Jalian Johnston plucks abalone shells from below the rocky cliffs of Palos Verdes, retrieves old sarong fabric washed off-shore in a Samoan storm, collects tsunami debris in Indonesia—and turns it all into art: decorative shirts, belts, shorts, collages, hats, whatever strikes his creative fancy.
A number of his pieces reside at Lemons and Sugar, a small gift shop in Lunada Bay that specializes in “local, unique and handcrafted items,” according to owner, Elisabeth “Lis” Walter, who opened her store 2 1/2 years ago.
“When Lis told me she was going to open a gift store, I thought I have to make gift store-y kinda stuff,” Jalian, 33, said in an interview at Lemons and Sugar last week. “So she kind of inspired me to make the journals, the pens, and the picture frames, because I never really did stuff like that before.”
Jalian, both his brand name and the name he chose for himself, was more into clothes and accessories, often working to patch, stitch and decorate worn, disreputable looking jeans, shirts and hats with “beach-found” items: shells, beach glass, recycled wet suit material, sea gull feathers, and even automobile upholstery.
The blue-eyed surfer with the sun-drenched blond hair and disarming grin was soon selling his unique clothes and accessories around the world at prices ranging from $400 to $700 apiece.
Born “Alan” Johnston and raised in Palos Verdes Estates, “the true don,” as he refers to himself in emails, is hardly your spoiled rich kid whose retired aerospace engineer parents, Jan and (stepdad) Marty Weekley live the good life a block from the ocean, and whose younger brother Robert, 31—an advertising agency film editor—lives in Manhattan Beach.
For starters, Jalian often sleeps in the back of his old Lexus (“It has a killer little bed in back,” he says gleefully), has been known to dine on complimentary guacamole and chips at Whole Foods, and likes to live as if he were penniless.
As far as his parents’ reaction to his lifestyle?
“They’re pretty cool with me, because they let me hang around,” he said, his bright blue eyes shaded by a baseball cap stitched with beach glass. “Maybe they don’t understand exactly where I’m coming from, because I don’t like … I’m not just dying to get a job. A good day surfing with my friends is like five grand to me, you know?”
Sponsored by Hurley and Fire surfboard companies, Jalian is also recognized from Redondo Beach to Costa Rica to Indonesia as an exclusive member of the legitimate surfing world. A world-class surfer while still in high school, his reason for taking to the waves is as much about feeding his soul as it is about feeding his art.
“Just growing up, surfing a lot, down on the cliffs, being really connected with nature, I was always inspired by nature,” he said. But he was equally disturbed by the litter. “Seeing all the garbage and the hurt on the planet made me want to do something about it.”
Along with retrieving trash washed up on the shore, he also collects driftwood, rocks, shells, beautiful natural objects that end up in artful landscapes at his parents’ home and those of friends. But it was his tendency to adorn his clothes as a youth that brought out his “creative impulse” as far as fashion is concerned, he said.
“I used to take my normal clothes, which I thought were kind of boring, and (and) embellish my own stuff. And people were saying, ‘Well, that’s pretty cool; make me one.’”
A graduate of Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, who lasted but half a semester at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo (“I hated school,” he said), Jalian found cash in what a lot of people considered trash.
He was 20 years old when fashion photographer, Stephen Ziegler, saw the dreadlocked Jalian, wearing “a pretty crazy” pair of shorts. “I wore them for half a year, pretty much every day, and they were tattered, and I just kept patching them. The layers of patching were getting pretty incredible, like an art piece, and I just kept working on this one pair, and they just became magical.”
The photograph landed in Men’s Vogue and captured the attention of a buyer from Fred Segal, an upscale clothing retailer in Hollywood. Jalian was asked to bring some pieces into the store, and he left with $1,500. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
In another instance, a pair of decorated shorts worn everyday for months by one of Jalian's surfing “tribesmen,” on a trip through Peru, sold at the Hollywood Trading Company for $365.
“With my friends, I’d do a little trade in program,” he said. “I’d make them a pair of shorts and they’d wear ‘em for a long time so they’d get real worn in looking. Then I’d trade them in and sell those and make them a new pair.”
Recycling and redesigning enabled him to buy six acres of mountainous land on the big island of Hawaii, where he built a self-sustaining farm and rents out “jungle” bungalows (he calls them “jungalows”) to hardy vacationers. He constructed the jungalows, as well as his farm pad, himself—almost all of it out of used or foraged materials.
But like Palos Verdes Estates, Jalian does not think of Hawaii as home: “I’m kind of just nomadic. The last few years I’ve been spending the fall in Humboldt (County); the winters (in P.V.); the spring in Mexico and the summers in Hawaii.”
With this, he glanced at Lis Walter, who sat across the table from him in the craft room behind her gift shop, where the interview was held. She was running out of Jalian items at Lemons and Sugar and was eyeing a picture he had made by framing a photograph he had taken of a “perfect wave” in South Africa.
The picture was framed in an old, weather-beaten window frame, one of several he had “scored in Long Beach,” he said, shaking his head apologetically. “A friend of my mom’s down the street got all fired up about (the picture).”
Although he had brought the sold picture to the gift store—along with Jalian caps, belts, a sweatshirt and beach glass necklace—for the purpose of showing a range of his creativity for the interview, he promised to bring Walter more of his work soon.
She reminded him of some things she had carried in the beginning. “We had a dog collar, cell phone cases, a walking belt with a place for your phone, your water bottle and money and key chain,” Walter said, turning to the interviewer. “All patched together with his stitching.”
The problem for Walter, who is low key and nurturing, is nailing Jalian down. He likes to keep his options—like his destinations—open. Currently single (“I like it like that,” he said), he’s had several serious relationships but tends to end up feeling “confined” by girlfriends who unfailingly want more than his idea of a big night on the town: “A fire and a bottle of wine on the beach.”
Not one to spend an unnecessary cent, he’s much more interested in leaving the lightest footprint possible on the planet, motivating people (many in his surfing “tribe”) to the highest possible conservation goals and recycling “beach-found” items into wearable works of art.
That means traveling to surfing destinations all over the world. One trip took him to Australia, where he hitchhiked for four months. He carried his surf board, scant funds and scavenged for food in dumpsters.
“It’s pretty amazing what good quality food you can pull out of a dumpster,” he said, the quirky grin daring a negative response. “I was like getting loaves of bread and giving them away to families.” After taking a wrong turn, he also got stranded in the outback for three days when nary a car passed him on the road. “Hot, biting flies, Aborigines; it was gnarly.”
That was early on, before his innovative clothes and accessories (everything from stitched cell-phone cases to sunglasses to jewelry) began catching on, especially at high end surf shops and retail stores in Japan, something that eventually allowed him to buy the property in Hawaii and create his ecological farm, complete with solar panels and composting toilets.
He knew he would never take his clothing line big and mass-produce items. “I’d probably be rich by now,” he said, laughing. “But I didn’t want to go that route; I didn’t want to pollute. So I try to just live green, even though I drive a car and stuff.”
When the Travel Channel wanted to create a reality show around Jalian, the idea that finally sold was thought up by his old surfing pal, Mark Arico (Arico & Associates in Palos Verdes Estates). “Mark came up with the idea of helping out after the tsunami,” Jalian said. Arico also produced the film.
Tsunami Auction, which features Jalian leading an expedition to Aceh Province in Indonesia, aired Dec. 15, 2005 and can be seen on YouTube.
With him on the trip were Arico and two friends Jalian has known since elementary school, Nick Sinclair and Luke Millican. They call themselves “The Tribe.” They faced everything from terrorists to earthquakes on the trip aimed at helping tsunami victims reclaim their lives.
In the video, Sinclair describes Jalian as “a very strong individual. He’s passionate about what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, and he gets it done.”
Says Millican, “He was always a crazy kid, never did what people wanted him to do, never looked like the rest of us.”
Arico, the elder of the group and an avid sponsor, praises Jalian’s art as “one of a kind.”
Jalian was elated to find a lot of fabric in Indonesia. “I love finding old fabrics, because they get that worn look, sun bleached and worn. And you can’t ever recreate that look no matter what kind of washing you do.”
All proceeds from the sale of the items went to victims of the Indonesia tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
As in Australia, some of his travels land him in trouble. “On a surfing boat trip in India,” he said, he and his tribe “got stuck in that cyclone, Nargis, that wiped out the Philippines in 2008.” They were surfing off the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, one of many of their surfing destinations.
Where is there left to go? “I haven’t been to Europe,” he said. “The coastal regions: France, Spain, Portugal.” He rarely goes inland except to snowboard, which he rarely does anymore. “It’s an expensive sport.”
He used to skateboard. But except for occasional down hills in Palos Verdes, he’s cut that out, too. “All my injuries in life have come from skateboarding,” said Jalian, who is less interested in getting his body beat up these days. He'd much rather shred the waves and gather sea trash.
Jalian can be reached via his website or Facebook page.