Profile: Patrick Johnson on redefining the suit
Sep 29, 2017
Sydney-based tailor and designer Patrick Johnson had an unconventional route into his profession. After trying his hand at winemaking in France, only to develop a severe allergy to sulphur dioxide (which made it impossible for him to continue), he relocated to London to study at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Halfway through his course there, he bumped into shirtmaker Robert Emmett, while “doing that very Australian thing”of applying for a job at a pub. Emmett suggested Johnson come to work with him making shirts;Johnson complied. Shortly afterwards, he found himself having so much fun that he decided to drop out of art school and pursue tailoring full time.

Six years later, in 2008, he returned to Australia and launched his eponymous brand P Johnson, creating incredibly lightweight and sharply contemporary tailored garments for private clients. Now with six immaculate showrooms across the globe (masterminded by his wife, interior designer Tamsin Johnson), his own tailoring workshop in north-west Tuscany, and a limited ready-to-wear line that’s stocked at Barneys and Mr Porter, Johnson represents something truly rare: a new proposition in the world of suiting.

Adam Welch: The suit has been around a long time. Why is it still relevant?

Patrick Johnson: The suit is the centre point of all uniforms in men’s clothing; it’s about how we manipulate this uniform to tell different or new stories. But also the suit has this amazing ability to change the way you look in terms of your figure and the way you feel. It’s an incredibly versatile format, and it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves over the next 50 years. The merging of activewear with suiting and technology has forged an interesting path. Think what it’s going to be like when you can start 3-D printing cloth for your own use – it’ll completely transform what can be done. In the meantime, things are much more open and people are able to form their own aesthetic around the suit that might be separate from, I guess you could say the British, or Italian, or Ivy traditions.

AW: What made you start P Johnson?

PJ: All I want to do is help men dress better. I get a lot of joy from that. I started as a travelling tailor, going to see clients – I used to drive from Sydney to Melbourne to Adelaide, it’s around 3,600 kilometres, about every fortnight. As we grew we kept that independence, that idea of doing something unique. In a sense being Australian is a huge advantage. I can take the best of British tailoring and the best of Italian tailoring, and the best of what the Japanese do, then reinterpret it all my way. I know we’re not at the centre of the tailoring world in Australia, but this enables us to develop a style completely of our own without thinking how it ‘should’ be.

"In a sense being Australian is a huge advantage. I can take the best of British tailoring and the best of Italian tailoring, and the best of what the Japanese do, then reinterpret it all my way."

AW: Your garments are known for their lightweight construction. Why is that so important?

PJ: I don’t think the lightness is the paramount thing. It’s more how I feel that clothing should be worn, especially the suit – which is in a very easy, natural way. The construction allows us to do that but in all honesty, as the wearer you shouldn’t have to think about the construction. I don’t like it when you go into showrooms and people harp on about this buttonhole or that buttonhole, this topstitching. We dress to look good, right?

AW: How do your stores differ from a traditional tailor’s shop?

PJ: I want to create spaces that our clients are really comfortable coming into – that aren’t intimidating in any way. When we see a client, we’re trying to pull back the layers of their personality to work out what they really want. And the best time to do that is when they’re relaxed. I’m not British, so I can’t have all the old leather and Chesterfields and dark wood. We have a lot of art in our spaces, which are fresh and light. Once a client comes in and thinks, ‘oh cool, you like that artist,’ then they know they can trust you aesthetically.

AW: Your wife designs the interiors. Do you work well together?

PJ: We have a pretty similar aesthetic. I think it would be difficult for any other interior designer to work with me, to be honest. I help her a lot with her work and she helps me. Whenever I’m designing a collection, she’s the one I go to first. She’ll critique it in a nice diplomatic way – I can be quite sensitive. And then vice versa with her work.

AW: Why is custom tailoring still relevant? Will it continue to be?

PJ: Getting a garment that fits perfectly, or as close to it as humanly possible, is an important thing. And I think the idea is becoming more powerful right now because, if you look at the way that retail is changing, this sort of ‘stack ’em high and watch ’em fly’ mentality that we’ve had in a lot of department stores no longer feels relevant. Now these stores want low stock levels, they don’t want to make too much of an investment. So the idea of custom suiting – where you get a deposit from the client and the garment is made once it’s been ordered – is very appealing all around. It decreases any waste from the process. One thing that has really drawn me to this way of working – and why we have only done off-the-rack clothing for Mr Porter and with Barneys in New York is that I detest waste. We can only make so many suits a year in our workshop, and the thought of all this work ending up in an incinerator or a sale bin makes me feel sick.

AW: How do you feel you represent Australian fashion?

PJ: One thing I can hopefully do for some younger designers is to show them that they don’t have to worry about not being European – not being this or that. Be true to what you are and come up with your own aesthetic, your own style; tell your story your own way. We can be intimidated a little bit, Australians, thinking that we’re on the bottom of the world. But Australia’s doing some incredible things in womenswear – look at someone like Kym Ellery – which is a really good indicator, and there are a lot of others as well. The Australian fashion scene is strong because Australians are used to travelling a lot, we get out there, we push ourselves. I don’t want to get too soppy about it, but we really do have this pioneering spirit.