By Sarah Morrison
For New Orleans women, being crowned queen of a second line club is one of the greatest honors. These women spare no expense to look the best they can: they pull out all the sequins and glitter to ensure they are the center of attention. The dress they dawn for that night holds equal if not more weight than a wedding dress. As the 2018 queen of the Ole & Nue Times Pleasure Club, Cindy Landor wanted to make a spectacle. That’s why Landor went to the fashion designer Renee Johnson: she knew she put her trust in the right person. She said to Johnson, “there’s no budget, just make me look good.” The mermaid-style, lowcut gown was the showstopper she asked for. With zig-zag diamond stripes, purple-metallic-feather fringe, and a feathered hem, Johnson’s peacock-inspired dress was fit for a queen.
New Orleans royalty come to Johnson for custom, statement gowns for everything from weddings, to Mardi Gras carnivals, to prom. Johnson pays homage the modistes: the women who “brought glam and old-world sewing practices” to the New Orleans debutantes’ extravagant fashion. Her fashion line, Afri Modiste, embodies New Orleans art and culture. She celebrates the beauty of women while incorporating her own twist and style. Johnson’s custom gowns never lack pizzaz and originality; she lets the fabric design the gown. “I get really obsessed with fabric. So, I just love like to play around and try to find the newest, latest, and most different patterns that I can find.” Whether she uses traditional African prints, sparkles, embellishments, or feathers, the fabric’s original spark is always the focus of her piece. Born and raised in New Orleans East, Johnson did not discover her talent for design until she was eighteen years old. Johnson admired the costumes in her favorite movies and decided that her dream was in fashion. So, with nothing but a needle, some thread, and the minimal skills she acquired from high school home economics, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia to attend Bauder College’s fashion design program. There, she learned everything from using a machine to designing her own work. Johnson trudged through while the hard work disheartened others. When she graduated, she was one of few accomplished fashion designers.
Johnson always knew she wanted to be different, and her introduction to the world of fashion was no different. “I’m usually the one who kind of does my own thing… When I first came back from Fashion Design School, I wanted to do something different and use fabrics that people weren’t using, so I gravitated towards African fabric because, at the time, no one was making clothes out of African fabrics.” This led to a short career in the theatre world as a designer for African dance companies. She built a familiarity with her style and decided to take it to the streets. “But, of course, as with anything new and different, people did not take to it,” so she transitioned from costumes to a line of children’s clothing. Parents were more comfortable dressing their children in African fabrics than themselves, so Johnson found her new market. Her kids’ line did not compromise her style, and Johnson’s bold clothes captured attention.
When she returned home to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, years later, she saw a growth of interest in her work. African fabrics were more in style, and it became more common for women to seek that look out. She slowly began to design again but decided to stick to women’s formal wear. “That’s how Afri Modiste was born because I was making formal wear but out of African fabrics.” Rea
It only took a little time for the women of New Orleans to recognize Johnson’s skill, originality, and flare for the dramatic before they came rushing into commission their own personalized gowns. “I guess there weren’t a lot of people specializing in formal wear. So, with people saying that I had the skill to make formal wear, that’s when the debutantes, and the girls from prom, and people for the Mardi Gras balls, they started coming and requesting my services.” Clients can specify the fit and fabric of their dresses, but this is not the reason these
women flock to Johnson. No matter what pattern you choose, Johnson guarantees an attention-grabbing piece: her work demands to be noticed. Johnson covers her work in classic New Orleans culture. She uses current trends to document the New Orleans debutante culture for modern women.