When you’re goin’ to the chapel because you’re, gonna get married — the most important thing to a bride, topping even the venue, menu and flowers — is the wedding dress.
Saying ‘Yes to the Dress’ that came from a department store rack may work for some brides, but for those who want a custom dress- the one they have envisioned in their mind’s eye since they were children- they turn to Monique Johnson, who has been sewing wedding and other special occasion dresses for more than 30 years.
Monica Dixon-Ford, a lifelong Brooklyn resident, got engaged during the pandemic.
“There were no bridal stores open for me to do any browsing, let alone fittings. I called Monique, whom I’ve known for nearly 15 years, near tears and she immediately said, ‘I got you,’” Dixon-Ford says. “She went to the store and got the material after I showed her the design I wanted, and she took it to the next level. I just wanted to cry. Imagine getting married during the pandemic and not having a dress. She made my dream dress above and beyond. She makes dreams come true.”
Johnson, 58, who works at a children’s wear company in the garment district as a technical designer, can be found most evenings after work surrounded by crepe de chine, organza, lace and beading in the basement/ sewing studio of her Brooklyn brownstone. What started off as a hobby, stitching birthday, church and party dresses for her daughter to save money grew larger, as the divorced mother of three now-adult children built up a clientele among the mothers at her daughter’s school and parishioners from her church.
She has always been interested in sewing.
“I grew up with a family of tailors and seamstresses. My mother was a great influence. She had customers she would sew for and I would take it all in. I would ask for the scraps of leftover fabric and then I started making doll clothes,” Johnson says.
She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in applied science with a specialty in pattern making for children’s, women’s and men’s wear. Johnson decided early on in her studies not to limit her focus and it broadened her client base. Whereas she did end up making a lot of dresses, Mark Kitchings was one of her first men’s wear clients. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 260 to 270 pounds, it was hard to find clothes off the rack.
“I made him a zebra print blazer. It was fun sewing for him. People feel if you are a larger build you can’t look good or dress well. Years ago there were really no options,” Johnson says.
Kitchings, who moved to Florida in 2012, says the concept of Big and Tall outlets or retailers that offered non-standard sizes didn’t exist in the mid-90s so he turned to Johnson. “It was hard finding athletic fits without paying a premium or looking like Baby Huey. Monique gave me a chance to wear clothes that fit me. I could pick out the prints and I could look stylish at a reasonable cost. I could not have found what she was giving me at a reasonable price – no way,” he says.
Johnson says she is able to keep prices reasonable because “I have a design room set up in my basement where I can do everything from start to finish. I am very fortunate because I’m in the industry, I always get a heads up for deals and folks look out for me. I just acquired these AlvaForms that are very accurate to today’s body. Normally they go for $1800 a piece and I got three for $50 each from a company that was going out of business,” she says.
Fabric companies have a tendency to overbuy and Johnson gets great deals when they purge their stock. A ready supply of fabrics and beading also helps her take on multiple projects at a time. “I store the fabrics in tiered shelving in the basement and I have a section for my African fabrics, silks, lace and linen. When I do have clients over and they see something, we can just pull it and start from there and I don’t necessarily have to do fresh shopping immediately,” she says.
Having a selection of fabrics appeals to longtime client Desiree Kellman of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. “Monique has made things for me in as little as a week. My daughter Sydney had to wear an African print skirt that was announced two weeks prior in church and I texted Monique from the pew, ‘I need a skirt.’ She’s just honestly amazing. You can see and feel the quality of her clothes. Working with Monique excites me.”
Sydney may be Johnson’s youngest client. Kellman says her aunt had gotten some baby clothes made for her when she was pregnant — a pantsuit and a reversible skirt with matching headbands.
“Sydney was only able to wear the outfits when she was about 9 months old because they were kind of big. She was the baby in church with the style. Everything she wore people would comment on. Monique became Sydney’s seamstress, making birthday outfits and Easter dresses,” Kellman says.
Buying something retail has lost appeal for Kellman.
“Honestly, Monique is Sydney’s personal designer. I will send her different designs and ideas from different sources and Monique brings it to life. I can say I need that top and that bottom and maybe have it look this way in the back and it’s done,” she says.
Johnson has just come off of her busiest season, having made six prom dresses recently. “The word is definitely spreading among the high schoolers. They want to be dressed like these stars that they see on the red carpet like Rihanna or Zendaya. We’ll take one element of the dress like the top or I will shorten the skirt or they may want a different color or fabric so I end up working from various pictures and their own vision to create the ideal dress for them,” she says.
However, not every dress making process is easy going with teenage girls.
“A lot of times girls will give me a photo of Zendaya, but they’re the size of Queen Latifah so I have to tell them that the dress may not look good on them or the drape won’t be the same so I sketch something out that would work for them or I get an idea from Pinterest. We always make it work in the end,” Johnson says.
Knowing that she can juggle half a dozen clients and give them finished dresses in three to six weeks has convinced Johnson that she should do this full time. “Expenses are a lot less than when the children were younger, the house is paid for, I don’t need that high salary anymore,” she says. “I’ve been buying fabric from the same store on 38th Street in Manhattan for years. I have a really good relationship with the owner and when he gets new inventory he sends me photos or videos and I get a good deal on fabric. I am leaning toward doing this full time in the near future because I love it and all the pieces are falling into place,” Johnson says.
Her design label MOERSIE, a combination of Johnson’s first name and her mother’s name Ersuline, is sewn into every article of clothing or there’s a patch sewn on the outside of children’s clothing with the name. Johnson feels it’s time for her to dedicate more time to the brand. “I have made birthday clothes and church clothes. I loved making Halloween costumes or even duplicating designer clothes without fully duplicating the design. I don’t care so much for designer clothing and the only label I wear is my own. I don’t like logos, other than my own. It’s good to promote yourself.”
Johnson gets a lot of word of mouth business and messages through Instagram. Repeat clients are the bread and butter of her business. Some are planning dresses for a decade down the line. According to Kellman, Sydney is only in the third grade but she’s already making comments like ‘Ms. Monique is going to make my prom dress.’”
Appointments can be scheduled with Johnson by messaging her via her Instagram page.