LeBron James, Amar'e Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, Victor Cruz and Matt Kemp are scoring in the fashion game as well as on the basketball court, gridiron and baseball field. And for that they can thank Englewood's Rachel Johnson.
A leading style strategist and founder of the Thomas-Faison Agency, Johnson puts her clients in the sharp threads they sport on the red carpet, in magazine spreads, at the NBA Draft and, in the case of James, on the cover of Vogue.
Johnson grew up in Englewood and lived there until sixth grade. Her "adventurous" mother took advantage of Bergen County's proximity to Manhattan, regularly whisking young Johnson into the city and treating each visit as if it was the first and they were tourists. Trips to the Statue of Liberty, MoMA, flea markets and fashion boutiques translated into a curiosity for all things fashion, art, texture and culture.
Johnson then moved around, attending junior high school in Los Angeles, high school in Atlanta, and college at Florida A&M University. Later she relocated to New York, residing in Harlem for five years before buying a home in Englewood and settling down for good.
"My passion for fashion really developed in high school," Johnson recalls. "It was inspired by my best friend, Erika Brown. I adopted this love of style from her. Everyone at high school was accepting of my style. My teachers complimented me on how I looked and asked me style questions. I wore a lot of Ralph Lauren and was not necessarily a trend girl. I wore pearls, shirts buttoned up to the top and long suede skirts. So I lived in this world between a classic Ralph Lauren woman and a preppy tomboy. I went back and forth between those two looks. It wasn't until college that I started taking major risks."
Upon graduating college, Johnson landed a job at Essence magazine, where she watched and learned, and formed connections. From there, now out on her own, she styled music-industry players, including Ja Rule, for their videos. Then the moment – or moments – presented themselves. First, NBA commissioner David Stern instituted a league-wide dress code. Soon after, Johnson styled (now-retired) Chicago Bulls star Jalen Rose. And, finally, Jay Z set the stage for Johnson's association with LeBron James by introducing her to James' manager.
In addition to her style, Johnson boasts stature. She stands 6 feet tall, and her height "commands respect" from the men she dresses.
"I was really upping my game in terms of access and having influence over gentlemen who had a huge societal influence on culture in general," Johnson recalls of her time styling musicians. But she had always harbored "an innate love for sports and competition," rooting for the Lakers in her youth and cheering on the New York Giants.
"When I went to meet with Jalen Rose, I looked in his closet," she says. "I saw what he was spending his money on and how he was investing in his clothing, and I immediately knew there was an opportunity there because I realized he wasn't the only one who shopped and experienced fashion in this way."
Her job sounds glamorous – and people would be forgiven for assuming it's all parties 24-7 for her with James, Cruz and such other clients as tennis icon Serena Williams, Brad Richards of the New York Rangers and Chris Canty of the Baltimore Ravens. It's easy to assume she's forever riding in limos, attending fashion shows in Paris and lunching with Anna Wintour.
"It's not that at all," Johnson says. "The other thing I'm sure people don't understand is that 90 percent of what I do is preparing to put clothes on people. Only about 10 to 15 percent of what I do is actually standing in front of a client and getting them prepared to go somewhere. Everything else I do is research, relationships, brand building, forecasting and preparing for what's next."
James on Vogue's cover and Johnson herself gracing page 1A of The New York Times, Johnson notes, represent her two crowning achievements to date. Her ultimate goals? One: Transform Thomas-Faison into an image and marketing firm that can run without her. Two: Continue to push forward her mantra of inclusion. In other words, she aims to embrace people excluded from the fashion community, as she's done with hoops stars.
"I want men to feel included in fashion and I want them to feel that fashion is attainable," Johnson says. "I've recently seen a huge growth in that arena because there are so many athletes now who are in fashion. To me, athletes help translate men's fashion to men much more effectively than waify models who walk down a runway. Gentlemen can't necessarily understand how designers create what they create, but it translates much better when an athlete wears something. They can relate better.
"So I want to continue to help men understand they can be fashionable," Johnson says, "no matter what size, shape or economic background they have."
HOME SWEET HOME
Rachel Johnson has come full circle. She grew up in Englewood, spent two-plus decades elsewhere and lives there again.
"Englewood is home," the fourth-generation Englewood-ite says. "I still have family here and I live really close to them. It's a place I can easily navigate. Cassie's is my favorite restaurant. And I pick days when I just shop in Englewood."
At least once every other month, she schedules a shopping day in Englewood. Johnson might buy accessories, dine at a restaurant or get her nails done.
"I'm very proud to be from Englewood," Johnson says, "and more than blessed that I actually found my home there and continue our family tradition."