When Tamara Johnson was a little girl, her father introduced her to comic books. The bright colors and patterns inspired her to learn to use charcoal and pastels to delve into art.
Johnson’s interest in art grew from there. Her uncle and long-time mentor, Adolphus, recalls her taking art classes as a child and even buying an airbrush machine; she started her own business airbrushing shirts and jackets around age 13, he said.
However, it wasn’t until this year that Johnson decided to quit her full time job as a systems research analyst in Temple’s Office of Sustainability and pursue her passion: design.
Now, Johnson is preparing to launch Liliglow Boutique’s new website and online store, which will focus on handmade purses and a new line of skirts. The new collection will debut in a fashion show presented by RAW Artists tomorrow.
“To be honest, I knew it was coming at some point,” Kristen Gola, one of Tamara Johnson’s former co-workers said. “I knew at some point she’d go full time with [Liliglow] because she’s a creative person and she needed that creative outlet. Staying at Temple wasn’t going to let her go full time with that.”
Johnson started Liliglow Boutique, an up-and-coming handbag and clothing brand, in 2010, after watching “Project Runway.” She said she thought she could learn to sew like the contestants on the show and, although she had never tried to create a garment before, she bought a book, learned one pattern and started making purses.
“I was dormant in my art for a while,” she said. “For about 10 years I did dry sketches, but I never created something from start to finish. Liliglow has been my muse since I started it five years ago.”
Johnson said she originally started selling her handmade purses at flea markets and had interested customers, so she utilized her time at Temple to go to the Small Business Development Center at Fox School of Business. There she took classes in business, marketing and communications and built the foundation for her business, she said.
Gola, who started working with Johnson in 2007, said she even helped in the early stages by giving feedback and modeling Liliglow designs.
“I worked with great people [at Temple] and I like data,” she said. “I have an analytical mind, so that was a great job for me, but it didn’t have a creative side.”
“She just poured back into the art side and wanted to build a business around her designs,” Adolphus said.
Thanks to a background in architecture and her lifelong love of art, Johnson already had the mind for design—but she needed the technical skills to translate the designs on paper into actual garments. She said rather than taking classes, she watched YouTube tutorials and tried to teach herself.
“I started to sew and make mistakes on my own,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to get home and create something new.”
As she became more involved with the community of small business owners in Philadelphia, she began adding other artists and their brands to her online store. She said she loved the idea of including other small businesses and offering more products, but she started to lose focus on her designs.
“[Liliglow Boutique] started to turn into a small Target,” she said. “The online store once offered home decor products, gifts and even lotions made by Tamara Johnson herself. It was taking away from the focus and creativity.”
“Even though I was earning money from those sales, people weren’t buying my main focus product. But when I kept it focused on those handbags, they bought them,” she added.
Johnson said there was no single moment that inspired her to leave her job and start her business, but she knew if she didn’t try now, she never would.
“Even if it doesn’t work out,” she said, “at least I did it and I don’t have any regrets.”
“I think she’s actually happier now because this is what she wants to do and she loves it,” Adolphus said. “I was really nervous at first, but I’m more comfortable now because she’s really doing it, she’s getting out there.”
“It’s the most awesome feeling in the world,” she said. “There’s a whole community of women doing the same thing so I never feel isolated or alone. Had I not started Liliglow, I would have never ran into this community. I love Philly for that and I love being a business owner here because it just feels like this is what we’re meant to do.”
Erin Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.