After a decade of dressing men in flawlessly constructed made-to-measure suits, P Johnson has launched a womenswear equivalent – P Johnson Femme. Though to call it an “equivalent” is to do it a disservice; P Johnson Femme arrives with its own identity, and an offering dictated by the female form.
Sydney founder Patrick Johnson looked to his interior-designer wife Tamsin Johnson to help him establish the line. Together they’ve made “a lot of bed-time decisions,” says Patrick. And he wants to make one thing clear: “I didn’t want to create a man’s suit for a woman. I wanted to create a woman’s suit for a woman.”
Despite pleas over the years from many women – including partners, sisters and mothers of his menswear clients – to introduce a womenswear line, Patrick wouldn’t be rushed. (It’s worth mentioning women have been shopping his men’s line for years.)
“It’s a completely different fabric, lining and trim,” says Tamsin, who’d been on Patrick’s case to expand for a while, driven by her personal agenda: a tailored wardrobe of her own. “Patrick is a perfectionist; hurrying was out of the question.”
About three years ago, as the marketplace for off-the-rack women’s suiting grew in Australia and overseas, Patrick quietly picked up his scissors to begin work on a women’s label. The first step? Totally discarding his menswear rule book. He admits that designing for women after more than a decade focused on men was, at first, daunting, and took time to get right.
“It’s a different way of thinking to men’s tailoring. I have no interest in dressing women like men. Creating a new product category was a huge challenge,” he says. “[Women’s made-to-measure] doesn’t really exist here. I had to ask a lot of questions.
“It’s been about looking at the way chic women surrounding our business dress – studying their work and life habits.”
After trialling factories around the world, the pair finally landed on a formula and fit they’re proud of. They feel a P Johnson Femme suit could compete with the best that London’s (male-dominated) Savile Row has to offer.
Inspired by the couple’s coastal outlook, the cut is soft, the lines delicate and the fit fluid, skimming the body almost like a second skin. The jackets are a slightly straighter and looser fit than in men’s tailoring, and are designed to be worn open or closed with the same ease as a knitted cardigan. Femme’s linen is woven in Northern Ireland with a special glazing treatment, developed with Japanese technology. Given the quality of the fabric, the pricepoint is high. But the cost also reflects the handmade quality, which can’t be replicated by ready-to-wear.
While many fashion brands discuss the need to provide an “experience” to survive in the current bricks-and-mortar retail climate, the Johnsons take this commitment to the next level, offering a fashion experience few in Australia can compete with. There are limited opportunities for women in Australia to sit with someone to discuss what they want to wear, how they want to feel in it, and how they want it to accommodate their lifestyle.
“I want to give [my clients] 100 per cent focus when they come in. It’s about empathetic listening,” Patrick says. “You can create something with us that becomes a really valuable thing in your life.” A suit is an investment, he explains, which will have many lives – as work wear, as dinner wear, as event wear.
A decade ago, when Patrick opened his first Melbourne showroom, he established a uniquely Australian suiting vernacular. It was a style that appealed to men beyond our shores, and P Johnson showrooms can now be found in Sydney, Melbourne, New York and London. His garments are also stocked internationally at prestigious retailers including Barneys, Matches Fashion and Mr Porter.
Femme’s new appointment-only atelier is hidden above Tamsin’s interiors showroom in Paddington in Sydney. It’s a far cry from the tailors of Savile Row, and the shirtmakers of nearby Jermyn Street (where Johnson learned his craft). Instead of men tucked behind sewing machines in workshop basements, you’ll find large double doors that open onto a quaint balcony overlooking William Street, inviting natural light into the attic-like space. A marble-and-oak table commands a room that feels under designed, as if it’s always been there. Upholstered walls are decorated with a collage of images broadly inspired by femininity. Black-and-gold custom racks display the suit samples: a powdery duck-egg blue linen hangs beside a pair of terracotta cigarette pants and a polo jacket with gold buttons reminiscent of 1950s Armani. A word now on the flooring: it’s very hard to find a good leopard-print carpet, but Tamsin has pulled it off.
“Patch and I collect a lot of art, furniture and lighting. We have for over 12 years,” she says. “And I think the room feels like that. It feels natural, like a home.”
A private 30-minute fitting begins with a senior tailor taking your measurements and carefully studying your posture, all the while discussing how you want to wear your garment.
“You come in and we go through the whole conversation about your life, your habits, what you like, what you don’t like,” says Patrick. “We talk about your wardrobe, what you need. Then we run through all the design options.”
Fanned out on the table are a plethora of swatches, lookbooks, buttons, threads and personalised lettering options. “We whittle them down and help you make a decision,” says Patrick.
Next, your bespoke pattern is sent to the Femme workshop (located an hour and a half from Shanghai by train) before the garment is finished off in the Sydney atelier by a team of in-house seamstresses with more than 40 years experience combined. A final fitting is required to discuss any further changes. The relationship with your tailor doesn’t end there – you’re asked to break in your garments and see how they feel in the real world, and return for any necessary tweaks.
Later this year the Johnsons plan to open a Femme showroom in Melbourne, and they’ll be hosting roving trunk shows in Jakarta, Los Angeles and New York.
It’s an exciting invitation, in particular, for those who are sick of the confines of traditional office wear (too-tight pencil skirts and restricting pantyhose spring to mind). The pendulum has swung in favour of comfort and personality not only in women’s suiting, but also workwear more broadly, and P Johnson Femme provides something looser, lighter and more modern in that vein.
“Women right now are demanding this stuff. I think it's part of a broader change happening in society – women feel more empowered [and want to wear something] that evens out the playing field,” Patrick says. “They want clothing that’s elegant and comfortable.
“Suiting, done well, is the best format for this.”
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on August 14, 2019. Some details may have changed since publication.