In Conversation with Designer-to-Watch Johanna Ortiz

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For Ortiz, it was understanding the female body that helped her carve a niche in the industry.

It takes but a single moment to break through to the other side – a single breathtaking product, a single affirmation from a powerful public figure, a single game-changing event. For Alexander McQueen, his moment occurred when socialite and stylist Isabella Blow discovered his work at his Central Saint Martins graduate presentation. For Christian Dior, it was the debut of the ‘New Look’. For soon-to-be-household-name Johanna Ortiz, it was the rapid success of the ‘Tulum’ top, which was suddenly everywhere all at once. Every designer who has made their name in the industry can recite the precise moment they achieved validation and, for Ortiz, her moment was 13 years in the making.
While the inhabitants of her native Colombia have known of Ortiz’s skilled hand and gorgeous designs, the rest of us are just now catching on. Credit that to Olivia Palermo, who donned Ortiz’s off-shoulder poplin ‘Tulum’ top for an event, catching the attention of the social-media sphere. Soon, the ‘Tulum’ was being worn by everyone from the Midwestern housewife to famous bloggers like Leandra Medine and Nausheen Shah. The flattering, feminine top was one of last year’s most Instagrammed items, and its success took Ortiz by surprise; “I wasn’t expecting that at all when I designed it. When I designed it, it was because I loved it. Afterwards, everyone wanted it, so I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is crazy.’ I’m not a public person so it’s a little bit… I couldn’t even believe it.”

Fall/Winter 2016 | Photo: Courtesy of Johanna Ortiz

For Ortiz, it was understanding the female body that helped her carve a niche in the industry. “I’ve been a designer for 13 years and I think it all started when I [realized] that there was space for a womenswear designer who understood women’s clothing,” she shares. “For me, shoulders have always been really important — not because it’s a trend. I think always of a Brigitte Bardot woman combined with a Jackie Kennedy. That’s my perfect combination, so if they had a daughter that would be it. One was a sexy bombshell and the other one was so elegant, and that’s my meeting point; that is the shoulder.”

It all started when I realized that there was space for a womenswear designer who understood women’s clothing.

Shoulders are the central focus of Ortiz’s collections, but she also plays deftly with volumes and proportions, ruffles, and sculptural elements in ways that surprise and entice. Yet, her design process doesn’t begin with sketching silhouettes, but with tempering the collection’s colors. “First I do color palettes and I try to make different combinations of colors,” she shares, “They’re [never] colors that you see that often. Then I start creating mood boards and choosing fabrics and prints. After I have the prints, I start looking for the silhouettes. I have clear Johanna Ortiz silhouettes that always have volume but volume with a balance — a flattering volume.”

Ortiz’s self-described “effortless elegance” is achieved by carefully appointed balance, which she details saying, “You cannot have the volume all around you — it has to be in certain parts. It has to have a balance; balance is really important to me. Never too elegant, never too sporty, never too huge, never too skinny. So when I design I think of women and I want women to feel nice. When you dress up and when you feel comfortable in what you’re wearing, it can change your day. If you’re having a bad day, dress up. It adds to your day and it adds to being a woman. I mean I’m a mom of three boys, so after I leave my atelier I’m playing soccer with the kids.”

Fall/Winter 2016 | Photo: Courtesy of Johanna Ortiz

A designer who designs to make women feel comfortable and beautiful at the same time hardly seems like a new proposition, but when you consider the landscape of the fashion industry, where body-con silhouettes are meant to denote sensuality, Ortiz’s aesthetic is somewhat radical, but her raison d’être is comfort. “I try all the things on and, if I don’t feel comfortable in a piece, then I don’t do it,” says Ortiz. “Typically, off-the-shoulder [tops] are really uncomfortable, because you can’t wear a bra and you can’t really put your arms up. My off-the-shoulder tops have an inner top that fits perfectly, allowing people to feel relaxed and sexy at the same time. When I create clothing, I feel it’s so important for women to feel comfortable in the clothes, because it shows,” she adds.

I try all the things on and, if I don’t feel comfortable in a piece, then I don’t do it.

The relaxed beauty of her collections is reflected in how women wear her pieces in real life; “People started wearing [the ‘Tulum’] and everyone wore it so differently — with jeans, with black pants, with a coat — and everyone styled it in so many different ways that it became a classic. Shoulders can be a classic.”

As Ortiz prepares to launch her Fall/Winter 2016 designs, and her coinciding capsule collection for Moda Operandi, she shares the inspiration behind her latest collection, saying, “I’m always designing based on a story that I just imagine, and this story was of this woman living in an estate; she horseback rides and she collects books and she reads and she has a library, but she’s also a collector and that’s where the prints came from. I wanted to bring Colombia’s tropical climate to fall/winter with the prints. We had so much fun doing them, because we were always imagining this girl picking flowers and reading a book and going to a party. I need to have that narrative to impersonate this woman and how she’d dress for a cocktail and how she’d dress normally. She lives a fabulous life. I love imagining my woman as a smart beauty. The pieces in the collection are named after some of my favorite characters in books: Elizabeth Bennett, Juan de Castillo, Grace Kelly, Anne Boleyn.”

Click through the gallery for a sneak preview of Ortiz’s capsule collection, exclusive to Moda Operandi, and click here to shop the pieces.

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