A Short Shorts Story

Photo by Jon Huck

If Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan had never so intriguingly turned fat-gone-thin — or is it thin-gone-anorexic? blond, blue-eyed Kristine Johnson might never have gotten her shorts company, Johnson Clothing, off the ground. Because wherever those two starlets go, the paparazzi follow, and it just so happens they were showing off their new bodies in Johnson’s shorts all over town, Starbucks and Balenciagas in tiny hands.

So before Johnson could hum that catchy chorus to “Who Wears Short Shorts,” the celebrity-driven magazines like People, Life & Style, Star and Us, along with their Internet counterparts CelebrityStyleGuide.com and Jessicastyle.com (which, no lie, devotes itself entirely to helping you purchase the exact clothing items Jessica Simpson is wearing), started e-mailing and calling to find out exactly where normal folks could purchase Johnson’s goods, and then — you see where this is going — the orders started flying in.

“It’s true, Nicole Richie is kinda what launched us into business. In the last six months, she has been caught wearing them everywhere,” says Johnson from her Garment District studio, which she moved into a couple of weeks ago, after a year of working out of her home. “I attribute all my success to those magazines.”

In fact, one could argue, if it weren’t for the whole The Simple Life/young-pop-star phenomenon, Johnson may never have started her clothing line in the first place. Instead, she would have just been an iconoclastic shorts lover in a world of low-cut jeans, albeit one with an incredible pair of legs.

A San Diego native, Johnson has always had a thing for shorts. “I don’t know why — I just love ’em.”

First it was Dolphins, that nylon ’80s phenom. You remember the turquoise-and-white checkerboards? Later it was Levi’s, cut off and hemmed. “I wore those every day in high school,” she says.

Johnson studied for two years at Fashion Careers of California College, and then started assisting celebrity stylists Arianne Phillips, Marjan Malakpour and others, dressing and touring with Madonna, the Dixie Chicks, Kid Rock and Courtney Love. Attempting to satisfy her own never-ending appetite for shorts, she noticed a void in the marketplace. But the first ones she designed were actually just for her.

“I just wanted something cute to wear,” she explains, twisting a lock of her thick, curly hair around her fingers. “I would always buy vintage shorts — those high-waisted, short-shorts. But I got sick of always wearing vintage. You know how guys will cut their pants off and have, like, pinstriped long shorts? I thought, ‘What if I do that?’ It would look so cute if they were shorts, nicely fitted but in that men’s suiting fabric.”

A friend of Johnson’s, also a celebrity stylist, asked if she could borrow a pair for a Hilary Duff photo shoot, and sure thing they ended up on the cover of Blender magazine, with the then-16-year-old Disney pinup wearing the shorts with a couple of spiked leather belts and a cut-up Mickey Mouse tee. Duff, obviously feeling the heat of her new punk-rock image, ordered four pairs on the spot. And that’s when Johnson realized, “Ohh, I might have a business here.”

Her boyfriend invested a chunk of change and she went off to NY, samples in hand. Scoop was the first to order. Back in Los Angeles, Madison, Fred Segal’s Fun in Santa Monica and Curve on Robertson soon followed. But it wasn’t until Richie and Lohan started wearing Johnson’s shorts that the world really stood up and took notice. Now Mischa Barton, Carmen Electra and the Simpson sisters love them, too, and thanks to a new Japanese distributor, it looks like Tokyo won’t be far behind.

She’s just returned from New York’s Market Week — where, as she says, she sold, “a shitload of shorts” — and, as we sit in her new office, she is looking forward to her first L.A. Fashion Week.

Of course, not everything’s perfect. She and her boyfriend recently broke up, and she’s been sleeping at a friend’s and working all the time. On the other hand, after this month’s shipment, she’ll be in a position to pay back her ex-boyfriend’s initial investment after what turned out to be less than a year’s time. (Smart man, in the ways of money at least, he’s opted instead to keep a piece of the pie, telling her to hold on to the cash.)

Johnson’s current line is made up of essentially four basic styles: short-shorts (the Millicient), mid-thigh (the Gertrude), Bermuda length (the Esther) and a sailor-front tap length (the Suella). They’re made from vintage silks, cottons and wools and adorned with vintage buttons. They retail for around $250. Some, like the limited-edition, dead-stock fabric pieces, can run as high as $400.

The most popular are the plaid wools, and this winter she’s doing a heavier weight, which she suspects her customers will be wearing with tights and boots.

“They’re not based on a certain era. The fit is new and current. You can’t place them necessarily,” she says, looking down at her own pair of beige plaid Suellas festooned with a sailor front of white plastic-and-metal buttons from the ’30s.

She insists that her shorts can be viewed as an alternative to skirts, that you can wear them with anything you’d wear with your jeans and that you don’t have to be super skinny to wear them — the most popular size she sells is an 8.

“They hang low, like boys’ shorts, but then again, you’re showing off your legs,” she says. “They make you feel like a sexy tomboy.”


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