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In Their Own Fashion : Three Local Designers Answer the Question: Does Anybody Around Here Have Style? : Sandra Johnson : ROYALTY, AMERICAN-STYLE

April 29, 1993

Meet Sandra Johnson, whose resume, if she bothered to print one up, would no doubt include a past job description that makes prospective employers roll their eyes and reach for the phone:

"Couturiere to England's Royal Family. Dressed little lords and ladies, as well as their parents, for royal weddings."

Anyone skeptical, however, can save himself a big phone bill. Johnson has the British newspaper articles, magazine stories and snapshots of enough royal figures to quell just about anyone's doubts.

Turning the pages of a picture album from the Westlake condominium she moved into five months ago, Johnson happily comments on some of her better- known clients.

"Oh yes, here's Princess Margaret," she says, her finger running over photos of numerous duchesses, countesses, lords and ladies. "And there's Princess Anne. That's me with Lord Litchfield--it was the thing to have your photo taken with him. And here are the dresses I made for the children. Don't they look wonderful?"

They do, indeed. And the clothes--made to look like heirlooms in richly hued silk velvets, lace trims, hand-smocking and embroidery--look just as good on women and girls on this side of the Atlantic.

For the last four years, Johnson has been designing clothes for the people she calls "America's royal families," who range from the wives and children of movie executives to real estate moguls and well-known authors.

"Obviously, her clothes will only appeal to a certain clientele," says Malibu resident Robin Kilroy, who has purchased several of Johnson's dresses for herself and her two daughters, ages 8 and 11. "I've never seen a dress so intricately made. So fine. They are just absolutely incredible."

They also appear to be works of art from another century.

There is a girl's antique gold silk dupioni dress with antique lace trim and a hand-smocked bodice ($625). Or a hand-sewn French heirloom tea dress with white Swiss batiste and antique lace ($695). Or a silk taffeta and antique lace hand-smocked dress, with silk flower detail ($650).

Definitely not the outfit for a tomboy.

"My daughter put one on and I told her, 'You are not allowed to run around in this,' " Kilroy says. "I said she had to act like a lady in it."

Johnson's credentials may be veddy veddy impressive, but visitors to her home--which is doubling as her office until she decides on a store site--would be mistaken to expect a stiff, upper-crust attitude from the designer. This is definitely not a woman who is impressed with herself.

That may be one reason that visitors to her home, who have heard of her clothes only by word of mouth, feel so comfortable there.

"Sandra and I were talking yesterday, and I was telling her I used to love getting dressed up until everyone started showing up everywhere in shorts and sandals," says Westlake School teacher Barbara Vadetsky, who stopped by Johnson's house a second time to consider a white lace dress with a rose silk petticoat. It's a big decision, she says, especially on a teacher's salary.

But there is another reason for her visit. "I also don't want her to set her store up in Malibu," Vadetsky says. "I want it here in Westlake Village."

Which leads to the logical question: Just how did this royal couturiere end up in Ventura County, anyway?

It's a bit of a tale.

Johnson left her middle-class home in south Wales when she was 15, headed for London, "where the streets," she says sarcastically, "were paved with gold."

In a sense they were. At least for Johnson, who, equipped with the sewing talent she honed since her childhood, soon landed a prestigious and handsomely remunerated job as a seamstress, making $4,000 ballroom gowns. Years later, after her reputation grew, she was put in touch with a royal clientele.

And where does America come in?

Five years ago, Johnson met a U. S. Air Force captain from Louisiana, who was later stationed in Utah. "I gave up everything to marry him," she says, without bitterness. Johnson moved with him to Salt Lake City and did her best to adjust to the new and strange surroundings.

The marriage ended, but not before she had established a name among Vail's elite and had given birth to twin girls, now 4 years old.

"They were Utah's first black test-tube babies," Johnson says proudly.

She decided to move to Ventura County after her divorce, choosing the location for its proximity to Malibu and Los Angeles.

But there is another factor making her confident that, regardless of whether the county is ready for her, she is ready for the county.

"It's just so beautiful here," Johnson says, looking out the window to the small stream that runs outside her living room.

"It's so open. So lovely. It reminds me so much of England."

And Now, Back to the Show . . .

. . . Well, folks, that's all the time we have for today's show. We'll let you know how the audience voted the state of the county's fashion on our next show.

Be sure to join us then, when our zany word for the day will be . . . Culture!

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