the style line johan

En Route: Johan


ADDRESS: 1907 SE 12th Avenue Portland, Oregon 97214

STORY BY RACHEL SCHWARTZMANN – Discover Johan – PHOTOS BY Nicholas Wilson for The Style Line

Today we’re thrilled to share

the story behind Portland’s newest shopping secret – a secret until now, that is.

Enter globetrotter and self-proclaimed aesthete Laura Housgard, who is the owner of the newly launched shop Johan. With an already thriving e-commerce component and a personal penchant for fostering #onlygreatthings, Johan’s brick and mortar location will surely provide an extension for Portland dwellers to purchase great things, and perhaps more importantly, come together. As Laura explained in our interview below: “I took inventory of my skills and experiences and decided to focus on only Swedish brands didn’t feel right. I re-branded to Johan in February of 2015 and added products from local Portland designers as well as a curated selection of goods from other designers producing high quality, high design work.”

Speaking more to that idea, the tiny but swoon-worthy space is already fully stocked with quality product – which varies from thoughtfully-designed clothing to paper goods – and it seems as though Laura has her eye on the prize in providing the most coveted items for her customers. While the shop prides itself on fostering a thoughtfully curated brand community, Johan also prides itself on being a secret destination (read #shhhop) though many have asked, why keep this under wraps? Having already infused many elements from her personal life (Johan itself was named after her great-great-great-great-grandfather Johan August Magnusson) and having opened the shop in front of her home, one would think there’s nothing left to be revealed. Yet for Laura, it’s all a part of the plan who mentioned, ” [Also] the retail game is changing and a simple storefront won’t cut it anymore. If you have a physical space, the experience has to be extraordinary and transformative for your customers.”

In maintaining a constant conversation with her customers and by paying attention to detail and careful curation, Laura has created a lifestyle haven fueled by never-ending discovery. We were lucky enough to be let in not only on the secret but on Laura’s life before Johan along with a few lessons she’s learned as a small-business owner. Read on to take a virtual tour of Johan (featuring exclusive photos by Nicholas Peter Wilson for The Style Line) and discover Laura’s tools and tricks for approaching your own professional endeavors creatively and fearlessly.

My name is Laura Housgard and I am the owner of Johan,

an online shop with a secret brick and mortar location called #shhhshop in Portland, Oregon. There are two kinds of people in the world: people who want to make things better and people who want to make things beautiful. Both are absolutely necessary. I am definitely the latter. I thrive on all things visual. From flipping through old graphic design magazines to going on walks in industrial areas, my interests seem to revolve around visual stimulation. On a larger scale, I value living a simple, balanced life and being close to family and friends. Walking everywhere, keeping consumption to a minimum, being kind to people and the environment, these are also things that are important to me.

Talk to us about the inception of Johan. What would you attribute as being the sole reason and inspiration behind opening the store?

In 2011, one year after completing a masters program in branding and marketing in Sweden, I was living in New York and working in technical design. 

Even though I had a great job and was learning valuable skills, I was severely unhappy. I was still enamored with Swedish style and knew that my true passion was retail, so in 2012 I started an online store selling only Swedish brands.

After spending five years in Sweden and New York, I felt the need to be closer to family and moved back to Oregon in 2014. I took inventory of my skills and experiences and decided focusing on only Swedish brands didn’t feel right. My interests had shifted and I wanted my business to reflect that. I re-branded to Johan in February of 2015 and added products from local Portland designers as well as a curated selection of goods from other designers producing high quality, high design work. 
Johan is named for my great-great-great-great-grandfather Johan August Magnusson. Johan completely renovated our family farmhouse in Sweden, planted bountiful cherry trees in the front yard, tirelessly tilled the rocky land, and was known for being resourceful, creative, and a bit dreamy. I had the opportunity to visit the house in the southern region of Sweden in 2007 and I completely fell in love with Johan’s story.

We love the concept and with reference to your #shhhshop tag what appealed to you most about the “secret” aspect of the shop?

The #shhhshop is in the front of my house, so it’s a secret out of necessity. When I moved in, my landlord said I could open a shop in the front, but he didn’t want the authorities getting involved, and I wasn’t allowed to have signs or a sandwich board. It was because of these restrictions that I came up with the idea of a secret shop.
Also, the retail game is changing and a simple storefront won’t cut it anymore. If you have a physical space, the experience has to be extraordinary and transformative for your customers. I’ve always been fascinated by secret spots like the Bless Home in Berlin and Jim Meehan’s bar PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in New York. Meehan has said of PDT, “The reason it works is that people love to discover things. There is something that will always be appealing about the concept, whether it’s trendy or not.” Discovery often involves adopting something as a part of your identity by the simple act of finding it and conquering it. It makes the entire experience more personal and exciting.

How would you describe the Johan community?

The Johan community is a group of young creative professionals from around the world. The one thing that ties us all together is that we hold ourselves and our work to the highest standards. Good is not good enough for us. We want, produce, say, make, eat, and buy #onlygreatthings. Keeping this in mind is the best way I can make sure Johan remains an elevated form of retail, worthy of its own community. Also, being extremely visual, I obsess over details, and I’m finding this gets worse with age. It’s to the point where I can’t buy anything without questioning why there is a seam there, why they finished it that way, why they used those buttons etc. It’s a bit out of control, but it’s also a quality I am proud of. This quality has played a major role in shaping my current personal style – I’ve been forced to keep it minimal.

How do you think Portland fosters its small business community?

Portland has been incredible. There are so many people doing amazing things here. There is this understanding and support the second you reach out to someone. When I first moved back to Portland, I contacted a few people whose work I admired. Almost everyone was willing to meet me for a drink or for coffee, and many of those people have turned into great friends. When you are someone doing something out of the ordinary, you tend to want to support others that are doing that as well. For this reason, Portland is full of people who are ready to embrace new ideas and new endeavors. The difference is that Portlanders are also extremely genuine, making this a place where it’s easy to form true, lasting friendships and relationships with other business owners and creatives.

What are more questions you think your customers should be asking more often? 

Will I really use this? What purpose does this object have in my life? Where did this object come from? What sort of time, energy, and resources went in to making this object? It seems counterintuitive as a retailer, but I want people to spend their money selectively, only on things they love, that they will use for a very long time. It drives me crazy when people buy in excess, often spending their money on things they will only use once or twice. All purchases, whether it’s a ceramic vase or a dress or a necklace, should be chosen with care and used into the ground. Buying to buy, creating more waste, these are things I want to challenge as a retailer.

The Style Line was built on the premise of discovery, exploration, and transit. With this in mind, if what is your “the style line” in your wardrobe? 

I’m almost always wearing a button down shirt. Besides sweaters and a good white t-shirt, I’m pretty anti-knit. Button downs are timeless, androgynous, and just the right amount of undone. I like my look to be effortless in every situation, in every season, in every setting.

As a shop-boss what tools would you advise aspiring business owners to utilize in their own endeavors?

I recommend starting with your local Small Business Development Center. I went to the same one in New York that Carol and Humberto went to while developing the idea for Opening Ceremony. It’s also helpful to have role models, people who are doing exactly what you want to be doing in 25 years. My role models and the source of most of my advice below are Paul Schneider and Lauren Eulau of Twist. It’s also really nice to have someone to talk to about the nitty gritty, day-to-day issues that come up, someone who is not a direct competitor, but who is at a similar stage of growth. For me, that person is Ursula Wurster of Midnight Collective.

What is one question you wish people asked you more often?

I get questions all the time about the challenges of being an entrepreneur, but I love it when people ask about the good things. It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that I’ve got an exciting business in a beautiful city, great friends, and a wonderful family.

How do you connect with your customers and ultimately what are you looking to bring to the neighborhood/community?

Customers that shop at Johan quickly turn into friends. The entire experience is warm and welcoming, and whether they buy something or not, I want them to feel like they are getting the absolute best treatment. My favorite customers are ones that hang out, share a cup of coffee, flip through books, and chat about the neighborhood.

I want Johan to be the leader of the Portland retail scene, the place that is top of mind when both locals and visitors think of the best place to shop in Portland. The #shhhshop is small (approximately 125 square feet!), but I have plans to open a larger space. Ultimately, I would love Johan to be a destination where people can experience the best of many things, from shoes and apparel to coffee and graphic design.

How do you think creativity contributes to some of the world’s bigger conversations and what role is Johan playing in this shift in thinking?

Creativity is what drives change. Creative people are coming up with solutions that seem outrageous, but are actually viable on a global level. The environment is really important to me – I try to keep my footprint and my company’s footprint as small as possible. Johan is a venue where I can challenge people to buy fewer things, buy local, buy quality that will last.

Fast fashion needs to end for so many reasons. I’m not an extremist, you can buy a shirt at Forever 21, but then wear it for five years. The less fabric, water, labor, and resources we consume as a population, the better. It seems lofty, but if everyone made small adjustments to their lifestyle, we would see a big change.

What story do you hope to tell through this endeavor?

There are no rules. Or rather, you get to make your own rules. You can live the way you want to live, you can do business the way you want to do business, you can dress the way you want to dress.

3 valuable lessons Laura has learned: 

1. Most importantly, make sure your idea is rock solid.

The first chapter of any marketing textbook will tell you this. Your competitive advantage should be crystal clear. Too many people start businesses because they think it would be fun, but that business will fail. Start a business that has razor sharp focus, but is also fluid enough to grow and change with the needs of yourself and your community. 

2. Your business is a reflection of you – any problems you have, your business will have.

Alternately, your strengths are what will make your business stand out. Know your weaknesses. Know when to ask for help. Know when it’s not working. If it’s working, there will be an excitement you can feel. It’s tangible.

3. Be ready to make a lot of sacrifices.

This is cliche, but it’s true. I will never have a nine to five job with a steady pay check and benefits. That’s a hard thing to give up – you don’t miss it until it’s gone.