Fearless in Fashion: Rhonda Johnson Stitches Together Passion and Purpose
“Be fearless. You're not going to grow unless you are taking chances and are being fearless. Sometimes we just have to jump into something without even thinking about it and then it all works itself out along the way. Don't be afraid to take new chances, new adventures and opportunities all the time,” says Rhonda Johnson, a fashion designer and artist who lives in Edmonton Alberta but grew up in Wabasca-Desmarais and Calling Lake, Alberta. She took her own advice and now she is a seamstress and designer who runs a home-based business called Acahkos Designs. From fashion shows, workshops, sewing and taking orders, she practices her craft. Many of the orders she fills are for ribbon skirts, something she considers one of her signature pieces.
This success didn’t happen overnight. Johnson started sewing young, having been introduced to textiles by her great grandmother who she grew up with. She learned hidemaking, beading and to use a sewing machine when she was just six or seven. In the year 2000, Johnson was offered a fashion show by an Edmonton-based organization and with a sewing machine purchased from a pawn shop, she created her first line which would spark a whole career.
The fashion show went well, though looking back, she’s not sure how she pulled it all together as a self-taught sewist. It just came naturally, she recalls. Johnson drafted what she imagined in her head, not even realizing store-bought patterns existed. Her designs have come a long way since. After that first show, she started getting booked for other shows and things started to take off.
To focus on raising her children and refine her craft, Johnson took a break and returned to her work with new inspiration. She became a mother for the first time at just sixteen and wasn’t able to finish school but she feels she was led to fashion and design instead so she could raise her children at the same time. In the beginning, it was a struggle to make ends meet as she sold earrings for $10 or $20 and ribbon skirts for $40 or $50 but now she is able to support her family with her art.
Determined to grow from her self-taught beginnings, she realized she needed formal training. She went to school for fashion design and apparel production in Edmonton as part of a one-year accelerated program. Learning lessons in design, pattern drafting, sketching, everything fashion-related, Johnson graduated after creating a line of ten pieces.
“I recommend that to any youth or anybody that's looking to get into fashion design. I think it's very important just to learn that technical instruction on how to draft a pattern or whatever, whatever's in your head, and that you can put it on paper and bring it into life,” she suggests.
In addition to creating clothing, Johnson also started beading, after trying a variety of mediums including tufting, fish scaling and porcupine quilling. Experimenting with different techniques is something she thinks is part of being a creative, finding a niche and aesthetic. “I've tried all kinds of things. In the end, I was always drawn back to traditional contemporary cultural designs,” she reflects.
In her early days, culture was a big part of her life. Her first language was Cree, taught by her great grandmother along with traditional teachings and values. When she was school-aged, her family moved to Edmonton and she experienced culture shock in an urban kindergarten setting, unable to speak English. Forced to assimilate, Johnson was moved into a special education class where she struggled to fit into her new surroundings. “I always carried what my grandmother taught me, the traditions and the prayers. That's what got me through,” she recalls.
One of the biggest barriers Johnson faced along the way was running a business while raising a large family. She had to learn how to be a mother as a teen. Now the mother of six biological kids and two adopted children, it’s a lot to juggle when business can be time-consuming. Her older kids have helped with the younger ones and her husband has helped too, creating a support system for her to pursue her passions. Friends and family step in as needed, encouraging her to keep going with practical help.
Her family doesn’t just help so she can work on the business herself, they also work with her inside the business. Her husband does the screen printing, one daughter does the beading while she takes care of the sewing. In addition to being her collaborators, her family is also her primary inspiration as she does the best she can for them. Her community inspires her too and she loves giving back with advice and support.
If she could give a message to her younger self it would be to take better care of her mental health. Stretched between taking care of her kids and finances, she didn’t know how to do so. These days, Johnson has strategies to maintain her wellness and goes to therapy to take time away fromwhat she does for everyone else to speak to somebody. Being able to share about her experiences makes a difference, letting her return rejuvenated and refreshed to take on new challenges. “I think what young people really need to do is take care of their mental health. It's very important,” she advises.
Once upon a time, Rhonda Johnson was fearless and took a chance on her dreams, pulling together her first fashion show with no formal training. Since then she’s raised a family while elevating her skills, stitching together passion and purpose with threads of determination. Everything came together in the end and with her family by her side, they are succeeding together, too.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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