Kiwi designer a celeb favourite

CAROLYN ENTING
Last updated 05:00 25/04/2012

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Christina Hendricks was carrying extra weight when she attended the 2011 Emmy Awards – 13 kilograms of silk and heavy beading.

The custom-made gown was designed by Sydney-based New Zealand designer Johanna Johnson and gifted to Hendricks. Valued at $25,000, it took three people a month to make.

"We weighed the gown before we sent it. It was very heavy to wear. The silk itself had to be amazing quality to hold all the beads in place," Johnson says.

When Hendricks walked down the red carpet in the gown, Johnson was propelled into designer stardom. Since the Emmys, the couture and high-end bridal wear designer has dressed a princess as well as a raft of celebrities for the red carpet, including actor comedienne Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Halle Berry, Julia Ormond, Felicity Jones and Victoria's Secret model Marissa Miller.

Last month, she created a custom gown for Charlene, Princess of Monaco to wear to the opening of the Princess Grace exhibition at Australia's Bendigo Art Gallery. Johnson found the experience surreal, as Princess Grace is her muse and style icon.

Her just released 2012 'Luxor' limited edition made-to-order couture collection of wedding gowns feature art deco-inspired design lines and silhouettes and Egyptian-inspired panelling with individual pieces that took more than 100 hours to complete.

Getting married was the trigger for Johnson (nee Johanna Macdonald) to get into fashion design when she couldn't find a wedding gown that met her standards for style, quality and finishing. At the time she was running her own graphic design agency. "Mainstream bridal wear is generally very traditional and doesn't have that timeless Hollywood appeal. Often it's just another poorly made strapless gown that doesn't have any presence," she says. "The style of our bridal wear is red carpet glamour and gowns that can be worn again, that are more timeless in their approach."

Originally from Blenheim, Johnson began sewing at a young age. She was 14 when her family moved to Australia in 1989. She went on to train in graphic design at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, which she believes has given her an advantage over formal fashion design training. The beaded patterns on her gowns are designed by Johnson "bead by bead", then hand-placed and hand-sewn as well as copyrighted and registered.

In November she launched a new "lifestyle range" that includes ready-to-wear at a more accessible price point. The range features hand-finished French lace dresses, hand-beaded Swarovski silk belts, jewellery, lingerie and ballet flats.

Her debut show at Australian Fashion Week on Tuesday will showcase her couture gowns and has attracted such great interest, particularly from the United States, that it's grown from a small boutique event into the main show tent at Sydney's Overseas Passenger Terminal, which seats 600.

Next up, New York and London are the focus, with Johnson setting up offices there. She's also looking to show in Paris in November before heading into another awards season – dressing celebrities for the Oscars, the Vanity Fair Party and Elton John's Oscars event.

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She is the only New Zealand-born designer showing at Australian Fashion Week this year, which kicks off in Sydney on Monday.

- The Dominion Post

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