A dozen or so years ago, Little Compton-based Taylor Johnston was the full-time horticulturist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Legendary style photographer Bill Cunningham was in town, photographing people in their environment for his weekly column in The New York Times Style section, and he snapped a photo of Johnston, wearing what she calls “a big-box store wardrobe.” When she saw the published photo, she felt embarrassed. “I was not putting any effort into how I looked,” she explains. “It really made me want to do something about the problem of women’s workwear.”
In 2014 Johnston founded Gamine, an apparel company focused on outfitting women who work in a variety of industries where clothing gets muddy, worn-out, and tattered quickly and easily. Think gardeners, farmers, or even set designers – women like Johnston, who work hard and get grimy. “Ten years ago, workwear companies such as Carhartt didn’t make clothing for women,” she says. “Women’s body types can be difficult. But just because we get dirty when we work, that doesn’t mean we don’t want attractive, well-designed, quality garments.”
The term “gamine,” Johnston explains, is a French word that roughly translates to a woman with a boyish or mischievous charm. Having sewn things her whole life, some encouragement led to experimenting; she cut patterns and made a few samples. When she wore a pair of jeans that she’d made and was asked about them, she knew she was onto something. “I realized I could leverage some resources. I could carve out a niche and solve some problems about women’s workwear.” So the gardener and nurserywoman added clothing designer and small business owner to her resume.
But the practicality of making stylish workwear for women also offered Johnston another opportunity. “It’s about celebrating vintage textiles that tell the story of the American worker,” she explains. Lots of investigating led to great finds, including an American-based company that she says makes the softest, most rugged gear out of hemp and organic cotton. “It’s important for us to feel like we’re contributing to the idea of workwear rather than making mere reproductions.”
Explore the Gamine website and you’ll find stylish, well-crafted but practical, useful garments. Dungarees, one of the most popular items, are fitted and built to last. There are bibs and coveralls, shorts, sweaters, work shirts and more. Most items retail under $200. You can picture yourself wearing them to work as well as to a leisurely Sunday brunch, which was the whole idea, Johnston says.
Where and how Gamine will grow isn’t something Johnston, who’s 41, thinks a lot about. She sees the different hats she wears as extremely complementary and the processes as organic. They are about crafting, designing, cultivating, exploring, and celebrating values, whether it’s the heritage of a plant or a thread or a process. Inspiration is all around, including her farm. “Rhode Island is a central, inspiring force in all that I do,” she says. 3988 Main Road, Tiverton (shop by appointment); GamineWorkwear.com
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