Filipinos In Boston: An Interview With Costume Designer / Entrepreneur Virginia Johnson

By Trish Fontanilla

Hat tip to BOSFilipinos contributor Christine Del Castillo for suggesting we interview Virginia Johnson this month. When I used to live in Somerville, I would bike by gather here almost daily. I should’ve known that a Filipina was involved in creating a space that is so warm, welcoming, and vibrant. I hope you all enjoy learning more about Virginia as much as I did!

Where are you and your family from?
Virginia: I was born in Subic Bay, the old U.S. Naval base. My mom and her 12 siblings all grew up in the province of Bulacan. My grandfather and now my Uncle Jose owned and operated a bottling plant in San Miguel. We moved to Southern California after my younger brother was born. My dad, on the other hand, was born and raised in Eastern Iowa. He enlisted so he could go to college, and it happened to be during the Vietnam War. And he ended up being stationed in the Philippines during the war.

Where do you work and what do you do?
: I am a costume designer for film and television, mostly major motion pictures like Patriots Day and The New Mutants. I’m also the owner of the Cambridge stitch lounge and fabric/fiber boutique, gather here. I wrapped up a film in Bogota, Colombia in late February, so I have been focusing my energy on community activities and workshops at gather here.

What motivated you to go from costume designer to entrepreneur?
: I didn’t give up costume designing completely. I just couldn’t. I love working collaboratively, and watching a group of people come together and create something as awesome as a film. And I love telling stories through what people wear. However I also wanted to put down roots, and opening gather here was a way to do that. I’m investing in the community not only by having a brick and mortar store, but by providing employment opportunities, sharing creative knowledge, and passing on the tradition of handcraft to future generations. Working as a freelance designer felt impermanent, while owning and working at gather here, despite the challenges of retail, felt like my forever home. When we opened in February of 2011 I was terrified that I had sunk all of my savings into a hairbrained idea, but we have flourished and even moved to a bigger location in 2016.


Well we know you have a great love for makers considering you built a space just for them, but tell me more about your work with your neighborhood and the greater Boston community through the shop’s “We Care Wednesday” initiative. What are some of the non-profits that you’ll be focusing on this summer?
: After the 2016 Election I wanted to just hole up and hide, but my responsibilities to gather here were too important. So I found comfort just going in, helping people with their projects, and sewing in the studio. In the quiet of sewing it became clear that the collective “we” would have to step up and support the programs that are essential to our communities. Since there’s already a Giving Tuesday we chose We Care Wednesday (we find that people are out of town on Fridays and Mondays so didn’t want to hurt the fundraising efforts in the summer). We created this initiative not just because we, gather here, care but because we, the community of makers, care. Every Wednesday 5% of our profits are collected for a nonprofit that we announce on our blog at the beginning of the month. At the end of the month we tally up the totals and make a donation as We Care Wednesday at gather here. We are currently fundraising for the Pride Youth Theater Alliance since it is Pride Month and I was a theater kid. July’s recipient will be Fenway Health - a former advisee from my years teaching at Tufts worked there prior to starting medical school and with the constant threat of healthcare repeal it is so important. We don’t have a nonprofit selected for August at the moment because we leave one month available every quarter should a specific need arise. In May we raised money for MusicWorks because one of our employees, Sue, is a volunteer for that organization. The elder she was paired with passed away in April and she asked if we would consider fundraising for an organization that had brought her so much joy and friendship. In September the recipient is Y2Y in Harvard Square. It’s the kick-off of another academic year and this student-run shelter is so inspiring!

One of my favorite NP’s from 2017 was Girls Rock Campaign Boston. They are doing so much to build up the confidence of girls! They sent us an awesome postcard that we framed.


On Boston…

How long have you been in Boston?
I moved to Boston in 2000. I lived in Waltham, right on Moody Street when I first got here. I’ve been here nearly 18 years! That’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere!

What are your favorite Boston spots:
: I love the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. If I knew that the end of the world was at 5 PM tonight I would head to the museum and sit in the atrium. I also really love Fenway Park. I’m a Cubs fan having spent my formative years in the Midwest, but Fenway’s history is so rich. I love all the public spaces in Greater Boston. Walking along the Charles River, the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the Public Garden, and all the small parks and memorials throughout the city.

Do you have a favorite Boston-based art project? Either something that was made in your space, or by a maker you know?
: Well, I love Bren Bataclan. And not just because he’s Filipino. I have one of his paintings that my friend commissioned after seeing his work at Christopher’s in Porter Square. She knew I would love it, and I’ve been obsessed ever since. Bren’s Smile Project is international and it comes from the best place - from the heart.

What's your community superpower?
Virginia: Space. I created gather here with the intention of reserving space for people and gathering. It was never designed to be filled with product. Currently we are hosting Badass HERstory meetings for people who want to tell their story through fiber for a worldwide craftivism project. When Red Fire Farm lost their CSA pick-up location I immediately volunteered our store. And when the Cambridge Modern Quilt Guild was looking for a meeting space we invited them to take over the back of the shop on the last Sunday of every month.

Creating a space that champions community and wants to help people share their stories, I think, is the most valuable gift I can give.

On Filipino Food...

What's your all time favorite Filipino dish?
: Pancit. Like I would stop a car for that. Especially for my sister’s pancit. She’s the best cook, and has kept our family’s recipes alive.

What's your favorite Filipino recipe / dish to make?
Virginia: Lumpia. It’s easy and everybody loves it. Seriously, do you know anyone who doesn’t like lumpia? I mean, my mom would say that my technique isn’t perfect but most people don’t know.


On staying in touch…

Do you have any upcoming events at the store that you wanted to highlight?
Virginia: Yes! We're hosting a special event this Saturday with a guest artist, Melody Hoffman from Latvia. And we're doing a tea tasting from Tea Hive! For more events, our Classes calendar is updated regularly. 

How can people stay in touch?
: I’m a social media junkie. To follow our crafty community on instagram: @gather_here. For my costume design/personal struggle: @vee.bee.jay. I tweet about craft, community, and the state of our nation as @gather_here.