PHOTOGRAPHED BY STEPHEN SULLIVAN
MAVERICK DESIGNER BETSEY JOHNSON
AND 20/20’S GLORIA NICOLA CARTWHEEL
THEIR WAY THROUGH THE WILDS OF
FASHION AT THE FRONT LINE
New York fashion designer Betsey Johnson has built a 40+ year career doing it—as the song says—her way. She never planned on a career in fashion. As a child living in a small town in Connecticut, Johnson studied dance and wanted to be a dancer or do something with the arts such as illustrating. “My choices were to be a Rockette or Andy Warhol,” she says. But sewing was also a big part of her childhood. “My mother sewed. She made my dance costumes. My first skills were cutting, sewing and draping. I made dance costumes for my dolls.” And she learned about fabric from her dance teacher, who took her on fabric-buying trips to New York. “For every dance movement, whether it be Hindu, jazz, ballet, tap, there is a specific shoe and a special outfit,” Johnson notes.
Dancing also taught her a lot about the business aspect of work. She started a dance school in high school with her best friend. “My friend played the piano. I taught and designed the costumes. I learned it’s essential to balance the fun part with the business side. No matter how tired I was after a night at the prom or whatever, I had to show up the next day to teach the class. That’s what it is all about—showing up, having fun and getting the money,” she emphasizes.
Upon completing high school, instead of dancing, Johnson went off to college to “cheerlead and study fine arts.” In 1964 after graduating from Syracuse University, she entered Mademoiselle magazine’s Guest Fabric Editor contest and won, becoming editor for a year. Next she landed the top designer position for Paraphernalia, a New York clothing boutique housing hot, young London fashion designers such as Mary Quant. That’s where Johnson’s trademark logo, sexy silhouettes, hippie-inspired flowing fabrics and exuberant detailing and colors emerged. She soon became part of the 1960s Warhol underground scene. The Velvet Underground rock band wore her designs on and off-stage.
In 1969, Johnson began her foray into retail, opening Betsey Bunki Nini in New York. In 1972 she won the Coty Award, becoming the youngest designer to ever receive the honor.
Her next big step came in 1978. Scraping together some savings, including money earned starring in a Bayer Aspirin commercial, and forming a partnership with ex-model Chantal Bacon, she launched the Betsey Johnson label. The same year, they opened their first retail store in SoHo. Today, there are more than 50 Betsey Johnson stores worldwide.
Another major step, Johnson says, occurred in 2003 when the company began its licensing endeavors. “I always thought licensing was important, but it has to be done right. People who like my clothes are going to want more products from the same label. It goes with their lifestyle. The licenses should feed off each other so that your customer has many choices in all categories,” she explains. “As long as your image is consistent, you shouldn’t run into a problem of over licensing.”
The company currently has licensed products in 10 categories, including lingerie, shoes, handbags, belts, cold weather accessories, jewelry, swimwear, fragrance, home, and since Fall 2006, ophthalmic eyewear and sunwear under a licensing agreement with Legacie, the Luxury House of B Robinson Optical.
For Johnson, eyewear was a natural. “Eyewear fits with our vision of what we are. A little sweet, a little sexy, a mix of rock-and-roll and punk, and very girly. Legacie knows how to make it happen,” the designer explains. “I’ve always liked going to eyewear and antique shops in search of glasses. I love the John Lennon rounds. And I love crazy sunglasses. I buy eyewear like I buy shoes because I like it. Labels don’t matter [although she did buy a lot of Gaultier and Emmanuelle Khanh sunglasses]. And price doesn’t matter. I have no limitations.”
What the designer would like is for her customers to think in multiples. “Glasses are such a part of you and they are no longer quiet. They are so fashionable and exciting. Girls want glasses and they need lots of glasses— sport glasses, sunglasses, glasses for reading, for working, for clubbing. They need to think like I do—what’s missing from their eyewear wardrobe,” Johnson says.
Whether it’s clothing or accessories, Johnson wants her fashions to be a fun, creative, expressive venue. “Fashion should always have a thrill to it. I hope it never loses the thrill of it all,” she says. “And I have to relate personally to any product I do even if I don’t wear it. It’s that simple. You have to love anything with your name on it. And I like building relationships with my customers. I like it when a customer says ‘Hey Betsey.’ I want a girlfriend kind of response from my customers. I never wanted to be on a pedestal.”
Johnson has been able to change with the times and still stay true to her vision and her customers. In fact, she was inducted into the Fashion Walk of Fame in 2002 with a bronze and granite plaque containing an original sketch, signature and biography embedded into the sidewalk on New York’s Seventh Avenue. In 2003, she won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Accessories Council and the Designer of the Year Award at the annual American Apparel and Footwear Association’s Image Awards in 2006. Johnson likes keeping her own style simple. “I like it easy. I wear a tight skirt, a T-shirt and high wedgies.” (And striped socks just to keep it interesting.)
Her favorite color is—no surprise—pink. “Pink has always been my favorite color. It’s so girly. I think it started in dance school with those pink tutus,” Johnson says. “My first apartment was pink. My first store was pink. But I also like yellow. In our stores, we now use pink as a background for the clothes and yellow for the licensed products.” A couple of years ago Johnson decided to paint a new loft space white. “After three months I couldn’t stand it. I repainted it… pink.”
When asked what she would like to do if she weren’t a designer, Johnson replies “I can’t imagine being anything but a designer. Making clothes involves what I like… color, pattern, shape and movement…. I like the everyday process… the people, the pressure, the surprise of seeing the work come alive—walking and dancing around on strangers. I can’t think of doing anything else that would include so much design. Design is great. It’s art. I do the store designs, the clothing, even the hang tags, the runway shows. And now I’m in the hotel business with two hotels in Mexico. I love doing interiors,” she adds. “It’s all about hanging in there and doing what I want… my way… and having fun.”