small talk // taylor johnston // horticulturalist + gamine co. founder

i first learned about gamine co. while shopping the recent northern grade her event in brooklyn, a pop up event featuring american made womenswear brands. there was a wide range of cool merchandise, including my good friend stephanie beard's line, esby apparel (stay tuned for a small talk with steph sometime soon). at the event, gamine co. caught my eye and i immediately reached out to the designer and founder, taylor johnston, to chat.

taylor johnston is one of the most interesting people i've met on this visual vacation. her interest in making clothes is secondary to who she is as a person. she's a full-time horticulturalist at the isabella stewart gardner museum in boston and has a masters in philosophy where she discovered "you never really have answers, you just have more questions." as a horticulturalist, taylor spends her days managing the museum gardens and working with her hands to preserve isabella stewart gardner's unique exhibition vision, one where art should truly be experienced. taylor's desire to take more pride in how she dresses for work led her to found gamine co., a trade-inspired, edited collection of beautiful and durable workwear goods for women. her inspiring personal and brand philosophy go hand in hand, with a focus on thoughtfulness, craft and an appreciation for nature. when starting her line, she thought about integrity, necessity and authenticity. taylor cares deeply for tradition and wants to honor the history of workwear and american denim while also redefining it for women. for her there's something magical about having people who work for a living making the clothes people go to work in. it's really no wonder gamine's inaugural dungaree release is back-ordered.

cultureisland: tell us more about you.

taylor: i grew up in maryland on an old orchard that was a part of the underground railroad. as a kid i knew how extraordinarily fortunate i was to have been born when i was, with freedom to play outside and explore my interests. most of my earliest memories involved being out in the garden, and i distinctly remember finding an antique diamond ring while "helping" my dad clear out a bunch of overgrown plans on the land. fast forward a solid 18 years: i studied a lot of subjects in school including philosophy, geology and horticulture. my degree was in botany with a focus on horticulture so after i left school i apprenticed around the country from northern california to massachusetts. i worked on flower farms, estates, botanic gardens growing all manner of edibles and ornamentals. working in the garden gets you thinking about all sorts of big picture questions: is there a coherent concept of time? what is the role of perfectionism? what is nature? etc. as a result, i took some time away from the day to day work to travel (a van in hawaii to a flat in a small town in denmark). i think it's funny how people think of gardening as an abstraction from a well rounded life (food, arts, travel)... in fact, the more you do to broaden your horizons, the better your work. after my time traveling i decided i wanted to try my hand at something totally different and i spent about a year working on water reclamation research. i quickly realized what a blessing it was to find what i loved to do at an early age. so i decided i wanted to go back into gardening full time, but only after scratching an itch that plagued me for years: going to graduate school to study philosophy. i had the fortune of having a wonderful advisor who told me if he had to do it all over again, he'd get out of academia and work with his hands. it struck a nerve and after school i returned to my trade with a renewed sense of purpose and excitement. i realized there are no short cuts to success: it's all about getting your hands dirty, making mistakes and working with a heavy dose of humility. my current mentors at the gardner museum, where i work managing the gardens and greenhouses, tell me it's dangerous to think of yourself as an expert in anything. i think this is eternal advice.

cultureisland: tell us more about gamine co. how did it come about?

taylor: gamine is an extension of my work as a gardener and my stubborn need for answers to questions. the inspiration for gamine grew out of my work as a horticulturalist over the last 11 years. i tried everything from menswear, big box store clothes, mountaineering gear, high-end knockoffs (i.e., anything that looks like workwear but doesn't stand up to the abuse in the field), and of course, anything falling in the brown duck cloth category. i couldn't find anything that was both functional and polished, so i went about fixing the problem. it was when i was photographed by bill cunningham at the museum looking like a little orphan annie that really set this thing in motion -- seeing myself in his column looking like i didn't take myself seriously in my trade really made me want to do something about the problem of women's workwear.

cultureisland: where did the name "gamine" come from?

taylor: the name came about in two parts: first, i love the idea that i get to have an interaction with a person not knowing if they can pronounce the name... it's built in entertainment. but also, put most simply, 'gamine' is a french word that roughly translates to a woman with a boyish or mischievous charm. french is so atmospheric as a language, which is really appealing when speaking to a community of outstanding women.

cultureisland: who is the gamine customer?

taylor: i'm not sure i have her figured out, which is probably part of the equation. she's someone with equal parts wit, grace, smarts and strength.

cultureisland: how has gamine co. grown beyond denim? what plans do you have to grow it in the future?

taylor: we've had a lot of projects in the works that are just starting to go online. as a small workwear company, we're super interested in traditions from around the world, but most especially from the united states. we're excited to release some new products that celebrate vintage textiles -- those that aren't being made anymore, and that tell the story of the american worker. we're experimenting with cottage industry production: having blue collar ladies who celebrate self-reliance and yankee thrift create beautiful garments for other blue collar ladies... we're also pumped about our ongoing collabs with jungmaven -- they cut/sew/dye out of los angeles and make the softest, most rugged gear out of hemp and organic cotton. both projects play into the sustainability category, but are important for us to feel like we're contributing to the idea of workwear rather than making mere reproductions. aside from new products and collaborations, we're working as hard as we can behind the scenes to grow our fits and sizes of our dungarees (and new top secret products).

cultureisland: where are your favorite places to see art, shop, get coffee, eat and hang out around boston?

taylor: so many. obviously the gardner is a top choice -- there's no museum quite like it. i also love, love, love the ica. and shout out to the wonderfully old and quirky harvard natural history museum for its glass flowers and assorted curiosities. walden pond in concord, and world's end in hingham are some of my favorite parks but i also love to wander and eat in the south end, north end and beacon hill. hands down the best shopping is done at bobby from boston and the best people watching and meal can be had at life alive in cambridge.

cultureisland: what inspires you most?

taylor: honed manual work, worn garments, comedy, travel and Nature with a capital N.

cultureisland: what are some of your favorite websites or magazines for inspiration?

taylor: i love chuck close's take on this: "inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.

cultureisland: what are you listening to right now?

taylor: after the gold rush by neil young.