A DFW-based wardrobe stylist and fashion show producer shares his story of how he once turned a new dream into a career all own his own and ended up at the top.
Willie Johnson is a creative and down-to-earth dreamer who has cultivated himself over the years into becoming one of DFW’s most respected and well-known wardrobe stylists and fashion show producers.
Did you know that you wanted to be a fashion producer and stylist growing up? How did you end up being in the position that you are in today?
No. I didn’t start off wanting to be a fashion producer. I actually used to model and the way I kind of fell behind the scenes is that I use to work for the Kenneth Cole store at North Park and a lady, who still to this day is very essential and important in my life, Lisa Perry, had called the store and asked to speak to me because I had once picked out some shoes for her and gave her wardrobe options. She had asked if I would like to help work a fashion show backstage. At the time, I had never done anything like that before, so I told her yes. So back in 1998, I was twenty three years-old and got bit by the passion that night of the first fashion show I worked at. Literally, as I was backstage I said to myself “this is what I want to do, this is where I want to go”. So that’s kind of how I started, both working in retail and my first show.
Continuing off of that question, after realizing that was what you wanted to do with your life, what career path and stepping stones did you take to get you to where you are today?
It wasn’t easy, I’ll admit it. It was kind of tough. After that first show, I knew what I wanted to do and I dove into it. I stayed at Kenneth Cole because it was a job and I had to market myself. I started trying to connect with professionals, trying to be a part of shows and volunteering myself at events. I began teaching models how to walk and agencies eventually started contacting me to work with their talent. At one point, I ended up working for the same agency that had represented me back when I was younger, but behind-the-scenes. I started learning how to make myself a business by doing things like being on time, making sure I brought clothes back within 24-48 hours, making sure I connected with the right photographers, etc. Truly after a while, I didn’t have to work as much because people started referring me. I started to get referral after referral and that just is how I grew.
After you had established yourself in this industry, what would you say differentiates you from other leaders in the DFW fashion industry?
I started with a “no nonsense policy” and was known to be aggressive and firm. I was friendly, but people knew to bring their A-game when working with me. I also have a mission statement which is “honesty and integrity”. I wanted to be that person that didn’t have the reputation as someone trying to get over on you by “selling a dream”. You’ll get people that will tell you what you want to hear, which is really sad because what you want to hear might not be the truth. I like to tell the truth.
Take us through a day in the life of a Willie Johnson.
I wake up early, before everybody else gets up. I meditate, pray, and read certain scriptures for encouragement. Then, I sit down to mentally plan my day and write a list of everything I need to get done. I try to get a workout in. From there, I just hit the ground running whether it’s a meeting, or if I have to do a fitting, a runway class, a personal styling consult or anything that my positions requires me to do.
What would you say was a major turning point in your career?
I produced, styled, and co-produced one of the biggest hair and fashion shows in Dallas, The Ascension, which was hosted by Vivica A. Fox about 10 years ago now. That was a really big turning point because I was over a lot of things and it really just made me love what I do. I would say also when I was asked to be the talent director for Pin Show, which is a showcase for independent designers that is one of the largest indie shows in the state and happens every year in February.
What do you wish you would have known back when you were at this age that you had to find out the hard way?
I would highly suggest that every person does internships. I didn’t intern with anyone. I actually had to create my own way and learn the business. An internship teaches you people skills and how to have a good work ethic, especially in this business because a lot of people look at social media and then when they get into this business they realize it’s not what they’ve seen on social media. Social media is fine, but I tell everybody, it goes beyond your Instagram self; you have to be able to talk to people, you have to be able to articulate, you have to have thick skin. Especially being from the South, you can’t go to New York with a Dallas mentality and expect people to smile at you and move slow. You have to move fast.
I see that you’re heavily involved in various philanthropic causes. Could you share which causes inspire you the most and what kind of events you participate in to help these causes?
Well, I support all causes, but the main two that I am very big on are AIDS-related and children’s charities. I just did this event I got back from a few days ago called the “The Fashion Event” in Bryan, Texas where we produced 19 runway shows in 3 days. This event benefited the Mercy Project, which is an organization that helps children who have been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ghana. So far they’ve rescued 80 children and reunited them back with their parents; that is something that I really care about.
For someone who wants to be in producer/stylist, what do you think is the most important qualities to have?
They have to have people skills, customer service and be a good sales person because you have to convince people to let you borrow their clothes. You have to have patience because you’re dealing with so many people that all have different egos, so you’re normally the calm in the storm. You need to learn how to step outside of yourself and realize that it’s not about you, it’s about the event.
Has there been anyone in your life that has either really inspired you or has been there alongside you while you developed in your career?
Yes, I actually have five people in my life that have been instrumental in my career development. They are Isacc Birdlong, who “planted the seed” for me. When I used to model at a young age, I would do the local fashion shows with him, so I learned a lot from watching him. Lisa and Reggie Perry really opened the door for me after that. Also, Keith and Denise Manoy. Back in 2006, I was in a bad situation where I had lost most of what I had owned and they helped me get back on my feet and get myself started. I give all of those people credit.
Who would you say has been one of your most influential mentors throughout your career?
Lisa is really the person who started my career of a show producer because she had given me my first start. She planted the seed of being a fashion show producer in me. She really cultivated my career period in everything I did. She cultivated the business side, how to present myself, how to talk to people, everything.
How were you introduced to her?
It was crazy really. Everyone in Dallas knew who Lisa was. She owned 45 Degree Angle, which was an amazing upscale salon that was featured in every major publication across the country. She used to have these beautiful elaborate fashions shows and when I was eighteen I was sitting in the audience and told my friend, “I’m going to work with this lady some day”. Then, five years later she walks into Kenneth Cole. No one introduced me to her, it just happened. I think of it as a “divine connection”. When I went to that first fashion show she had asked me to work at, and five years later God knew it was time for me to meet her.
Getting to know Willie Johnson and listening to his story has been both a pleasure and enlightening. He is a man full of great advice and insight into an industry that he approaches with a different mindset than most other professionals. I believe that because of his deeply embedded passion for what he does and his commitment to always exemplify integrity and honesty with everything he does, truly sets him apart. His authenticity and words of wisdom that he has shared about this industry, his career path and life in general are precious pieces of advice that I know can be of great guidance in some way to any reader.
“I always tell people that I work hard to make it look easy”.
Special thanks to Willie Johnson for allowing NuView to interview him. Follow him on Instagram @williejohnson3 to see his show adventures.
Words by Jacqui Simses
Edit by Maia Wilson and Reilly Farris
Images courtesy of Willie Johnson