Avenir Museum collection feature: Designer Nancy Johnson two-piece set

photo of white and blue skirt
Cotton skirt with front button closure, blue floral appliqué, embroidery, tassels and beads, 1979 (2022.99 ab)

Story by Megan Osborne

The Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University recently acquired a collection of garments from American designer Nancy Johnson. Representing almost two decades of Johnson’s design work from the late 1970s through the 1990s, the collection reflects evolutions in American culture and changes in the manufacturing of fashionable dress, namely the shift to overseas production. Many of Johnson’s pieces were made in India, Pakistan, and Hong Kong, where she sourced readymade textiles such as embroidered tablecloths to rework into garments.

photo of white and blue garment
Nancy Johnson design, 1979 (2022.99 ab)

Sunbow brand

In the early 1970s, Johnson’s first brand “Sunbow” was released. Sunbow clothing was designed for young women who gravitated toward peasant blouses and soft flowing silhouettes popular during the early part of the decade. The designer’s namesake Nancy Johnson brand launched in 1980. The company was known for vintage-inspired, romantic women’s clothing. Nancy Johnson clothing was sold in over 2500 stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Nieman Marcus, Lord and Taylor, and Bloomingdales. At the height of the brand’s popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, many flagship department stores such as Harrods, Saks, and Marshall Field’s, hosted “NANCY JOHNSONWoman with a Past’” free-standing boutiques.

This two-piece set was sold under the label Sunbow. The lace up top and matching skirt in white cotton twill were made in Hong Kong in 1979. Both pieces feature blue floral appliqué work that was cut from a tablecloth. Embroidery, tassels, and beads were then added to create a unique garment with many collage-like layers.

“The dress shouldn’t draw attention to itself but to its wearer…” ~Nancy Johnson, 1990

Donor: Nancy Johnson 

Avenir Museum Permanent Collection #2022.9.9 A B

Photo of three mannequins on display.
The two-piece set is seen here in The Lucile E. Hawks Gallery with two additional garments designed by Nancy Johnson, a white short sleeve dress with Battenburg lace trim cut from a tablecloth, and a black beaded evening dress.

The Avenir Museum is in the Department of Design and Merchandising, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.