Leigh New York: Behind the Brand
Interview by Devon Lach
Photography By myesha evon gardner for Leigh New York
The story of Leigh New York begins with the matrilineage of Morgan Johnson. From her grandmother’s spunky style to her mother’s sewing lessons—each collection pulls in threads of the womxn in Morgan’s life with hopes that each Leigh garment gives a little bit of their power to the womxn who wear them.
Morgan and I catch up early one chilly morning, sitting in our respective living rooms on opposite coasts, Morgan in Brooklyn and me in Oakland.
So you're also an artist and designer. Tell me a little bit more about your job outside of Leigh New York and how it influences your brand.
I do a lot of brand design and editorial design. I started my career at Ralph Lauren. I've always been on the digital side so that really inspired me to start Leigh. A growing curiosity about how clothing production works drew me to tactile projects and things that are a bit more hands on.
Leigh launched when I was at Opening Ceremony. While I was there, I was doing a lot of print and web design. Since the team was quite small, I got to see how all the moving parts of clothing design worked together.
I was curious how to create apparel in a sustainable way that didn’t contribute an excessive amount of waste. That’s why everything is made-to-order using natural materials. It very much started out as an exploratory experimental project but it’s but it's been a fun brand to grow and figure out along the way.
Was fashion something you grew up wanting to explore?
I'm from North Carolina and I grew up between Raleigh and Fayetteville.
I've always loved visual and performing arts. When I was in grade school I spent a lot of time dancing and painting so I've always valued visual arts in all forms.
My mom taught me how to sew.
In high school I studied architecture and drafting for three years. I’ve always been interested in how to sketch out a project to bring it to life in a physical form, so I feel like that translated really well when I started doing apparel.
I think it’s so special to have someone in your life pass down a skill like sewing. How old were you when your mom taught you how to sew?
My mom taught me when I was in middle school. We would sew a lot of quilts and a few dresses on a really old sewing machine. I learned a lot of the really common sewing techniques from her.
How did sustainability become a part of the thought process when you were starting Leigh?
By nature, most small companies are more sustainable since we can't produce in such mass quantities as bigger retailers.
I knew low-impact production was something that I wanted to be a part of my mission since retail is one of the biggest contributors to pollution.
I also wanted to be a brand that focuses on ethically paying our workers. I work with a coop now that does some of the pattern making and then also the apparel development for the made-to-order pieces.
How does your personal identity influence your designs?
I really like bright colors and bold silhouettes. So a big palette choice with Leigh was choosing a lot of red because it’s a favorite color of mine—I've heard both the good and bad feedback about choosing red—but I love its Boldness. I love how it's fiery and that connects to who I am.
Outside of the color palette, most of the pieces are vintage inspired and designed so regardless of model size, the pieces can fluctuate between a lot of different women’s figures.
One of your work arounds to offer inclusive sizing as a small company is made-to-order extended sizing. Can you tell me a little bit more about that process and how other companies might be able to adopt it?
Yeah, it has been a challenge. Since the co-op that I work with has experience in pattern making I am able to work with them and avoid some of the high cost of adjusting patterns. I do want to make it a priority of my brand to photograph more inclusive sizing so people know it’s available because I don’t think that’s entirely clear. I’ve been trying to figure out how to perfect this as a small brand. I totally understand brands' concerns about adjusting patterns based on sizing and heights. As womxn, our bodies are all different but I try to keep that in mind when designing the original patterns.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
A lot of my inspiration is from the eighties TV shows that I watched with my grandma. [like Mary Tyler Moore show] Shows that embody independent women of the era always seemed really fabulous to me. I think just by nature of clothing production in that time, luxury was silk and bright colors and beautiful collared pieces.
From the beginning of designing a new piece and through production, tell me a little bit about what it takes to go through the process.
Generally, I start out with a ton, a ton of sketches, trying to figure out a through line and how to make a really cohesive story.
After I develop the patterns I will figure out what sourced fabric works best. Most of our pieces have been silk but I am working on a collaboration collection with a friend who is a jewelry designer and we are introducing some cotton-silk blends and knits.
It seems like a difficult process to source the right amount of fabric for made-to-order. How do source fabric?
I sourced the fabric for the first two collections in New York. The garment district is a gold mine of Fabric Suppliers.
What’s your favorite piece in this collection, if you had to choose one.
I love the Ethel Top. I named it after my grandma because I felt like it had a certain amount of spunk and whimsy in the curves.
A favorite of people who’ve seen the brand is the Rhianna Dress with a flowy collar and buttons lined down the side.
Those are my top two.
You've mentioned your grandma a few times, so I'm just curious to learn a little bit more about her.
She was just such a big part of my childhood and my growth. I always looked up to her in terms of kindness, support—her fashion as well. She always had the best pant suits and sets, such a lady. Always finding ways to be divinely feminine and beautiful in her own way.
You're working on a new collaborative collection, incorporating some new fabrics. What else does the future hold for Leigh?
In partnership with the collaboration for the upcoming clothing launch we are also doing jewelry. The process is very different from apparel making but I feel we are learning a lot along the way.
Explore Leigh New York’s Full Collection here.