Angela's Ashes

The party's hot, but the Valley's fashion scene? Not so much

At home, Johnson's dressed plainly in a black blouse that limps down her shoulder to expose a few freckles, and black pants.

Her closet isn't filled with big-name designers. Just three little items she ticks off aloud. She owns an Yves Saint Laurent jacket, a Betsey Johnson dress (no relation), and a Balenciaga belt. The latter was a gift from a former student.

"I wear things for what they look like," she says, "not for the name on the tag."

She's no dummy: Johnson's used her marketing savvy to become the most talked-about designer in the Valley.
Peter Scanlon
She's no dummy: Johnson's used her marketing savvy to become the most talked-about designer in the Valley.
Johnson says she and her business partner, Rhonda 
Zayas (right, pictured in Johnson's studio), are working 18-hour days keeping LabelHorde a "Yellow Pages" for local designers.
Peter Scanlon
Johnson says she and her business partner, Rhonda Zayas (right, pictured in Johnson's studio), are working 18-hour days keeping LabelHorde a "Yellow Pages" for local designers.

Fitting, since LabelHorde has thrived -- or, at least, survived -- by way of no-name local designers.

LabelHorde is, essentially, a directory for local fashionistas and 'nistos. Johnson thinks of it as "a Yellow Pages" for designers. What was once a bimonthly glossy magazine Johnson launched back in November 2003 has shifted almost exclusively to the Internet (, where you can find a calendar of events around the Valley -- from a fashion show at a Biltmore boutique to the upcoming Fashion Week -- as well as links to local designers and models, articles on skin care and "stylist profiles," and a forum for online visitors, where newbies to the fashion scene solicit advice on getting a business license, and LabelHorde members discuss the ethical dilemma of buying Louis Vuitton rip-offs. (See the "Fake vs. Authentic" thread from August 5.)

LabelHorde's been produced with cheap (read: free) labor, for the most part. Before the past few months -- during which Johnson says she's put in 18-hour days maintaining the Web site, coordinating shows and working on her own designs -- much of the work, like writing articles, selling ads and organizing photo shoots, was done by art students looking to break into the local "industry." But lately, Johnson's had trouble getting anyone else involved.

Johnson says she's about to apply for nonprofit status for LabelHorde; that is, if it lasts that long. (Trust her, Johnson says, it's already nonprofit. Just last month, she says, she pulled $1,000 out of her personal checking account to put LabelHorde's business account back in the black.)

In the meantime, wanna-be members need only pay $200 to get in on the action. For two C-notes, designers, models, and anyone else wanting to break into the scene get their own page on the Web site, complete with a bio, photo, description of their work, and contact info.

And they get an invitation -- along with LabelHorde's other paid members, 165 in all -- to strut their stuff at the annual Fashion Ball, which kicks off Johnson's ambitious Fashion Week in November.

It sounds like a smokin' deal for fashion upstarts looking for a little exposure. It's certainly done wonders for Johnson and her business partner, Rhonda Zayas.

As many as a half-dozen local boutiques have sold Johnson's designs at one time or another -- including 42 Saint, the Lily Pad, and Swell. Others currently carry her line in New York City and L.A.

But clearly, Johnson owes as much to the local media (if not much, much more) for her modest success as she does to the clothes themselves. She's parlayed LabelHorde into mounds of press coverage -- from the Arizona Republic's weekly style supplement, YES, to local rags like 944, Java, Sonik, Arizona Foothills, and BizAZ.

Zayas, in turn, has leapt from the sole responsibility of designing and maintaining the LabelHorde Web site to "style management" for a few local bands, and promoting and coordinating her own monthly show of music and fashion -- coined "SoundStyle" -- at Tempe's Last Exit.

LabelHorde's been good to them; that is, if you believe their self-penned press releases and the media coverage that's followed them. Johnson admits she's not making a killing off selling her clothes. She says she'll break even this year after having sold about $10,000 worth of designs (custom pieces usually sell for an average of $300 apiece; the clothes she sells in small boutiques run from $30 to $110). She supplements her living by teaching fashion marketing classes at the Art Institute of Phoenix.

Of the 50 local designers who pay their dues to LabelHorde, nobody's doing any better than Johnson, the woman who started it all because she "just wanted to be nice and help everyone get into the fashion industry."

Johnson describes her parents as hippies (her mother, Paula, named her two daughters Angela Dawn and Summer Rain), who were 17 and in high school when they found out they were going to have a baby. They immediately were married and divorced just a year later. Johnson says she was raised more by her grandparents.

"Looking back, I think my mom was more like my sister," she adds.

When Angela was 9, her mother noticed that she had a flair for the dramatic, staging living room productions for the rest of the family, and constantly craving attention. Soon thereafter, she hooked Angela up with a local agent, who promptly got her working in television commercials, one for big-screen TVs and another for discount store Yellow Front, which has long since gone out of business.

"Kids can be cruel," Johnson's mother says. "The kids at school knew that Yellow Front was kind of trashy; it was like Kmart. And there was Angela doing a commercial in Yellow Front clothes."

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