Interview by Louis Jordan
Photography by Hongyan Ma and Steven Broadway
We’re living in the Great Resignation, a period when record numbers of professionals in industries ranging from hospitality to healthcare have decided to leave their jobs or change to a career in a new industry. It hasn’t been an easy time to work in fashion. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the sector hard. A report by the consulting firm McKinsey showed that fashion companies posted a 90% decline in profit in 2020. The business has recovered from that alarming low, but it feels like the fashion industry has undergone a fundamental change in the last two years. In a 2021 survey of fashion industry professionals by Style Dispatch, 68% of respondents said they were considering leaving the industry.
Johna Stone was an in-demand young fashion designer. Stone’s collections were shown all over the world. His pieces were regularly featured in major publications like Vogue Italia, Women’s Wear Daily, and Elle and worn by celebs like Andra Day, Indya Moore, and Kate Bock. But Stone decided to pause his brand and move into a career in digital design. Rain talks to Stone about his transition into tech and the future of design in a post-pandemic world.
The fashion industry
How did you get started in the fashion industry?
I started early. As a child, I studied art, which eventually led to fashion. I earned a BFA at Parsons School of Design, and while I was there, I won a few competitions and got some industry attention for my thesis collection. After I graduated, I launched my brand. I did two collections, which were well-received and got some good press.
So why did you decide to transition to digital design?
After I launched my collections, I had to design a website and an online store for my brand, so I taught myself web design. And I discovered that I liked it! There was the visual design aspect, but it was also about creating an intuitive online shopping experience. I kept learning new skills, and now I’m working with brands to design their websites and establish their digital visual identity.
Is there a difference in your creative process for designing something digital rather than physical?
They’re very similar. In fashion and digital design, you need to consider accessibility, usability, and functionality. And it has to look good. It’s about giving someone a great experience, whether wearing a piece of clothing or using a website.
So your skills from fashion have translated over into digital design?
I think the visual presentation skills I learned in fashion transferred into my digital work. It’s natural for me to make an interface look clean, modern, and organized. And also in creating an experience that makes sense to the user. Fashion taught me to empathize with consumers and to understand their goals.
After COVID first hit in 2020, many people re-examined their careers and left or changed jobs. Did the pandemic make you rethink your career priorities?
In my case, it felt like a natural progression; I’d already started moving into digital design even before the pandemic. One thing the pandemic did was give me the time to develop my knowledge on the subject, to take my skill set to the next level.
The pandemic also changed the way people interact. Now remote work, zoom meetings, and online shopping are the rule rather than the exception. Sometimes it feels like we exist in online spaces almost as much as in physical spaces. Did this shift inform your move to tech?
Yeah, it did. The pandemic pushed us to reimagine how we live, work, and interact with each other. Virtual interaction is a big part of our lives now. Working from home saves commute time; we have meetings in our apartments, where we feel relaxed and calmer. That motivated me to move into tech. I think the possibilities for businesses in online spaces are infinite.
Fashion goes digital
Do you think the fashion industry is becoming more digital too?
It had to. eCommerce was already big before the pandemic, but that was just for the end of the product cycle, the person clicking a button to buy a product. Now I see fashion becoming digital in all areas of the product cycle. Designers use software to create an entire look from scratch, brands have started doing virtual presentations to make their shows more accessible, and shoppers can even use 3D mirror scanning technology to digitize the physical shopping experience. Some of that may have been initially motivated by lockdowns and COVID restrictions, but I think that’s where the fashion’s future lies.
What advice would you give someone who wants to transition from fashion into a new field?
I’d tell them not to be scared or intimidated. Everything you’ve learned in fashion will be helpful, even in an industry that seems very far from it. A good designer should be brave enough to venture into other territories. I’m not telling people to abandon fashion for something else. It’s a progression. You need to be able to embrace change.
What’s your ultimate goal in digital design?
I want to help creatives working in a physical medium establish a digital presence. I went to an art and design school, and I have a lot of very talented artist friends. Their work is phenomenal and inspiring, and it needs to be seen by more people. I want to start a digital design firm to help artists who aren’t tech-savvy create amazing sites and expand their outreach.
So, in a way, you’d be bringing your artistic side and your tech side together.
Exactly! Coming from an art and fashion background rather than a programming background is a strength. It gives me a different perspective. And digital design isn’t just about functionality; it’s artistic too. We spend so much of our lives online; we should have online spaces that are beautiful and useful, just like we want our clothes to be.