Brett Johnson: From Designing Air Force Ones to Luxury Menswear

by Karu F. Daniels /  / Updated 

At only 26 years of age, Brett Johnson is taking the fashion world by storm with a new line of Italian-made men’s apparel that will be showcased via trunk shows at Neiman Marcus stores around the country this fall.

That’s a major accomplishment for the Washington, DC- area native who studied sociology at Michigan State University and later worked at a Ferrari dealership in Utah.

“It still hasn’t really settled in with me yet,” Johnson told NBCBLK about the major placement opportunity with the luxury retail giant. “It’s still very surreal but I’m just pleased that the way my team has handled everything and put us in a really good position."

“To launch at Neiman Marcus has truly been a dream of mine for some time and I think to have success very early on is great but for now, we just gotta work even harder," he added.

The Brett Johnson Collection debuted commercially in 2013 with a line of upscale men’s shoes and apparel. The young designer, who didn’t attend any prestigious fashion institutions, is a self-taught visionary whose ardor for designing harkens back to being an adolescent during family trips to the Tuscan region of Italy.

I think when people kinda see that they think ‘Oh, he’s just some rich kid and his parents just handed to him a clothing collection' and that’s not the case whatsoever.

“As a kid I was able to travel quite extensively so for whatever reason it was, I really gravitated towards Italy,” he said. “The culture and the atmosphere and architecture I think is second to none in the world.”

It was on trips to Italy—Florence to be exact—where Johnson was inspired to add special flairs to his Nike Air Force One sneakers when he was just a kid.

"I would source leathers and fabrics from all over the world and would take the shoes and fabrics up to a cobbler in New York City and have them apply them to the shoe," he explained. "And that’s really when I started creating my own aesthetic and found a love and passion for fashion.”

And that’s when the business acumen—inherited from his parents—set in. He started selling them for $295.

Johnson reportedly owns over 600 pairs of footwear and remembered how his Nike Air Force Ones would turn heads. "Every time I would be on the street wearing my shoes, I mean, I love the sense of individuality that I had and people would sort of gravitate towards the style that I was creating and I liked it,” he said.

Image: Brett Johnson
Fashion designer Brett Johnson talks to NBC News about his inspiration, his interest in sociology and his desire to create things that can last from generation to generation.Prince Williams/

The Brett Johnson Collection has moved away from footwear and is focusing on the apparel realm for this trunk show tour, which will hit 10 cities starting this month.

His 24 pieces range from $295 to $595 for knitwear, and $995 to $2495 for outerwear—he’s clearly catering more to a Barney’s consumer, not Burlington.

Of the steep price tags, Johnson noted that it’s actually a value considering how the products are made. “For our price, we are manufactured in the same factories as Louis Vuitton, Lanvin, and Balmain so that price is pretty much a quarter if not half of what our comps are doing in terms of fabrics and yarns," said Johnson. "They’re also Italian as well. So for the price, it’s actually an amazing deal.”

Johnson should know fine tastes either way; he was born with a platinum spoon in his mouth, even though he likes to downplay it.

He is the lone son of Black Entertainment Television (BET) co-founders Robert and Sheila Johnson, who reportedly sold the cable network to Viacom for $2.3 billion in 2000.

Telling the stories of African Americans and shedding light in different areas in which you can be successful as an African American has just been a lifelong passion of mine.

But he attested there’s more to his business than what people will assume about having wealthy parents.

“For me, you know, I always say it’s a gift or a curse and I say that because growing up obviously they were fulfilling their lifelong dreams, which is creating an incredible platform for African Americans and they both came from nothing,” he shared.

“My dad is one of 10 children, the only one to go to college, grew up in a two-bedroom house with nine other brothers and sisters and for him to be a trailblazer like that is incredible and inspiring to me and it humbles me to want to work even harder each and every day," said Johnson.

"For me, nothing in life is given; you have to earn it,” he added. “That’s why I wake up every morning at 4 a.m. and I’m just passionate and driven and inspired by my parents. They’ve been very supportive, and I think now is definitely a time where I got to spend a lot more time with them and our relationships have gotten stronger over the years.”

Brett Johnson, one of the youngest high end menswear designers, displays his line at The Regis Hotel in New York City on September 11, 205.Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images Re / for NBC News

“The curse is overcoming the name," admitted Johnson. "When I first launched the collection, a lot of headlines were always ‘The Son of BET Founders' and now that that language is starting to change to just me as a designer. I think when people kinda see that they think ‘Oh, he’s just some rich kid and his parents just handed to him a clothing collection' and that’s not the case whatsoever.”

“But now the narrative is starting to change and I’m very happy about that because you don’t get into stores like Neiman Marcus based on your family’s name at all; they care about your product and who you are specifically and if you can sell. And that’s what I’ve been able to do.”

The Brett Johnson Collection is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland and consists of a core team of five employees. Johnson does all the design work, including choosing all colors, fabrics, leathers, and yarns. His team is rounded out by a merchandiser who came over from Calvin Klein Collection in Milan to help with the editing process, an events coordinator, and a finance and logistics person.

When he’s not designing Italian-crafted threads, Johnson is also producing films.

One of the numerous producers of Lee Daniels’ "The Butler,” he has also signed on to produce the Richard Pryor biopic "Pryor", and has another project starring Terrence Howard and Kerry Washington in the pipeline.

“To me, telling the stories of African Americans and kind of shedding light in different areas in which you can be successful as an African American has just been a lifelong passion of mine,” he said of movie producing. “I think in terms of that art form, films are a great way to convey stories and positive messages about African Americans. “