Elisa Johnson has always been following her own path.
For a long time, the bubbly star was known as just Magic Johnson's daughter, Cookie's mini-me, and EJ's stylish little sister. Growing up in the limelight, naturally, it felt like living under a microscope. There wasn't much room to break out from her famous family and do her own thing, candidly living with anxiety and an acute fear of failure all millennials and Gen Z have lingering in the back of their heads.
There's much to be said about celebrity-backed brands, the overwhelming preconceived notions that these stars don't really know much about what goes into creating a retail empire. While Elisa sits in the fashion and beauty boxing ring with Gen Z socialites like Kylie Jenner and Justin Bieber's Drew House, there's something different about the way she's approached creating the line of her dreams. Rather than being flanked by a board of wealthy old investors and e-commerce billionaires, she's on her own. After rigorous internships and a fashion school degree, she's gone on to perfect her craft and dive into other accessories to come.
The brand just restocked its entire collection, which is available online now. PAPER recently caught up with the fashion influencer and business owner to discuss her love for Jane Fonda, the future of post-covid fashion, and never losing hope in the face of loss.
Tell me a bit about the brand's humble beginnings. I know you've always had a love of fashion.
In high school, we had uniforms. And I hated the uniforms. I always wanted to be unique and different, and through fashion and accessories I was able to express myself in the ways that I wanted. I went to FIT to study fashion business management after having my first internship in the 10th grade with Luxottica, an Italian eyewear conglomerate. As I was growing my Instagram platform, it was all about my sunglasses. And people really really were like, Where did you get your sunglasses? I was always trying to find the coolest shades. It was an obsession.
When did you decide to take the next step and really start thinking about the possibility of really diving into Elisa Johnson Co.?
After I graduated four years ago, I thought, wouldn't it be cool to do this as my job? I started to draw shapes and studied what people liked, what I gravitated towards. I told my parents about it, but they didn't really take me that seriously at first. There was a time I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to act, I wanted to do this and that. And my mom was like, Okay, yeah... kind of dismissing me when I was telling them. But I felt like I really wanted to prove that I was serious. My dad said he would help me as long as I had an actual business plan. He wasn't going to just help me and give me the money without actually seeing everything laid out, top to bottom. Honestly, at first, I was super discouraged because I took it more as if he didn't believe in me but then I realized he wanted me to go about it the right way. To this day, I thank him for that. I showed him my original plan two years ago, thinking it was amazing. He actually ended up saying no because he felt like it wasn't ready. I went back to the drawing board and I gave him another one a year ago and he ended up saying yes. I wanted to jump right in for a Spring/Summer release last June, but with the pandemic, my dad and I held off on it.
What's been the most challenging moment of navigating the new fashion landscape as a budding designer?
I was super worried that no one was going to buy anything, honestly. Coming together with my dad, I was like, okay I agree that we should wait until next spring. We had this idea that the world would open up in a year, and honestly, it ended up being that way. People are going on vacation. You will need sunglasses. So timing was everything.
As the daughter of people who are very visible in celebrity culture, did you ever feel a certain pressure to make sure this brand succeeded? How was navigating that space?
I think that sometimes as a child of someone in the limelight, you feel all eyes are on you. And also it feels sometimes if I fail, then everyone's going to know and it's going to be super embarrassing. That played into a lot of my anxiety about launching. I think that people go through that in general when they're launching a brand, but I think I put a lot more pressure on myself because I knew people were watching, but also because my parents invested into this. I wanted to prove in some way to them that I can do this. It's important for me to have my own thing. I don't want to be just Magic Johnson's daughter, I didn't want to be EJ's sister. I felt like I was always that person. And so to do this, Elisa Johnson Co. is my own thing.
You told me earlier that this launch completely exceeded your expectations after working so hard for so many years. When did it hit you that this was something that was going to be big?
Honestly, the sales that I've achieved, I was like, Whoa. Just from selling glasses that were accessible and affordable. I wasn't expecting to make that much of a profit like that. And in such a short amount of time, you know. But honestly, it won't be until I break even and be able to pay my dad back. I'm almost there too. I know he doesn't want me to pay him back, but for me, what's going to feel good is when I can do that.
it's safe to say like you, I've seen sunglasses everywhere. I think they're kind of like the new go-to accessory for everyone. There's so many different styles and everyone can find their own. How do you differentiate your shades and what kind of woman does the brand speak to?
When I was shopping all the time for sunglasses I did feel like it was a little bit over-saturated in the eyewear industry. There's so many brands and I was trying to figure out what makes my brand different. For me, it was just the accessibility without losing the classic, yet stylish, elements and quality. You're still able to afford it and there would be something for everybody in my collection. I think the price of some sunglasses are ridiculous. You lose them, you break them. There's just so many things that happen with your eyewear, your sunglasses. I didn't feel right charging people so much.
Almost all of your fit pics on Instagram definitely incorporate sunnies long before you launched Elisa Johnson Co. Where did you get your inspiration from, shape and color wise?
When I was online, or I was looking at a brand, I would always look at their sunglasses. And I'd be like, this would be better in a red tortoise, or this would look cute but with a blue lens. Sunglasses are one of those things where all shapes normally have been done already, you know? And so how do you continue to make your original, you know, in some way, and I think that's through the colors, tweaking different shapes. Even now with your glasses, I'm looking at your tortoise and I'm like, how can I incorporate that shade? I swear, this thought process is in my head at all times.
The line definitely comes from such a personal place. Where did you get the product names from?
I printed out all of my designs and looked at them all together and started aligning them with my friend's names. They're all been a part of my life and deal with my crazy self. I wanted to be some kind of thank you. Some type of tribute to my friends. Lyric Leigh is one. She was like my sister, and she passed. Those were her favorite shaped glasses – she always wore an oval shape. But then the Janes were named after Jane Fonda, who I'm obsessed with. I just felt like they just looked like Jane in the '70s. I love the big frames. I have a new pair coming in, called the Cookies, which are named after my mom. She's wearing them on her trip right now.
I know that there's been a lot of tremendous loss and personal struggles that you've had to deal with. Your mental health, the home invasion a few years back. All of these things I'm assuming shaped the woman you have become. How do these personal stories almost propel you further to create and follow your dreams?
Ask my mom, ask my dad: I've always been an independent girl. I didn't want to hold my mom's hand when I was little, I didn't want anyone tying my shoes. As much as I could, I've always wanted to do things myself. I don't think anything is going to stop me. The home invasion, my friend Lyric passed around the same time, everything just happened at once. I was hit with so many different things. And I thought I couldn't go on. I was stuck in this box. Like, what is the purpose? Honestly, when our friend passed away, I really began to wonder what's the purpose of life? But I really realized that she would have totally not allowed me to stop there. Her passing helped me because I knew she's always been supportive of me. I can hear that voice. Go, go, go do your thing. And so I know she's super proud.
Photography: Gabe Araujo