Representing the creative future

Johanna Parv on the joy of independent fashion practice

For her latest capsule collection, Johanna Parv collaborated with women for whom cycling is part of everyday-life to create fashionable pieces that function on two wheels

Living in a world tormented by climate change and soon to be populated by battery-powered, self-driving cars, the idea of cycling suddenly seems more appealing than ever. That’s why Estonian-born designer Johanna Parv is exactly the one to look out for right now. Based in London, her eponymous brand elegantly unites functional cycling garments with a modern sense of urban luxury. We spoke to Parv about her latest collection, the battle with her own idealism, and why she’d rather be stitching on a Sunday night than be on a post-work dinner date in Paris.

We should talk about your new body of work. It’s really beautiful.

It’s the more functional, wearable everyday “Johanna”-part. We have more trousers and shirts, things that can actually be imagined to be worn on a daily basis.

For you, a capsule collection means something accessible for everyday life?

I would say that it is not a full collection. There are eight looks, but they consist of four to five core pieces. I’d say it’s very condensed, and I centered this around a shirt which can be worn either as a traditional shirt or an overshirt. Similar to a jacket.

“Maybe that’s being a creative person. Constantly thinking your work is horrible. I feel like making new things just to prove to myself that I am not as bad as I think. This cycle kind of keeps you going. ” – Johanna Parv

Are you talking about the asymmetrical shirt jacket you have that’s very long? 

Yes. And then there’s another one in a different material that’s really stretchy and comfortable to move around in. There are pockets on the arms and in the back, there will be an extension for the puller to help you open the zipper on your own. There are calypsos and swimsuits. The thing is, it’s all in development. I’m still finishing the pieces now to make them even better. Looking at my current lookbook, I feel like I already want to make a new one.

It’s really a personality trait that you are never satisfied with, right?

I do think so. I just recently called my mum and told her how I feel absolutely embarrassed, and I want all my team to stop working. We are basically hiding what we’ve worked on for the past three months, because we don’t think it’s good enough. “Johanna, this is crazy. Stop thinking like that,” my mum said and added that she saw a poetess on TV who was very embarrassed about her first book. Yet, that’s the work she’s most famous for. Maybe that’s being a creative person. Constantly thinking your work is horrible. I feel like making new things just to prove to myself that I am not as bad as I think. This cycle kind of keeps you going.

Do you think this is why we mass-produce everything? Because everyone thinks they’re shit, so we keep on with it?

I don’t think mass production has to do with that. Mass production is straightforward business. It’s a cycle of capitalism more than an emotional need. To keep your business going, numbers must increase.

At this point right now, do you feel unsatisfied with the collection? It’s not at the level you want it to be? 

I would say that I am really satisfied with half of it. The other half, I would like to rework. Materials and finishings are what I would like to redo. I already have new looks in my head. It’s not a question of not being satisfied with what I have, it’s more about wanting to move forward with new ideas. I am happy that I got to do it in such a short period of time. In June or July, I started thinking about it, and August was when I started working. Everything was finished by mid-October. That’s really fast, actually mental.

So, when you started your work, were you really focussed?

I arrived from Estonia on 20 August and started toiling. I did two weeks of toiling for the shirt. To be honest, some toils of the pieces happened last year. I had some patterns, but things needed to be finalised. What I really focused on was the shirt. Originally, it was supposed to be wide and big. Then, I realised that I wanted a narrow shirt as well, but there was no time for the development of two pieces. I was really aware of my time

Photography by Ladislav Kyllar

Why was it important to release the collection now? 

I know that I could have waited, but I also started working on the documentary film, which should feature some new pieces. There shouldn’t be any old pieces, because I see no point in showing the same collection all over again. I felt like I needed to show something more. I wanted to tell a story with new clothes, showing women I have worked with. I met up with them, spoke to them, and listened to what they had to say. I mean, they really are collaborators in this project. And these women should all wear new pieces. I could have released the film later, but finishing it as soon as possible would mean that I have a body of work to show for this year. I also built my website, because some applications are opening for NewGen and British Fashion Council in January or February. I’m aware that I need some kind of institution to support me financially. If there would be an opportunity, I would like to try it and for that, I have to be able to showcase some work.

How have you been funding your work so far?

I’ve basically paid for it myself. I’ve been working very hard to save up some money.

“In fashion, it tends to be about “more”. With sports clothes, the question is always – does it have a function? ” – Johanna Parv

Can you break down your lifestyle? What are your hours, what is your job, how does your daily work inform your practice?

Taking this project, the capsule, for instance, I am not finished right now as we speak. I started sometime before August and it had already been on my mind for a while. It was more technical this time. I am not sketching, collating, or coming up with something completely new. It’s not one of those collections where I meditated near a lake thinking about colours, you know? It’s more technical in the sense that I am thinking of what I need to get down for the next steps – getting more layers in my collection, adding wearable pieces, quickly finding new materials. On the side, I also have my freelance job, from which I learn a lot.

What is it that you learn there that you apply to your own work?

I am working for a designer who makes clothes for runners. We actually work with real runners who we make the pieces for. It’s all about ergonomic design, where we create shapes and graphics that go beautifully with the body and allow movement. I direct what colours, materials, and trimmings could be used together to make minimalistic yet beautiful running wear. What I learned from them is choosing the right materials and performance finishings. With the background I have, luxury fashion and couture houses, the finishing and tailoring are different. Sportswear is about keeping things to the minimum. In fashion, it tends to be about “more”. With sports clothes, the question is always – does it have a function?

It’s engineering.

Yes, it’s engineering. For example, sometimes you need a dark colour. Visually, you would not want it, but if it is necessary for a specific function, it needs to be there.

Your practice would be in the middle then. It’s a balance between the two?

Exactly. I believe that there are shapes that should allow full function and movement, but there are also others that are for beauty and enjoyment. Conceptual development that makes people question the pieces should not be missing. Sportswear is not about that at all. There is a possibility for design, but it is more about form and function. If you want to tell a story, you have to have the fashion side of things as well. My everyday life is sending emails, sketching, doing technical drawings.

Do you do technical drawings for your personal practice?

Yes, of course.


Because I work with factories. This time, I had seamstresses. But every time I work with someone, I give them technical drawings. For line sheets, as well.

The line sheets you send to buyers, right? How does that work for you, and how have you learned that? 

Nobody taught me. I learned how to do that on my own. You just need to have the technical information of garments. Basically, I am still practicing it. I don’t know what is better or worse, and what works best. I’ve never really seen anyone else’s, but it’s been okay so far.

Photography by Ladislav Kyllar

Your inspiration for the collection was cycling obviously?

What we wrote in the press release is that we want to connect fiction and reality. Meaning that we speak with real women who cycle, let them try on the pieces, and speak to them. Really trying to improve their experience.

That’s very interesting. So you’ve given them the pieces beforehand to see how the garments move and feel? 

Well, that was the initial idea, but because of time issues, we didn’t send all the pieces. I was not able to finish production that early. What you just said is what I would like to do now that I have the pieces. What we ended up doing was that we had a whole day of shooting with the women. They wore the collection, and we could exchange thoughts, and even before that we had video calls with them to see what complications they’re experiencing cycling and how we can find solutions. What is important to them? What are the struggles? What do they really enjoy? What is working really well? How has cycling changed their everyday-wardrobe? Those were the kinds of questions. Also, the relationship between the architecture and the city, and how they influence each other.

“Fashion is about the moment. ” – Johanna Parv

How did you initially meet these women? 

Cycling. I just saw them on the street and approached them. Everybody was very happy and flattered, because cycling is so important to each and every one of them. It’s something that really changed things for them. It’s such a long process to work on all of this, as it takes so much research and time to get these pieces right. With every shoot or fitting, you find new aspects to improve. For example, can you get the heel through the hole of the trousers or not? Is this pocket actually working here? How do you put this on? Is it trousers or a skirt? There is so much. Also, concerning the women I’ve worked with who modelled for me. One of them is 52 and works in finance. It’s just so interesting.

Are you going to re-use this casting?

Yes, in the sense that we would speak about the same topics and do research in that way.

It would feed off people’s feedback. Does it really need to be perfect once you release it?

Exactly. Because I am such an idealist in so many ways, I wanted to set myself goals. This project is supposed to be an open diary. Like a blog where you share your projects and life. I wanted to show the process, where I am coming from, what I did, and also show the mistakes, which are the interesting parts of your work. I want people to see that we spoke to these women, made this film and, doing all that, we had the most amazing three months. Everyone in the crew is just so in love with one another. Creating good energy with people and doing things that are important to you in that moment – I think that’s so great. If we kept working for another six months, I think this special energy would be lost.

It’s the urgency of the moment that brings a different energy.

Fashion is about the moment.

“It’s nice to have an outside opinion and not just be in my own little bubble.” – Johanna Parv

Have you tried your pieces out yourself? Have you cycled in them?

Yes, I have. It’s something I am trying to do every day. Taking a moment for my own work as well, and in the evening, I am running in my other company’s clothes. So, it’s always about testing, but right now it’s got really cold outside.

Suffering for fashion is what we’ve done for long enough, right? Anyway, you brought someone on board to help you with the styling for this season, which is quite surprising, I would say, knowing you rather well. How come? 

It is surprising. From a positive point of view, I feel that fashion is about people. The more people involved in the work, the more views you have, the stronger the creative director has to be in order to take all of this into consideration but still do her/his own thing. I wanted to see how it feels to have a team, not just me alone. It’s nice to have an outside opinion and not just be in my own little bubble. That’s why I did it.

Film by Luke Thompson

What kind of feedback matters to you?

I think everyone’s feedback has been really good. There wasn’t anything bad, at all. It was great to get some feedback from buyers because that covered the commercial aspect of things, which is important to make some money. My accessories are always much more successful than the rest, so going forward, I want to focus on that.

“Do I want to be 35 and start learning how to be independent?” – Johanna Parv

You were doing accessories for an internship at some point, right?

I worked at Burberry, yes. The accessories department. I did the main line and runway. The experience of working there is still pretty fresh, it was an assistant designer role. It’s very different from making clothes because, in the end, it is an object that comes with a function. It’s cool to take that knowledge and expertise from there to my own work.

Was that a strategy?

For me, it was interesting to push myself in that way. Learning about something I don’t know instead of only sticking to what I already know. I knew I wanted to have elements of accessories and sportswear in my work, but because I didn’t know shit about both, I am now working for a sportswear company and before, I interned in an accessories department. I just want to have insights into aspects I don’t know much about.

What was the reason that you waited a year to start your brand? 

That was because I worked at Burberry, I needed money and a foundation. After graduation, I earned some money, gained experience in the industry, and I did a crazy project with the International Talents Report, which was like a full-time job I worked on for half a year. The production with Machine-A took a hell of a lot of time, especially if it’s your first time figuring it all out. I also had many different job offers, so I was contemplating working in a bee house or doing it on my own. From January to April, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I realised that the one thing I want to do in my life is what I am pushing forward, saying I will finish something else first and then tackle my own brand. Do I want to be 35 and start learning how to be independent? Of course, after working in a company for ten years, I would have a lot of contacts and knowledge, but creative courage is what I am lacking. I want to learn how to be in charge and get by in life by myself. I wanted to start practicing that now. Most of my friends who started working after their MA are 24 or 25, but I am already 28. I also want to have children and a family. How is this all going to fit in my life? I have the money to do what I have always wanted to do right now for another year, and I am always hoping there will be more money coming in. It has to do with money, and I actually really enjoy the business side. In that year right after the MA, I just wasn’t ready, I did not have enough to start on my own. When I got the part-time job, I did that along with some freelance, and then freelance along with my own stuff. I think if you’re offered an opportunity like that, you should take it.

“It’s Sunday night, and I am still stitching some pockets onto something. It’s fun because I do it for myself. ” – Johanna Parv

That’s amazing. So happy to hear that after all that confusion and different paths being thrown your way, you’re taking the responsibility to find your own way. 

Yes, I could be a womenswear designer in Paris at a luxury house, you know? Which is amazing, I mean imagine entering Balenciaga and having your table and pen, doing some specs. 7 o’clock drinks with friends followed by a dinner date or something. However, I decided to do specs at two in the morning. It’s Sunday night, and I am still stitching some pockets onto something. It’s fun because I do it for myself. And my heart is so full when people tell me that they like my work or feel inspired. This is why I am doing it. Because of the people and creating more meanings.