Photographer Olivia Joan Galli Inherited Her Late Grandmother's Couture Collection
Photo: Jack Casto
Fashion

Photographer Olivia Joan Galli Inherited Her Late Grandmother's Couture Collection

She's taking to TikTok to unpack her grandmother's impressive wardrobe, one box at a time.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of vintage. Each piece is unique, and the chances of unknowingly entering yourself in a game of "Who Wore It Best" are slim to none. To top things off, each piece has its own story, having lived many lives before setting foot in your closet.

Those that are lucky are well-acquainted with the overwhelmingly joyful, butterflies-in-your-stomach type feeling that accompanies a great vintage find. For NYC-based photographer Olivia Joan Galli, this feeling is tenfold—not only is her closet chocked-full of vintage gems one could only dream of, but the stories they tell belong to her very own grandmother.

Let’s rewind to earlier this spring when Galli went viral on TikTok for her unboxing videos showcasing her late grandmother’s wardrobe. While watching these, I found myself routinely picking my jaw up off the floor, only to have it instantly drop again with the next look. From Chanel silk dresses with matching blazers to full-on Galliano get-ups (and a pair of satin Louboutins Galli wants to wear on her wedding day, which has us more eager than her to find her dream man), calling this the closet of one’s dreams is an understatement.

“I love these [shoes] so much. I want to wear them on my wedding day. I’m not even in a relationship, but, you know, a girl can dream.”

Photo: Jack Casto

When reflecting on the timeline of Galli’s grandmother’s passing in 2019 and her new-found stardom on TikTok, many have asked why so many years passed before she began sharing her beloved couture heirlooms with the general public. “When my grandmother first passed away, my mom wouldn’t let me go into her closets, or even look through them," she explains. "There were a few years where I let everything be out of respect to my mom and her grieving process. Everything still smelled like her. Over the years, she finally was okay with me going in to try things on.”

Today, Galli has made several pilgrimages back to her grandmother’s closet to assimilate pieces into her own apartment closet in Brooklyn, where she resides as a photographer (she trained at the esteemed Art Institute of Chicago, which gave her more than enough time to lust after the five closets in her grandmother’s house, where she lived during her studies). Her grandfather has also mailed her boxes with pieces he personally wants her to have, such as an intricately embroidered black leather trench coat that puts Acne Studios to shame.

“My grandfather pulled this out and told me he’d love for me to have it, and that my grandmother would have wanted that. He made sure that I was the one that was the new owner of it."

Photo: Jack Casto

"This was one of my grandmother's first purchases when [she and my grandfather] started their company. She loved the sleek leather look. It’s made by Claude Montana.”

Photo: Jack Casto

Since posting her first video, Galli has amassed over 80k TikTok followers, largely in part due to the boxes her grandfather continues to send her with more of her grandmother’s things. I knew I had to hop on a call with her to get to the bottom of not only who her unbelievably glamorous grandmother was, but what her plans were for her new-found treasures. As Chicago natives, Galli's grandparents, Joan and George Johnson, rose to success upon founding cosmetics company Johnson Products Company. Two decades after its founding in 1954, it became the first Black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange.

Joan and George Jonson’s accomplishments didn’t stop there. They dedicated both time and resources to causes they cared about. Always a style icon, Joan organized and sponsored the Congressional Black Caucus Fashion Show, and her company provided modeling opportunities for young Black models that were otherwise faced with minimal opportunities during the time period.

Joan Johnson walking off her family's boat, the African Queen.

Photo: Courtesy of Olivia Joan Galli

Joan Johnson and her husband, George Johnson.

Photo: Courtesy of Olivia Joan Galli

Joan Johnson on vacation.

Photo: Courtesy of Olivia Joan Galli

I asked Galli how her grandmother, a prominent businesswoman, came to amass such an impressive collection of couture, to which she told me that her grandparents largely funded the television program Soul Train. Her grandmother even made periodic appearances on the show. She would constantly receive invitations to events and shows, and as a result always needed something fabulous to wear. “She made a few designer friends, and at one point Givenchy started designing for her. She was an upper-class Black woman, and she was beautiful of course. That wasn’t seen as something normal at the time," Galli says. "A lot of designers would fly her out to their shows just to have some diversity.”

“This jacket is Bob Mackie—he designed the Marilyn Monroe dress that Kim Kardashian wore at the Met Gala. My grandmother wore it on 'Soul Train.'"

Photo: Jack Casto

Photo: Jack Casto

"Someone on Twitter linked how much his pieces cost, and I was like, 'Holy shit.' I need to be a little more careful. But I do feel like it’s not respectful to the designer if I never let pieces be seen. They’re meant to be worn.”

Photo: Jack Casto

The world wasn’t lost on the Johnsons's impact, and it was their legacy that gave way to Galli’s newfound stardom surrounding her grandmother’s wardrobe. “I went to Chicago initially to photograph my grandfather for a piece in the New York Times centered around my family, but nothing to do with my grandmother’s clothing," she says. "He brought up that he was thinking of giving my grandmother’s clothing to The Real Real, and that I should bring some empty suitcases next time I visited if I wanted any of it.” Want it she did. On her next visit, Galli arrived armed with five large suitcases, and shipped home an additional five boxes to save them from their imminent fate of second-hand e-commerce.

“I wore this to Primo’s. There was a girl there who was actually wearing the cardigan version of this the same night, so we were matching. It was really cool to see how we’d styled them differently.”

Photo: Jack Casto

Photo: Jack Casto

It suddenly dawns on me that Galli has a mother and a sister that are, from what I can tell, equally invested in fashion and style—did she need to spread the wealth when it came to her grandmother’s things? “What my sister cares more about is the jewelry. She has a Cartier love bracelet from my grandmother, and my grandmother was the only one that had the lock for it. She doesn’t even know where it is now.” Her mother is more of an accessories girl herself. Before her passing, her grandmother passed down some of her more precious stones. “Before my grandmother got really ill, she had given my mom a jewelry bag full of beautiful pieces. She said that she wanted to make sure my mom got them," Galli reflects. "And that was the moment my mom knew that her time was ending.”

While the majority of Galli's grandmother's accessories have gone to the other stylish women in the Johnson family, Galli did make out with a few statement pieces that know how to make a look. My favorite of which is a hand-made turquoise necklace (see below) that her grandmother picked up on a trip to Arizona.

Photo: Jack Casto

“My grandmother would always go to Native American flea markets, and would try to support [them] as much as possible. I believe this was one of the pieces that she collected. We’re part Native American, and she wanted to give back in any way that she could.”

Photo: Jack Casto

Photo: Jack Casto

Accessories aside, for Galli to fit into these couture pieces so immaculately would take some sort of miracle. Did she need to get anything altered? “I got one pair of Dolce & Gabbana trousers tailored once, and the seamstress completely botched them. I’ve been really hesitant to get anything else tailored. These jeans are meant to be high rise, but I just had to wear them low-rise. It works.” Not only does Galli make each of these pieces work for her own body and sense of style, but she breathes new life and stories into them in the process. She wears one red-hot vintage YSL mini so well that it’s hard to believe it’s not currently waiting for shoppers on the rack as we speak.

Galli with one of the boxes she unpacked full of her grandmother's couture.

Photo: Jack Casto

"We have a house in Montego Bay, and my grandmother got this necklace there. The dress is YSL, and I went salsa dancing in it in Colombia."

Photo: Jack Casto

While some could argue that Galli has found viral success in living through someone else’s wardrobe, there’s no denying that she has found a way to make each and every one of these looks distinctly hers. Her grandmother’s legacy is threaded through each piece, but it’s Galli that brings them back to life, honoring her grandmother in a way that is incredibly meaningful and beautiful.

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