Diversifying Fort Wayne's fashion design scene: Meet the entrepreneur behind NingNing Apparel

Yvonne Johnson came to the United States from the Philippines.In many ways, the U.S. has an abundance of wealth and choices. People frequently go to department stores or boutiques, and buy new outfits without thinking twice. But in other countries, everyday people don’t have that luxury. Instead, they often make their own clothes or wear hand-me-downs.

For Yvonne Johnson, as a little girl growing up in the Philippines, sewing garments was a necessity and second-nature.

“Sewing was something me and my siblings learned when we were kids,” Johnson explains. “My parents thought it was important to teach us practical skills, but I was the only one who took it seriously. So I started sewing when I was a little kid. My grandma taught me the basics, and then later on, my mother continued."

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and it’s not a stretch to say that Johnson has made the most of her upbringing. A Fort Wayne resident today, her design and sewing business, NingNing Apparel, is a reflection of her resourcefulness and creative vision, upping the city's fashion scene with a unique take on bohemian basics.

Even so, her path to entrepreneurship hasn’t always been a straight one.

Going through school, Johnson was passionate about sewing, but she didn't put her skills to use at first.  When she and her family moved to Fort Wayne in 2011, the city played an important role in her journey as an entrepreneur, too. Someone told her about the Fort Wayne fashion company Matilda Jane Clothing, which makes women's and girls' clothes, and when Johnson saw their garments, she was inspired to create her own. 

“That's how everything got started again,” Johnson says. “I went back to sewing clothes for my daughter.”

With that, NingNing Apparel—which translates from her native tongue to “brightness” or ‘brilliance” in English—was officially born.

Yvonne and Robert prioritize family time.
Johnson says the business' name is no coincidence. In her mind, brightness, simplicity, and sophistication go hand in hand—and that truth is woven into her creations.

"While simplicity may be subjective, for NingNing Apparel, it mostly means 'pleasing, yet easy to understand' pieces,'" Johnson says. "Though I love bold, bright, and vibrant colors and prints, the designs are all basic. Ever since I was young, I've always been drawn to a sort of boho style crossed with 70s fashion. I love flowy dresses, maxi skirts. loose-fitting tops and shirts, and bell-bottom pants. I think these styles exude simplicity and understandability without being overly basic."

Her work is appreciated in Fort Wayne, too. It's not uncommon for people to stop Johnson in public and ask her where she purchased a garment that she made. She takes this as a compliment and a sign that her designs look polished and well-executed.

But there's more to the clothes than the superficial, she says. She believes one's clothing choices are personal reflections, too.

"They are an extension of who we are and the message we're trying to deliver to the world around us," Johnson says. "NingNing Apparel was created to clothe women who feel inferior or are struggling with self-esteem issues or body shaming. I want our clothing to speak for women of all shapes, cultures, and ages, allowing them to shine with brilliance and rise in confidence."

Speaking of confidence, it takes guts to start a business especially when you're navigating a new country. Even so, Johnson's immigrant-turned-entrepreneur story is more common than you might think.

According to data from the Center for American Progress, "Although immigrants made up just 13.7 percent of the U.S. population in 2017, they made up almost 30 percent of all new entrepreneurs in the United States that year. Immigrants continue to be nearly twice as likely as native-born people to start businesses."

Fueled by ambition, Johnson works with designers around the world today and designs and sews garments primarily for women and children. But that's not the only pursuit occupying her time. She and Robert recently launched another business Bukal Beverage Co., a sparkling water brand devoted to sharing the exotic flavors of the world. On top of that, they're raising two children together, and Johnson is pursuing her master’s degree and teaching English online.

While these obligations don’t leave much room for leisure, it doesn’t stop Johnson from carving out time for NingNing. An introvert by nature, she says she enjoys the meditative nature of sewing and designing, and there’s no better feeling than seeing an idea come to fruition.

“When I see someone wearing a garment, I imagine how someone put the pieces together,” she says. “So I think to me, that's the most enjoyable part— creating something and seeing your work come to life.”

So what’s next for this two-time entrepreneur? A natural giver, Johnson has plans to enroll in a two-year online fashion program in the fall and eventually pay it forward in Fort Wayne.

“I’d love help create a curriculum for fashion designing and offer it at a place like the FWCS Career Academy at Anthis or Ivy Tech Community College," she says. “That would be my goal. I don’t want to keep my skills for myself. I want to share them with anyone who wants to learn.”

Similarly, Johnson views this outreach as a means to further diversify the Summit City's creative culture. In her observations, Fort Wayne has a lot to offer in terms of support for small businesses and the food scene. But when it comes to fashion, there's room for more richness. 

"When it comes to fashion, Fort Wayne has never been incredibly diverse," Johnson says. "I don't necessarily see this as a hurdle. Instead, it's an opportunity to create a new market for local designers from all sorts of fashion genres. My husband and I have done this not once, but twice with our other beverage businesses. I believe NingNing Apparel could do the same, but with a focus on fashion."

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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