Estelle Johnson, 89, leading leather clothes maker

Estelle Johnson.
Estelle Johnson.

BY ALBERT AMATEAU  |  Estelle Johnson, a designer and maker of leather clothes and accessories who had her workshop in the basement of Native Leather on Bleecker St. for the past 38 years, died in Albany Memorial Hospital on Sept. 4, a week before her 90th birthday.

In declining health for the past several months, she moved this year to Albany, where she was born and raised, according to her cousin, Marie Dukes.

Known as Stella, Estelle Willie Johnson designed and made leather apparel for a generation of Villagers and did work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Joffrey Ballet, Ballet Hispanico and other performance groups, as well as for design firms.

“She could make a leather wedding dress out of a bag of scraps,” said Carol Walsh, owner of Native Leather. “Men loved the leather vests she made for them; one customer insisted that he be buried in his,” Walsh said.

A resident of Delancey St. for decades, Stella met and began working with Tina Ramirez, founder of Ballet Hispanico, around 1970 when Ramirez was teaching dance to children on the Lower East Side, according to a friend, Annette Hendrikse.

She created a line of Native American-style dresses decorated with feathers and beads for Giorgio di Sant Angelo, Hendrikse recalled.

“Her address book was like a directory of black culture leaders and institutions, full of artists, designers and performers,” Walsh said.

“She had incredible energy and she was always upbeat,” added a friend, Margaret Horworth.

Stella worked in Milton Hefling’s Leather Studio on W. Fourth St. in the 1950s and then for Dick Whelan, who ran the Briton Studio on Sullivan St. She moved to the predecessor of the Native Leather shop at 203 Bleecker St. in 1975.

A painter as well as a designer, she continued to work until a few months before her death. Fiercely independent, she would refuse help climbing up from her basement workshop on Bleecker St. even after she became frail.

Born Sept. 10, 1923, Estelle Willie Johnson was the only child of Nellie Booth Johnson and William Johnson of Albany. She was born in the house built by her father, a carpenter. It was a big family because her mother raised several of Stella’s cousins, Dukes said.

“Her father was from Sumpter, S.C.; her mother was from Collins, Miss., and they met in Albany where her mother was going to school,” Dukes said. The extended family lived in adjacent houses that her father built, Dukes recalled.

Stella’s talent as an artist and designer was apparent early and she convinced her father to let her go to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As a student, she lived in a Catholic girls’ residence. She met Conrad Center, a pianist, in Chicago and they got married after she graduated. The couple moved to Paris around 1947, part of the wave of black and white artists and musicians who found French culture attractive after World War II, especially for mixed-race couples. Her husband, who died around 1980, was white.

“Estelle and her husband came back to New York around 1954, and with two other couples bought a house in the Hamptons as a sort of art colony, but it didn’t last very long,” Dukes said.

Stella and Conrad led separate lives since the 1960s, but she was always very close to her cousins in Albany.

“She made the Albany-Manhattan trip like it was a commute,” Dukes said.

Two of her principal survivors are Freetta Dukes and Fleter Thorpe, her first cousins. But many cousins once and twice removed also survive. Estelle Johnson was the godmother to seven children.

The funeral was Sept. 13 at the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, 163 Quail St., Albany. Burial was in Graceland Cemetery, Albany. Garland Funeral Home was in charge of arrangements.

Her memorial in the Village will be Mon., Sept. 30, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Trattoria Spaghetto, 232 Bleecker St.