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This Young Photographer Became A TikTok Sensation Thanks To Her Grandmother’s Vintage Designer Wardrobe

“I didn’t give it much thought, I just knew that my grandmother’s clothes deserved to be showcased somewhere,” says photographer Olivia Joan, while animatedly discussing the viral TikTok videos that turned her into a sensation overnight. “Her stuff was just sitting in my closet, so I thought, why not share snippets of her style with the world?” The 24-year-old’s spur of the moment decision has led to more than 300,000 users on the app consuming clips of the New York-based artist modelling her grandmother’s wardrobe, including Prada outerwear and Christian Louboutin heels.

Olivia’s grandmother is, in fact, the late Joan Johnson, the visionary co-founder of the successful Black-owned cosmetics company, Johnson Products. With only a $250 loan, Joan, together with her husband, George, started up their business in 1954, a period in which Black hair and skincare maintenance was inconsequential to leading beauty companies. Almost two decades later, the business became the first-ever Black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange.

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Prior to Joan’s death in 2019, Olivia, who studied photography at Parsons School of Design, says she developed a profound relationship with her grandmother (a Karl Lagerfeld devotee) after her health began to deteriorate. “We would go to radiation every week; I was her caregiver for a bit.” With her grandfather’s blessing, Olivia wore a pair of studded Gucci loafers to the funeral that she and her grandmother had “hunted everywhere for”. This, in turn, led to the Chicago-based George suggesting he post Olivia his wife’s personal fashion archive bit by bit. Today, Olivia – who was raised between the US and Argentina – receives at least one package a month from George, which she films herself opening for TikTok. “He gets so excited going through her closet,” she says proudly, while petting her one-year-old dog. “He’ll often send me pictures of pieces he knows I’ll like – it’s become our thing now.”

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Sharing glimpses of her life online isn’t new territory for Olivia. The former Art Institute of Chicago pupil picked up a point-and-shoot camera as a form of escapism, and her penchant for capturing family members quickly set her apart from her contemporaries. Her portraits are intended to help dismantle decades of harmful rhetoric around Black womanhood, and offer up a depiction of a Black utopia. Her mother is one of her most willing subjects, Olivia notes. “She went through a really difficult time after divorcing my dad; it affected her confidence. I produced a body of work to uplift her, and remind her that she raised three kids solo as a Black woman in America.”

Unfazed by her newfound following, the rising photographer plans to continue sharing her decadent heirlooms with her 67,000 followers. “[TikTok] is for fun, so I’ll keep uploading videos until it isn’t anymore.” Additionally, she’d love for her visuals – which have already appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal – to be displayed publicly, much like one of her dream collaborators, Tyler Mitchell. “I’d love to have a solo exhibition with portraits of my family; I’ve never seen a curated show filled solely with portraits of Black women.”

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