Discussing fashion, failure and triumph with RaeShanda Johnson
By Laura Ross
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
Models: Alicia Antonio, Margarita Karizskaja, Donnesha Moore, Abbie Purdie and
Dominique Joy Thompson
All is fair – even when life doesn’t seem that way. Entrepreneur and force of nature RaeShanda Johnson learned that lesson and rose above a host of difficulties to reimagine her life into something that has exceeded all of her wildest dreams. And, she’s only 37 years old.
She’s faced the U.S. Army, a violent first marriage, Hurricane Katrina, teen motherhood, financial woes and homelessness to now reach a national audience, run a wildly successful business – All is Fair in Love and Fashion – and bring color and spunk to the world with her sassy sense of style.
“Oh, my Lord,” she laughed, “I never thought any of this would happen. Someone is always watching somewhere.”
A Challenging Start
Life threw many curveballs at Johnson early on. At the age of 13, she became a teen mother to Nahari Johnson, 23, and later had three more children – twins Jayla and Jaythan Davis, 17, and Denacia Davis, 15. She put herself through college and served in the military for seven years. She left a failed marriage in 2005 and moved to Mississippi to be with family right before Hurricane Katrina devastated the area.
“(After the hurricane), I had a friend who suggested I move to Kentucky, and, I said, ‘But people don’t wear shoes there!’” she joked. “Then, I realized I lived in Mississippi.”
She made the move and landed in Frankfort, where she took a job working as a financial aid officer at Kentucky State University. She enjoyed her work but had a longing to start a non-profit organization to assist teen mothers. “I cashed out my retirement and Army benefits, and in 2011, on my 30th birthday, I returned to Mississippi wearing this cape on my shoulders (like) I was going to save the world,” Johnson recalled. “(But) I made some bad connections, and within four months, about $30,000 was stolen from me. I was devastated.”
She was also homeless. “Something told me to return to Kentucky,” she said. “I packed up my kids and drove until we landed in Louisville. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have a job and was absolutely broke.”
She found shelter in an extended-stay hotel and soon landed a temporary job at Republic Bank during tax season. “No one there knew my children and I were homeless,” she said. “I was constantly calling the hotel to check on my kids because I couldn’t put them in school since I didn’t have an official address.” Friends from Frankfort drove in shifts to Louisville to help babysit while Johnson worked and searched for a home.
Then, her luck changed nearly overnight.
Luck Be a Lady
A flair for fashion, color and fun has always defined Johnson’s life. “I’ve always overdressed and been into fashion,” she said. “Fashion was my motivation for getting up for school, work, the military, everything. If I looked good, I knew that I could slay the day. I just didn’t know that would lead me to owning my own retail business.”
To get through moments of stress, Johnson would mix and match fashion ideas and accessories on a web app and then post them to her Facebook page for friends to see. She also created a vision board of how she wanted her life to improve and posted that to social media. A reporter for a Louisville publication picked up the vision board idea and asked to meet Johnson. The reporter also connected her to a friend who had a home available in West Louisville that was just right for Johnson and her family.
Positive changes were afoot, but she never anticipated what came next.
“I was sitting in a movie theater in November 2012, and my phone started blowing up,” Johnson said. A fashion post she’d made went viral and jumped from 200 likes to more than 1,000 likes and shares overnight. Within days, she had nearly 400,000 Facebook likes and followers. All Is Fair in Love and Fashion was born online, and she continued posting ideas and gaining followers.
In early 2013, Shelley Hanson – a boutique owner in Atlanta, Georgia – contacted Johnson. Hanson was closing her boutique and offered to mentor Johnson, coaching her in starting a small business, educating her in the world of retail sales and connecting her with fashion houses, distributors and manufacturers.
“My whole life changed,” she said. “She gave me a blueprint. I went from selling plasma to having a six-figure income.”
She worked initially from her home and website, shopaif.com, taking and shipping clothing orders from Singapore to California. By 2015, the business outgrew her home and she moved her boutique to the Heyburn Building in Downtown Louisville, where she takes clients by appointment Monday through Saturday from 12 to 6 p.m.
Some people … can’t see their potential, and I hope I can help them follow their passion because passion will lead to purpose.”
— RaeShanda Johnson
“I built it up myself by finding the right connections and community resources to start a business and find business mentors,” she added. “I was at a hair salon and my hairstylist told me about a grant program for small businesses located in West Louisville. It was just small talk in the beauty shop, but I followed up and got a grant that helped me expand to brick and mortar.”
Johnson also used her chutzpah to make significant connections. Sadiqa Reynolds, president and CEO of the Louisville Urban League, had a unique first meeting with Johnson.
“She showed up unannounced at the Urban League and told the receptionist that she was my friend and she wanted to see me,” said Reynolds, who had never met Johnson at the time. Reynolds laughed, “I have certainly had stalkers in the past but none who have such great clothing and great makeup tips! We became fast friends. If you spend 10 minutes with RaeShanda, you will understand how inspiring and funny she is. Her quick wit is just a pleasure to experience. She is a strong business woman, and she truly is committed to giving back. Her spirit and attitude are an inspiration to me and others.”
The national media came calling in late 2015 when a story by WDRB News was picked up by “Steve Harvey.” Her appearance on the syndicated talk show in 2016 sent her business soaring into the stratosphere. She began a national traveling schedule in which she crossed the country opening temporary fashion pop-up shops in major malls nationwide. She also began dressing celebrities arriving for the Kentucky Derby.
“I work like I’m still homeless,” she added. “I’m not complacent in how far I’ve come. I know it could always be gone tomorrow.”
Johnson’s eye for style is bold and colorful and features office wear to evening wear with a focus on prints, rich fabrics and the flair of ruffles, bows and accessories. The sizes offered range from 0 to 22. “No one wants to look like a couch cover,” she explained. “I want you to be extra and have fun expressing who you are inside. I’ve sold dresses to judges and lawyers and they say no one knows there’s a ruffle or sequins under their blazer or robes!”
“RaeShanda is proof that life, with all of its challenges, is constantly preparing us for the next level,” said Reynolds. “We just must be willing to step up and do it. She is unconventional and there is nothing about her that fits anyone’s mold. She does it her way, and she is relentless and uncompromising.”
Even with her great success, she still harbors the need to give back. Since 2016, she’s hosted runway events and a yearly sold-out luncheon that provides scholarships for young teen mothers in Louisville’s TAPP (Teenage Parent Program) school. This year’s All is Fair in Love and Fashion Pre-Derby Scholarship Brunch will be held April 28 at The Olmsted on Frankfort Avenue.
“Being a mentor to other women, no matter their age, is necessary,” she said. “Some people are in circumstances where they can’t see their potential, and I hope I can help them follow their passion because passion will lead to purpose.”
Passion and prosperity are leading RaeShanda Johnson into the first half of 2019. She’s now published a book of inspirational quotes, “For Someone Before Bed,” she’s been named to Louisville Business First’s 40 Under 40 and she’s been noted as one of 27 Entrepreneur Headliners by American City Business Journals’ site, Bizwomen. Much more is on her plate in the coming year with expanded sales and her upcoming wedding in June. Those nuptials prompted another lucky twist and chance to shine on the national stage.
“TLC’s ‘Say Yes To the Dress’ emailed me a few weeks ago, and I thought it was fake, so I didn’t respond,” she said. “But it was real. They called again and the producer said their director has followed my story and they love me.” Johnson headed to New York in February and will be featured on an upcoming episode of the popular TV show.
“I’m always learning,” she added. “It’s been an amazing ride. I want to empower women because when another sister is winning, if you encourage them and celebrate their victory, you’ll get a victory yourself. I really believe life is what you put out. If you are honest, genuine and sincere, it comes back to you in the most amazing way.” V
All is Fair in Love and Fashion is located at 332 W. Broadway.
To shop and learn more, visit shopaif.com.