Jermikko Shoshanna Q & A
Jermikko Shoshanna Q&A
Interviewed and written by Darnell Jordan
This month I had the pleasure of interviewing award-winning fashion designer Jermikko Shoshanna Taliaferro Johnson. Her line, Jermikko, has been a staple in the fashion industry for over 40 years. Her clothing was most recently featured in Spike Lee’s feature film, Chiraq. We met at Chicago’s Raddison Blu Hotel and discussed her inspiring past, successful present, and even brighter future.
Q: Where were you born and raised?
A: I was born in Chicago, IL and lived between New Orleans and Tallulah, Louisiana until returning to Chicago at the age of 10. I remember when we came back to Chicago. I was so excited to have an inside bathroom with plumbing, and electricity. All day I turned the lights on and off and flushed the toilet LOL! I was amazed!
Q: Is there any significance behind your name?
A: Nope, that’s just what my mamma and my daddy named me. I just wanted to know why everyone else in class was learning to spell simple names like Mary and Betty, but I had this long ass name LOL!
Q: Growing up, was fashion a huge part of your family?
A: Not entirely. My mother was fashionable, but I guess I sort of picked up on it along the way.
Q: Is there a significant moment that made you realize you wanted to design?
A: I always wanted to make people look better. Once when I was a child, I colored on my grandmother’s white church uniform. I wanted her to look like the lady across the street with the fishnet pantyhose, red-lipstick, eyelashes, and a gorgeous figure. My grandmother actually wore it to church!
Q: How did you officially get started?
A: I was working at a phone company and a co-worker directed a racial slur towards me. After plugging up his phone so he couldn’t use it, my boss came and talked to me. She said I was so talented, and asked why was I working there, and what is it that I really wanted to do. I explained to her that I wanted to make lots and lots of clothes and make people beautiful. She said “Oh, you want to be a designer manufacturer!”. I think that was the first time I ever heard that term. I always knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what it was called and how to get it. She strongly encouraged me to go that day and find a school that I wanted to go to, because if I didn’t she was going to fire me. If I did, she said she would let me continue to work there for as long as it took me to get out of school. That ended up being five years.
Q: Where did you study?
A: I went to the Art Institute and the University of Chicago concurrently.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in your early years of designing?
A: Being black...LOL…No, that wasn’t my biggest challenge. I think the biggest challenge for me was having to work, and go to both schools concurrently. I guess you can say I missed the youth of my life, but that was ok. Once I started in business, a huge challenge of mine was getting the public to accept that this little dark skinned girl from the south and the south side of the Chicago really did have the talent to tell them what would look good on them.
Q: Were your earlier experiences in the industry inclusive or exclusive for minorities?
A: I think it's always been exclusive, and I never understood that. To me, designing is art, and color in art should only be important in the pallet. It shouldn’t be important in the person doing it. I’ve had orders cancelled on me because of the color of my skin. I’ve even had newspaper people who have done stories on me have their life threatened, because they had this dark skinned girl in their paper. This was back in the day though. Its not so extreme anymore.
Q: Did you have any industry mentors that inspired you along the way?
A: My favorite teacher in school was Mrs. Price. I remember when I got out of college I had designed a collection of gowns for a store on State Street. I was out in front of the store looking at the window, because every gown in the window was mine. This lady walks up and she began looking in the window too. She said “Wow, those are really beautiful!” and as I turned to say that they were mine, I noticed that it was Mrs. Price!
Q: Any favorite designers growing up?
A: Let me put it to you this way…I come from the south side of Chicago, and we didn’t have fancy designers there. Just department stores like Goldblatt’s, and Sears. When I was in college and they were talking about designers like Yves Saint Laurent, and these $250 blouses, I would think “You can get that much cheaper at a department store!” LOL! I did my apprenticeship at Stanley Korshak, so I began to learn about all those things.
Q: Your known for your beautiful evening coats. Was it a conscious decision to focus on coats?
A: Not just beautiful coats…outerwear! I hate when people put you in categories. I don’t see myself in one category. Part of the public will concentrate on my coats, and another part may concentrate on something else. I don’t want to be known as a coat designer, or an evening wear designer. I’m a fashion designer.
Q: Other things you have branched out and designed?
A: In addition to being a fashion designer, I’m an inventor. So there is never a dull moment when something comes in my mind. I have the type of brain where if you put me in a room, I will come up with ways to solve problems in that room.
Q: What are some significant moments in your career?
A: There are so many, but a few would be winning Designer of the Year, and landing the covers of Women’s Wear Daily, and Who’s Who in American Women. Also, getting into stores and being able to stay there long enough to gain their trust in my knowledge of what looks good. At first, I didn’t let them know who I was. I would go out as a sales rep and not the designer. I'm also in the Library of Congress.
Q: How did the opportunity to design for Spike Lee’s Chiraq present itself it you?
A: The costume designer Rita and I knew each other. When they needed things for Angela Bassett, they came to me to see what I had or would recommend. It was an amazing experience!
Q: Why did you get rid of your Michigan Avenue store in Nordstrom? Will you open a new store?
A: It was supposed to be a three month pop up store at first, but they asked for me to stay longer. I opened during the holidays, which was a big mistake. After the holidays, things died down, and I didn’t find it financially smart to remain open until things picked back up in the Spring. I learned a lot from that experience and I’m grateful for it. I have a few options from other locations, and I'm positive something will come to fruition in the near future. I’ve already got some great concepts. Until then, my looks can be found at www.jermikko.com
Q: What is your biggest challenge today continuing your business?
A: Money, and finding good talent. Chicago used to have lots of suppliers, and manufacturers. They all left and went to NYC. NYC has even changed since 9/11.
Q: How has business changed throughout the years?
A: More online shopping. Men and women are also buying clothes differently, which requires me to make them differently. That’s one of the main reasons why I invented 2-in-1 garments.
Q: What’s your biggest frustration with young entrepreneurs?
A: They think they know everything, and expect success overnight. They don’t understand the journey it takes.
Q: Do you feel the road is still different for young minority entrepreneurs?
A: If I made it through what I went through, then they can. We have come a long way, but then we still have things like the Oscars controversy LOL, so I guess we still have progress to make.
Q: Any advice for young entrepreneurs?
A: They are smarter than me. They could actually teach me something! LOL! Be able to fall down, and get up. Never take no for an answer!
Q: How do you stay motivated against adversity?
A: My desire to win is so severe that all obstacles must be overcome.
Q: After all these years of designing, does it still excite you?
A: As long as I think of it as my place of play, I remain excited. I love what I do, and how I get to do it.
Q: A lot of artists have a special place or activity that helps inspire them. Do you?
A: Prayer and people watching. I love sitting and wondering why people wear the things they wear. I often look at people and create scenarios.
Q: Any new exciting ideas for Spring 2016?
A: I'm focusing on my new MOOD collection, which is a fabulous convertible hoodie line that transforms casual to chic without losing the comfort. My designs will also be seen on an upcoming reality show.
Q: What is your definition of success?
A: There is an old saying that goes “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
Q: In one word, describe your brand?