Juliet Johnstone’s joyful, uninhibited painted pants

A photo of a woman leaning over a ladder, her long hair hanging down the side.

Juliet Johnstone, the 28-year-old painter and fashion designer whose product drops now sell out in minutes. Johnstone wears Juliet Johnstone hand-painted party pants and printed cotton poplin button down.

(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

This story is part of Image issue 21, “Image Makers,” our third annual celebration of the homegrown fashion luminaries who are designing a global fashion future built from the L.A. that was. Read the whole issue here. You can purchase the issue in print here.

It’s been eight hours and Juliet Johnstone, designer of the namesake fashion brand, hasn’t stopped painting in her downtown L.A. studio. Lush brushstrokes blossom into flowers and hummingbirds, their wings and petals stretching across cargo pants and baby tees. The designs are combinations of her mother’s elaborate flower bouquets that decorated Johnstone’s childhood home, the Malibu canyons, and vintage botany illustrations. They hover over words like “love” or “hate” that slink down pant legs.

The sweeps of deep color transform her favorite staples of ’90s and Y2K fashion into something one of a kind. These aren’t the velour jumpsuits that once splayed rhinestones across celebrities’ backsides, but Johnstone’s own version of SoCal casual luxury and escapism.

“I don’t make anything serious — it’s supposed to be fun,” she says. “It’s supposed to be absurd that there’s a butterfly on your ass.”

Johnstone first painted flowers and butterflies on thrifted cargo pants because she needed to paint something joyful and uninhibited. Broke and getting by as a studio assistant in New York, her work pants were a low-stakes canvas. It was a way to get around the halting pressure she felt fresh out of art school in 2017 to make art that was politically charged and “life changing,” she says.

A close-up image of a woman wearing a top painted with butterflies.

For Johnstone, clothing is yet another visual art form — another way to conjure an image, an expression of her desire to make something beautiful. Johnstone wears Juliet Johnstone mesh tank top in cream, hand-painted cotton bikini and layered hand-painted party pants.

Three years later, getting by doing the same work in Los Angeles, Johnstone put her first pair of hand-painted pants for sale on Instagram as an experiment. It was soon after that a post from Bella Hadid rocking her cargos helped skyrocket the now 28-year-old painter into a fashion designer with product drops that sell out in minutes. Her work has been featured in Vogue and worn by Dua Lipa and Kendall Jenner, not to mention garnered a loyal online following dubbed “JJ’s girls.” She’s done pop-up sales in L.A. and Paris, and partnered with Levi’s. Turns out the work was life changing.

Creative stimulation was never far for Johnstone. She grew up in a house of musicians — her six brothers followed in her father’s footsteps, who was Elton John’s guitarist. Her mother, a former fashion designer, stayed home with the kids but was always making her own art too. There was a craft room at the house in Calabasas where Johnstone first dabbled with painting in between playing drums, guitar and piano. It was just what you did in her family.

While visiting her dad at work, Johnstone got a glimpse of John’s glam rock wardrobe, which, looking back, may have inspired her. But it is her parents’ style that’s more evident in the designer’s product blocks today.

“Everything I’ve made now has been a reference to something my mom owns,” she says. “Whether it be just a sick pair of sweatpants or a cool blouse.”

Think Uggs and shorts. Diesel pants. Signature early aughts cool mom Juicy Couture fits. When Johnstone was in high school, fashion was in an earlier cycle of casual luxury, one that was synonymous with the plushy boots and low-rise jeans found during Johnstone’s wanderings between Agoura High School and Malibu.

But Johnstone was never interested in fashion trends — she’s always been a painter. She found freedom in a brush since she was young. “To experiment with colors and make my own colors, to be able to literally just create an image out of nothing, is the most fun part of my life,” she says.

An image of a woman standing before a painting of blue flowers

“To experiment with colors and make my own colors, to be able to literally just create an image out of nothing, is the most fun part of my life,” Johnstone says.

A close-up image of a woman wearing jean shorts as a top and bottom, both painted with orange flowers.

Johnstone wears Juliet Johnstone sky blue miniskirt worn as skirt and top.

(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

That passion took her to Parsons School of Design, where she transformed her studio into Mars using silver emergency blankets, astronaut costumes and airplane seats — a satirical commentary on space as the next target of colonization. The vibe of her current, bright downtown studio is more functional, but still another world she’s meticulously created. Racks of clothing sit among oversized painted butterflies and collages of retro Playboy shoots that decorate the walls. Marigolds, crystals and incense litter the tables. Flower-painted pillows brighten the white couch.

“I always have gone really deep into stuff,” she says. “Now I’m obsessed with this world that I’m creating.”

Clothing just happened to be her first canvas out of school, but she wouldn’t be excited about making clothes if they had nothing to do with painting. A half-done canvas hangs on the wall in her studio: Her signature flowers stretch across turquoise paint that fades and deepens. It’s her blank wall to dive into, a wide space to explore. With fashion, there are limitations: She has to think about how a design will wrap around a pant leg, for instance. But clothing is yet another visual art form — another way to conjure an image, an expression of her desire to make something beautiful.

“It’s all coming from my hand and my brain, so it’s all in the same universe,” Johnstone says. “They’re just different little planets.”

Through a friend, Johnstone sent Bella Hadid a pair of her pants while at Paris Fashion Week, just a few months before the pandemic hit. (The supermodel had “liked” her pants on Instagram.) Soon, lockdowns left Johnstone at her parent’s house, figuring out how she would pay rent again. That’s when Hadid posted her pants. In minutes, Johnstone’s direct messages blew up with hundreds of requests for custom pants. Keeping up with orders in the beginning was a family affair — Johnstone’s mom dyed the pants on the stove, her dad shipped orders — until the demand propelled her to move into her own studio in September 2020. Her local friends in fashion, including rising designer and boyfriend Reese Cooper, helped her set up shop. Johnstone released the second JJ product by the end of the year: tank tops, all distinct designs, which now number in the thousands. The slow rollout of each new item helped build hype and cemented her label as a drop-based women’s wear brand.

Now, most of the drops are modeled after her own style: baby tees, fleece sherpas, hoodies, swimsuits. She combines natural elements with imagery from vintage magazines and concert posters, as well as catalogs from more recent analog eras, like Delia’s. Nostalgic references infuse her clothes: ’90s girl power meets flower power, with skulls and the occasional thorny rose too. She loves fonts because they are “stamps of time,” like the bubbly letters from ’70s band posters — they remind her of her dad’s musical heyday. Spelling out words like “fuck” or “faith,” she also uses the gothic fonts that have vaulted into high fashion through other L.A. brands, like Born X Raised, originally pulled from memorial sweatshirts and city buildings.

Across Johnstone’s designs, there’s a blend of hard and soft, grounding her whimsical style. “It started as an effort to do some juxtaposition because I was doing a lot of stereotypical feminine flowers, bright colors, butterflies, all that stuff,” she says. “Mixing the two became interesting, and I like it because I’m girly but I’m also not super girly, so it just felt natural to me.”

An image of a woman on a ladder, showing her pants painted in gothic fonts.

Across Johnstone’s designs, there’s a blend of hard and soft, grounding her whimsical style. Johnstone wears Juliet Johnstone hand-painted party pants and Suicoke x Nepenthes NY Mura slides.

(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

In JJ’s world, “something beautiful” can include our rawest emotions coded in symbols of grief, giant curse words, the petals we picked off flowers in the hopes that someone loves us back. Sometimes requests come in for memorial pants: calla lilies and butterflies and names to honor a loved one. The combinations feel personal, the act of wearing them revealing, like taking a one-of-a-kind work of art out of your home and into the world.

Whereas Johnstone used to buy her clothes from brands like Dickies, now she makes her garments from scratch, collaborating with an L.A. factory for a unisex pant that’s a little more fitted than typical work pants. Rivets and buttons are engraved with her flowers and logo. She and her team still hand-dye pieces in tamale pots in her studio with custom colors.

But painting each product is an arduous labor of love. Custom pants can take days to paint (they now cost $600), so for the sake of her neck and back health, Johnstone began offering simpler versions on the site for upward of $200. Other items featuring prints of her designs will be out soon, allowing her to scale and make more of her work accessible. She’s hoping that the evolution will free her up for more partnerships or projects to paint on new platforms. She wants to paint on cars, on stages, on furniture, on private jets, and she wants to do public art. “My goal is that the canvas, the clothing, the furniture or whatever else the world extends into, it’s all really an extension of me and my artwork.”

A drawing of a butterfly, a Playboy magazine and a folder labeled "Boring Things."

“My goal is that the canvas, the clothing, the furniture or whatever else the world extends into, it’s all really an extension of me and my artwork,” says Johnstone.

(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

script that reads “Juliet Johnstone” surrounded by flare graphics

Ferron Salniker is a food, style and culture writer with a focus on identity, origins and systems. She also curates food and spirit events across the country. She grew up in the Bay Area and is based in Los Angeles.

Lettering by Jake Garcia / For The Times

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