Michelle Lynn Johnson is a small business owner, entrepreneur and graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design. She designs, owns and operates The Fairies Pyjamas: A whimsical festival inspired clothing line made from mostly organic fabrics. She works with her fair trade production partner company in Kathmandu, Nepal. This is Michelle’s personal account of how she went from dreaming about work and travel, to making those dreams come true, without ever having to compromise her principles.
Conceiving the Dream
As a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, I began brainstorming ways to travel and work overseas. I knew that I wanted to go abroad, and that I wanted to make the experience meaningful, but I needed to come up with a plan. For several years I had been crafting wire jewellery out of found objects and recycled materials, like sea glass, shells and copper wire. I’d been quite successful selling my “Wearable Wire Art” on busy city streets as a means of offsetting my school costs. In the summer months I travelled to music festivals around Ontario where I sold my art, enjoyed the company of other street crafters and relished in the friendly, creative festival atmosphere. Later that same year I was fortunate enough to meet a like minded crafter from Australia, Kurt Saggers, who wanted to set up a collective. We came up with an idea for our own personal exchange program: we’d trade places and sell each other’s work at festivals on both continents. My travel/work dream was becoming a reality.
In the fall of 2004 my partner at the time, Chad White and I set off for Australia, where we lived the simple life, selling art at markets up and down the east coast of Queensland. We travelled in a camper, and with the money we made selling “Wearable Wire Art” we were able to afford petrol (gas), food and, eventually, surfboards! After six months of soaking up sun, culture, and a different way of life, we were ready to move on to our next destination. We sold the camper to some North American visitors ready for their own slice of adventure, and set off for China as that is where our plane ticket from Canada to Australia had a stop over in.
The Adventure Continues
After six months on the Australian coast, China felt like a new world of crowded streets and smoky skies. Almost everywhere we ate, our vegetarian status was called into question. Thankfully, most restaurants in China show pictures of the food on the menu, so we were able to steer clear of the “mystery meat" that we’d been warned to avoid. As we travelled deeper and deeper into China, we kept expecting the crowds to thin out and the factories to belch less smoke, but soon discovered that the industrialization of Chinese society is all-pervading and, for us as visitors, overwhelming. After two weeks of steady westward travel, we finally ascended the Tibetan plateau and had our first glimpse of the beauty that lay to the south. Crossing into Tibet, the contrast in culture was clear. The locals welcomed us with warmth and smiles; people were friendly despite the obvious hardships they had endured. This was quite different from the Chinese way of greeting visitors. My partner Chad and I stayed in Llhasa, absorbing the Buddhist culture and way of life. Finding vegetarian meals was never a problem there, and as ‘mini-Buddhists,’ we fell in love with the magic and spirituality of Tibetan culture. Later that year, back in Toronto, I would use many photographs from my time in Tibet to finish my OCAD thesis project. All too soon it was time to travel on further south, around the tallest mountain on earth, to Nepal. In our hired jeep we passed a group of Tibetans trekking down to Nepal, carrying their belongings on a yak. For them it would be a two-month trek with no right to return back to their homeland once they crossed the snow border. At the border, we exchanged our Tibetan driver for a Nepalese one, amid calls from local street merchants: “Bananas, Miss? Oranges, Miss?” We had definitely left China far behind!
Pleasure Meets Business
The first time I saw Kathmandu, I was overjoyed by the sight of bustling marketplaces, brightly-coloured garments and trinkets, and most of all by the welcoming smiles on the faces of people on the streets. Shops and stalls were operating in and around stunning examples of ancient architecture. Nepal’s past seemed to meld with the present in a truly beautiful way. And down the narrow streets, shops seemed to be brimming with potential for foreign investors like us. I’d been looking for a potential local Nepalese company with which to partner in the production of unique garments. In these shops, I could inspect the quality and workmanship of the merchant’s "factory," and gather retail and wholesale quotes. After talking with many merchants, Chad and I finally decided on a company to trust with our designs and money. We confirmed that they were locally-operated and had no employees under the age of 18 before handing over our money and our eight garment designs. Together we invested $3000 to have about 100 pieces made. Some of our designs, like the fleece jacket, were bigger and more complicated to make, and therefore cost more to make. But, these items would also be higher retail items back at home in Canada. Some other designs were small and simple, like the leaf layer skirt – it’s just a triangle-shaped cotton slip-on skirt.
Staying aware of what my price points was is key to the development and evolution of my business, and I have always sworn by it. For anyone thinking about entering into similar business venture, my advice is to always have every price point for your merchandise. I have already mentioned the issue of trust in selecting a partner company. Where we were in Thamel (an area of Kathmandu), it was obvious that shops were copying designs off one another. Many showrooms were selling similar or identical garments. Because we had decided to design our own imports, it occurred to me that keeping my patterns out of these shops was important. In the end, we negotiated a deal with our partner company, and felt satisfied that our secrets were safe with them.
Bringing a Piece of Nepal Home to Canada
After six weeks in Kathmandu and with our first bit of serious business completed, we continued on our cultural adventures. A final beach run in Thailand was affordable and amazing. Then it was back to Toronto in May, with a new business venture to work on, and a wealth of new experiences to draw upon. We had our inventory shipped from Nepal directly to our door. This method is more expensive, but because it was our first time, we wanted to play it safe. We were unsure of many things: would our garments sell? Was registering as a business the right thing to do? The Canadian music festivals started in May, and by June we had sold almost half of our stock. We had targeted our market by designing garments that we would want to wear at festivals, and luckily it turned out that other people wanted to wear them too! At the same time, we were still producing "Wearable Wire Art," and had the clothing displayed behind us. Over the course of the summer, we travelled to Manitoba for the Winnipeg Folk Festival, the Connect Electronic Music Festival near Saskatoon, the Canmore Folk Festival in Alberta and, our favourite festival of the year since 2005, the Shambhala Electronic Music Festival near Nelson, BC. It was a glorious summer. I met a wealth of like-minded vendors and music lovers, and got the best tan of my life! In the fall, as planned, I returned back to OCAD to complete my thesis and BFA, with a major in photography and a personal focus on digital photography.
I based my thesis on the philosophical ideals of Carl Jung and the “Collective Unconscious.” I felt that my year-long journey through Australia, China, Nepal and Thailand had revealed much on the topic. I took the photos I had taken on my trip and created montages based around sacred geometrical formations like fractals and alignments. My photography has been greatly influenced by surrealist artists like Salvador Dali, and I also have a particular interest in futuristic artists like Alex Grey, and in the spiritually-oriented visionary art movement. I completed my degree and artwork while Chad travelled back to Nepal and negotiated another order with the Nepali company. Because both Chad and I rely heavily on body language to express ideas, it was difficult to convey my design concepts to him via phone and internet. In the end, we went with the most successful designs from the previous order instead of risking miscommunication. This time around we invested approximately $6000 with the intent of having more inventory. I registered the business in Canada, and Chad shipped our inventory home by sea. Shipping by sea is the least expensive method, but also the least insurable. Although I’ve never had more than a few items stolen, I have heard horror stories of lost or stolen shipments, but that is simply the risk one must take shipping by sea. Shipments by sea are also measured by volume, as opposed to weight. It’s cheapest to have a container of about 1000 square feet shipped. I have yet to do this, but one container could fit 10,000 or more of my pieces of clothing.
In the spring of 2006, I graduated from OCAD, proud to have finished what I started. Chad returned from abroad, and although we were equally excited for a prosperous summer, our relationship wasn't working out. We spent that summer travelling in separate vans, making the shop work at our festival destinations. But, it was clear to both of us that we had different ideas of what the future held for ourselves and for the business. Chad wanted to spend more time out of the country, and I was beginning to envision a permanent location – and actual store that I wouldn’t have to set up and tear down at three-day intervals.
In the fall of 2006, I travelled back to Nepal on my own to source out a fair trade production company. I spent time researching online before travelling, and after arriving I walked the narrow streets of Thamel once again, this time searching for any mention of fair trade production. It had become important to me to know who was making my designs, how much they were paid, and what conditions they were working in. Eventually I found a shop that had a Fair Trade Federation logo on their tags. I began to talk with Santosh, the company owner's nephew. Pretty soon I found myself on the back of a moped, riding up to inspect the production facility. There I met Santosh’s uncle, Jhaindra, who impressed me with his near-perfect English and ability to understand my somewhat flowery, expressive use of language.
One of my first questions was about how they had gained membership into a fair trade organization. Jhaindra explained that it had become possible with the help of his 'sister' company, Avatar, which was based in California, and which he owned in partnership with two Americans. The Avatar initiative had allowed all the paperwork for the Kathmandu production facility to be approved by US fair trade standards. This was exactly what I was looking for, and so began a business relationship that I have maintained to this day. My second trip to Kathmandu lasted four months. I invested in the creation of a simple web site, while monitoring the production of my garments – from colour and size sampling to packing and shipping. For anyone interested in starting a similar business, I would highly recommend staying on the ground in your production country for as much of the process as possible. In more recent years, as the business has taken off, I haven't had enough time to be abroad for such a long period of time. Without being there to monitor everything, things do occasionally go awry: a colour is switched here, or a size is too small there. So, from my perspective, it’s really important to initially build a strong relationship with your overseas source. This way, even though you can’t be there with them at every turn, they develop a good understanding of your preferences, colour choices, average sizes and types of fabric.
A Business with a Conscience
Arriving back in Toronto in spring 2007, I decided to make my dream of a permanent retail location come true. I searched the city from east to west and was overwhelmed by how expensive a commercial lease can be. With festival season and application fees on their way, I needed to find a location that wouldn't cost me too much in overhead. I took a space in the Black Market Warehouse on Queen Street West, right in the downtown core. About a month after opening, I realized that I’d need an employee to keep the store in operation while I took inventory on the festival circuit. I put an ad on Craigslist calling for someone with retail experience and a knowledge of semi-precious stones, what the 'Om' symbol stands for, and a general belief in positivity and supporting the well-being of all life forms.
Just as it was important for me to know that my inventory was fair trade certified, so too was it important to know that my employee shared similar world view. After a few interviews, a girl named Christina Manella came in and after just a few minutes, I knew that she was the right one. There needs to be a certain special connection between employee and employer. A lot of communication needs to take place in order to keep everything running smoothly. My gut feeling turned out to be right, and Christina was still with me 7 years later. I could depend on her as my right hand in the business. In January, 2009 I opened another location, jumping at the opportunity to have a proper store in Kensington Market. It wasn’t something I had planned, but as I walked through the market, I saw the “For Rent” sign, called to see the place, and it all fell into place. After completing another festival Canadian circuit ending with Shambhala in Nelson BC, I decided it was time to open a store there too in 2010. We closed the Queen St W shop inside the Black Market in 2011 and expanded the Toronto Kensington one and also relocated the Nelson store to Baker St in 2011 for more exposure. For 3 year Fairies Pjs operated two retail store locations on either side of Canada. Working perfectly as “fairy base stations” for each side of the festival tour in the summers.
In 2013 we launched a professional webstore- it cost a lot of money- but the return on the investment was unreal. I realized over the next 6 months that the future of my brand would be the most successful online and in other retail stores. In January 2014 I closed the Toronto Kensington location. It happened quickly- but most of the online fans didn’t even blink. From vending at so many festivals- I had gained fans from near and far so it didn’t matter to the fans from far that the store location was gone. It also opened up my ability to sell to another store in Toronto, Alternative Thinking. My employees collected EI and I moved all the inventory to my house. Business online as usual. I believe customer confidence online is increasing everyday.
That summer, the lease was ending at the Nelson BC location and it was clear that I didn’t need to resign. We closed shop at the end of September, again the ability to wholesale to another store opened up. Just down the street, Still Eagle took on my organic designs and they also purchase a lot of the natural jewellery I have been buying on my overseas trips. Everything else we drove back to Ontario to my house, our main “Fairy Base Station”.
It’s important to keep evolving as a business, and transforming to being online has just been a natural step in the direction of my brand. I credit going to Ontario College of Art and Design for training me to be comfortable with using computer programs like Photoshop, Illustrator and Indesign for creating the graphic images, Facebook posts and catalogues for my company. Being active on social media is crucial for an online business to engage their audience. We run contests, promo codes and a newsletter. This year we ran ads in Relix Magazine, Fae Magazine and online ads on Hula Hoop, Jamband and eco listing web sites.
My story continues to evolve everyday. My overall business philosophy revolves around equality and positive creation. I feel that The Fairies Pyjamas’ slogan, “Be Fair. Be Unique. Be Comfortable,” says it all. I have been able to turn my dream of incorporating travel, spirituality and smart, sustainable business practices into a reality.
The Fairies Pyjamas is a clothing brand of unique clothing and accessories.
Designer and Owner, Michelle Lynn Johnson works with a FAIR TRADE manufacturing facility in Nepal to produce her designs and ideas. Inspiration for this ever-evolving project has grown from music festivals, travelling and the notion of sustainable consumer culture. Now more than ever, consumers can use their buying power to support what they believe in. Fairies Pjs designs help skilled Nepalese workers support their families, increase their living standards, and work in an environment with enforced health and safety standards.
When you support FAIR TRADE you support the health and dignity of all people.
Previously located in Toronto
29 Kensington Ave,
And formerly in Nelson BC
358 Baker St.