Long Story Short

Drea Johnson of Hidden Opulence Wants to Help Save Your Clothes

The founder of the Southeast Portland design studio talks apparel sustainability, fast fashion, sewing education, and human contact.

By Dalila Brent Photography by Jason Hill November 2, 2022 Published in the December 2022 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Jason Hill

Drea Johnson’s passion for upcycling has been stitched together from moments in her life. From thrifting with her father at a young age to working in retail to interning with a major fashion designer in Los Angeles, each piece forms the fabric she wears today as a style maven and business owner. She’s the force behind Hidden Opulence, a design studio she started in 2017 that offers all manner of services centered on apparel sustainability, including alterations, cutting, pattern work, and garment refurbishment. Not many can say this, but 2020 was the studio’s best year to date. Now, after expanding her space on SE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (under the Hawthorne Bridge ramp), Johnson is focused on growing her business by bringing back something many of us lost in the pandemic—human contact. As told to Dalila Brent

My dad grew up in Cincinnati. He was always trying to think about how to better himself. One of his first jobs was as a bag boy, and he would save all his money to buy nice clothes so he could go to school and look nice. People don’t know everything else that’s going on with you. Sometimes that first impression can change your life. When I was a kid, I’d watch my mom pick out outfits and jewelry, taking a full hour to get ready and transform into somebody else. It was a moment. Seeing them take care of their appearance and clothing influenced me.

I knew that I had kind of missed the boat for studying abroad [when I was in school]. I also knew I wasn’t going to be able to come up with the money [to travel], and I knew this is supposed to be an exploratory time. A friend of mine in college was saying, “I’m tired of SoCal; I’m going to Portland.” It was like a thing that she would proclaim at every party. She’d say, “Who’s coming with me?” And I’m like, “I’ll go.”

I'm honestly inspired by everything. Maybe it’s an experience or a game that I played. If I spent a lot of time outside, maybe the next day I’m wearing earth tones. I’m just drinking in the world around me, and what comes out is a reflection of what I saw or something I talked about. There’s not one place that I feel like I draw inspiration from.

When the war with Ukraine and Russia started, I noticed my clients having sourcing issues. Some of the best linen comes from flax that’s grown in Ukraine. I lost a couple accounts. It’s been interesting, just seeing how the supply chain and sourcing has affected my clientele, whether it’s the small-batch—which is more of a B2B set-up with designers—or people who are bringing in stuff to do alterations. I have to plan ahead and buy more than one thing, because the next person might need it.

I’m not going to say I’ve never engaged in fast fashion—it’s everywhere. My socks are probably fast fashion. Resentment might be a strong word, but maybe it’s appropriate. I have resentment because of the way it’s changed the public perception of the work that I do. [Fast fashion] devalues this skill set. We’re designing stuff, and people wonder why it can’t cost less. But there’s a whole trickle-down effect with where those things are getting produced and who’s getting paid what.

I feel a disconnect [since the pandemic] because I haven’t seen people. Downstairs there’s a service window and people will drop [their clothes] off. It’s a very brief interaction. Before, someone would have an appointment, we’d have a consultation about their clothes, and I’d show them things while talking them through it. I’m hoping to start having open sew hours and bring back that education piece. I believe with more education you can make better choices for yourself.

Having this larger space, hopefully we can start to host workshops. I want people to know what’s happening here. I want people to try to work on their own clothes and mend their own things and learn a little bit about small pieces they can do themselves. If I can make any type of impact on the next person about their use of clothes, or how they get them or even beyond that, sustainability wise, I’m good with that.