with equal skills going for a job interview or seeking a loan, one of them dressed to the nines and the other in street clothes, he says. Who do you think is going to get the gig or the money?
As a young man, Johnson interned for his father but quickly decided a 9-to-5 office routine didn’t suit him. He turned to fashion, which had interested him since he was aged five or six, going to the garment district in New York with his father to get materials with which to customize his Air Force 1s. In his early 20s, Johnson spent months in Italy visiting designers and factories, soaking up all he could before launching out in 2014.
“If you can elevate your look, I think the world perceives you differently.”
Growing up a Johnson has been both “a gift and a curse,” he says. He’s grateful for what he learned about business and entrepreneurship from both his parents but has also had to deal with the “silver spoon” attitude of some people. “It’s like, ‘Why should we support you?’” he says. “People don’t understand the work and time and effort that I put into my craft.”
Johnson’s father always used to tell him that, being Black, he had to be twice as good as everyone else in the room just to be as good, he says. “For me, I feel like I have to be three times as good because of the name, for people to believe what I’m doing . . . not just slapping my name on a garment, but actually curating and creating things that will last a lifetime and be generational.”
In addition to his parents, Johnson names Virgin founder Richard Branson as an influence on his business thinking. “I feel as though he has fun, just enjoying life, and his success has been a byproduct of that,” says Johnson. “I’ve always admired that in somebody.”
“I feel like I have to be three times as good because of the name, for people to believe what I’m doing.”
What’s a business lesson he has learned over the past decade or so that he would pass on to younger entrepreneurs? “Stay the course,” he answers. “Don’t ever waver. Be confident in what you’re doing and say it with authority, in your actions. Because people are going to look at you and question you and wonder if this is a facade or not. You have to believe within yourself before you can convince somebody else to believe.”
Three-best lists
Having established his name and style, Johnson is seeking to broaden his fashionable footprint. Coming soon is a line of footwear, including a Louis Sneaker named after long-time family friend (and WayMaker Journal publisher) Louis Carr. It’s in red, Carr’s favorite color.
Next up is a line of fragrances, which may seem like a departure but is actually a natural progression of what he is doing, Johnson explains. Scent is “an extension of that first impression [through their clothes] that you get when you meet somebody,” he says. “It’s very complementary to what we’re doing.” Plus, fragrances can provoke memories, which ties into his desire to celebrate heritage and lineage.
Johnson is also venturing into hotel design, which he sees as all a part of style. “Like, how would a guy dress for this hotel? I’m very meticulous in that sort of thought process: what this guy does from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep . . . it’s kind of curating a whole life.”
All this is making him a rising name in the fashion world. Last year he was named creative director for the Washington Wizards, designing what the players wear for games and traveling, plus fan merchandise.
Johnson’s sense of style extends beyond the businesses he is directly involved in. At his company website (www.brettjohnson.co) he offers his take on the best in other spheres, blogging about the top three restaurants, cars, watches and cigars in the world.
Atera in New York makes the list of best eateries (the best meal Johnson says he has ever had in the city) while he names a Padron 1926 80th anniversary as his favorite smoke (suggesting his Super 220’s 12.6-micron wool made-to-measure suit as the thing to wear while enjoying one).
While Johnson appreciates high-end style, he is not high and mighty, remaining approachable and easygoing: “It’s just who I am.” Some pants cost more than others, but we all put them on the same way, he says. “Just because there are more zeros in my bank account
versus yours doesn’t make me better than you. We’re all human beings trying for the ultimate goal, which I think is happiness and fulfillment and joy in our lives.”
For Johnson, that satisfaction comes not just from being able to make an impact in the fashion world, but from his family life. Wife Sarah is his co-creative designer, and they travel with their two small children, splitting the year between Europe and the United States. “Being able to share these moments and take our kids to the factories, the mills, the tanneries, all these different places, has been immensely gratifying,” he says.
It’s with family that Johnson finds the time and space to recharge his creative juices. They look for off-the-beaten-path places to retreat to and “just be in touch with nature.” That means putting the phone and the iPad away, “just focusing on your family and letting everything else handle itself.”
BRETT JOHNSON: MY WAYMAKERS
First, my wife, Sarah. She has cut through all my nonsense and really centered me. She has helped ground me and she can read me; it’s like she has a sixth sense. That’s the reason why I married her.
The other person that has had the most profound impact on me was the guy that helped me start my business, but who unfortunately passed away, Mirko. He was one of those people who would give you the last $5 in his pocket. He didn’t care about money, and he helped me get into all the factories that we’re in now.
DRESSING FOR SUCCESS
What advice would Brett Johnson give to guys of limited means who still want to be stylish?
Reflect. Fashion starts as an inside job, he says. “People need to find out who they are internally and then be able to convey that message through clothing.”
Invest. The more you spend, the better the fabric, the fit and the lifetime of the suit. A black or blue suit with white shirt is still the gold standard. Pair with black or brown shoes. But “if a red suit is speaking to you from the get-go, then go ahead: do what feels comfortable to you.”
Adjust. If you buy an off-the-rack suit, spend a little money with a tailor to have it fitted better for you.
Simplify. Accessories are fine, but they should complement a good suit, not try to make up for a bad one. It’s about “being OK in my own skin to present myself to the world without having a label on me.”
This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.