NEW YORK — The designer Betsey Johnson is an unmistakable presence, even on these patchwork streets crowded with exhibitionists, goofballs, ding-dongs and eccentrics all competing for a second glance. Traffic doesn’t screech to a halt when she passes by, but at least one police officer stops to give her an admiring hug.
Johnson is not just style. She is a walking expression of youthful joy, inspirational stamina and several lifetimes’ worth of accomplishments.
A tiny woman, she favors dropped-crotch leggings, tight rocker-chick T-shirts and a pair of frog-shaped coin purses that she swears are stitched out of actual amphibian carcasses. She is head-over-heels for makeup, and she wears it unrepentantly, eschewing any goal of a Bobbi Brown natural face to delight in the daily invention of an artificial one. “I could put makeup on all day,” Johnson says. “It calms me down.”
Her distinctive hairstyle — somewhere in the vicinity of braids, dreadlocks or the ropelike mop of a rag doll — is currently a platinum bob with streaks of taxicab yellow. Getting it to the perfect state of bed-head dishevelment requires the aid of a stylist who commutes from the West Coast to New York four times a year, where he attends to Johnson’s locks for a marathon 12 hours each visit. Looking haphazardly thrown together takes time.
At 72, Johnson epitomizes the mood — and the look — of her brand, which speaks most directly to adolescent girls and women in their 20s, young birds who are looking for adventure and independence and who camouflage their fears and doubts with swagger and recklessness.
Johnson’s clothes are commercial, which is to say they are less about appealing to magazine editors and celebrity stylists and more about attracting mass-market customers who do not want to spend a fortune on a dress. She loves crinolines, sequins, slip dresses and the color pink. Her clothes offer bad-girl attitude without the cleavage or the drug haze — and for less than $200 a frock.
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Johnson is celebrating her 50th year in fashion, a feat that is rare because tastes are unpredictable, clothing production is complicated and retail is an unforgiving enterprise. Her design heyday was the 1960s, when the fashion industry was not yet swarming with would-be designers, celebrities seeking synergy and Instagram stars. Yet Johnson has endured because, just a few millimeters below that exterior of overdrawn false eyelashes and candy-colored hair, there is a determined, hard-working, competitive woman — a former prom queen from middle-class New England — who is under no illusions about her niche in the fashion industry.
“I’m very commercial-minded,” Johnson says. “I’m very Connecticut; I’m Doris Day. I’m very much an all-American girl. I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout.”
The Council of Fashion Designers of America will mark Johnson’s longevity with the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual gala Monday night. That she is receiving such a commendation from her peers is quite a feat; the CFDA awards have long been bedeviled by cliquish back-patting that keeps the same few designers rotating through acceptance speeches.
“The fashion industry is not that kind to people like Betsey” who ignore trends and cling to their own visions, says Kim Hastreiter, a co-founder of Paper magazine who has known Johnson for almost 40 years. “Her clothes were never really expensive; they were always really in the junior market. Her personality was probably not the kind of personality that high-fashion types could relate to.”
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Johnson does not travel in the same billion-dollar demographic as Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors. She doesn’t party amongst the in-crowd ruled by Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang. And, unlike Donna Karan, she does not traffic in an uptown view of Manhattan as glimpsed from penthouse apartments and the tinted windows of chauffeured cars.
“I’m an outsider. I think that’s what I represent. I did my own thing. I figured it out,” Johnson says. She survived changing aesthetics, breast cancer, a recession and a 2012 bankruptcy.
So pull up a chair. “I like my story being told,” she says, “because I think it’s inspiring.”
Johnson’s workroom on West 38th Street in the Garment District is small, like a studio apartment. She’s been installed here about two years, since filing Chapter 11. The front door is covered with Crayola drawings by her granddaughters, age 6 and 9. Inside, the single room is filled to capacity with crinolines that hang from the ceiling like hundreds of cumulus clouds in shades of ivory, tan and blush. Lingerie-style dresses are stuffed alongside brightly colored sequin dresses on rolling racks. Parasols are propped inside an umbrella stand. Plastic boxes piled against a wall are labeled by their contents: belts, sunglasses, tights. Bolts of leopard-print fabric await inspiration.
Johnson’s aesthetics are founded on the persona of a suddenly liberated, fun-seeking good girl and that was precisely who Johnson was when she began.
She was the middle child, sandwiched between an older sister and a younger brother. Her father was an engineer, and her mother was a homemaker and later a high school guidance counselor. Both were steeped in kindness and common sense.
Johnson’s black-and-white high school graduation photograph shows a chubby-cheeked young woman with close-cut hair wearing a crew neck. It is a quintessential 1950s portrait. She doesn’t look sad or distant; there’s no hint of the punk princess that she would become. She graduated from Syracuse University where cheerleading was her passion.
Her first dream was to be a dancer, but mostly she wanted to move to New York. In 1964, she won a contest to be a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, which was a bit like an extended internship. It included a trip to London, where she saw fashion’s “Youthquake” up close.
Johnson never studied design, but she knew how to sew, and that provided a way to make extra money. Her career began with a “hippie-dippie” T-shirt, made in her Brooklyn apartment, that looked hand-crocheted. It had long sleeves and a little velvet bow along the neckline. “I was creating something you [couldn’t] get anywhere else,” Johnson says. “I was like a horse with blinders on. I was unaware of a lot of stuff. I was optimistic.”
The magazine recommended her for a design position at Paraphernalia, a new Manhattan clothing boutique deeply influenced by London. “At Paraphernalia, I learned that you’re only as good as your last sale,” she says.
Johnson socialized with a creative crowd, settling in at Max’s Kansas City, a clubhouse for artists such as Andy Warhol and designers including Stephen Burrows. She had found the crowd and the spirit she longed for. She married — and eventually divorced— John Cale, a founder of the Velvet Underground, the band whose music presaged generations of rock to come. She was friendly with the influential designer Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, who in the ’70s helped make knitwear sexy. He encouraged her to start her own label. She hesitated. But then, “an astrologer told me to just do it,” Johnson says.
The seed money came from Bayer aspirin.
She was a freelance designer when the advertising agency for Bayer came calling in search of a hipster spokesperson. “They were doing a commercial with [actor] Ozzie Nelson and [golfer] Lee Trevino, and I said, ‘I don’t think my customers will buy my clothes if I start promoting a product’ — this was the early 1970s. But it was $10,000,” Johnson says. “So I called back and said, ‘Everyone in my family has taken Bayer aspirin. I don’t feel like I’m lying.’ ” She ultimately earned $60,000 from the ad.
She partnered with her friend Chantal Bacon. They raised $40,000 from friends and family and took out a bank loan. The Betsey Johnson label debuted in 1978.
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The accounting department was a little wooden box embellished with a harlequin pattern. Checks in; bills out. The label’s earliest coup was wholesaling to Fiorucci, a trendy Euro-cool boutique that was, for a time, referred to as the daytime version of Studio 54. It was buzzing, and so was the new Betsey Johnson collection. Bacon ran the business; Johnson designed; scenesters such as model Penelope Tree and Warhol acolyte “Baby” Jane Holzer wore her clothes.
“We both were in it together,” Johnson says of her relationship with Bacon. “We said, ‘If we’re going to sink, it’ll be in a ship we love and believe in.’ ”
Johnson had no illusions about a life in the avant-garde nether regions of fashion. Her runway shows were parties, not high church. Johnson plucked her models from among her friends and acquaintances. She used dancers, strippers and actors. She put them on roller skates. Her finale included her own signature cartwheel on the runway — a gymnastic feat she continues to perform.
“That cartwheel is kind of the image that reinforces what her brand stands for. That moment is fun, girly and feminine,” says Stephanie Solomon, fashion director at Lord & Taylor, where Betsey Johnson is one of the top-selling dress lines.
Over the years, her label embraced the devil-may-care ferocity of punk; it eventually slipped into flower-child bliss. Her original customers matured, found careers and built families, but Johnson captured the desires of their daughters and granddaughters — most notably, and lucratively, for that singular rite of passage: the prom.
Johnson creates clothes for that moment when girls are crafting a grown-up version of themselves that underscores their sex appeal and sexuality but in a manner that is more Katy Perry than Beyoncé. They help a girl be pretty but with a few sharp edges.
“It’s the music and clubbing and parties. Every girl always went through a phase of wanting to wear Betsey Johnson,” Hastreiter says. “And, being a woman, she made clothes for girls’ bodies [that] had hips and boobs and a teeny little waist. They’re made for girls by a woman who won’t grow up.”
By the mid-2000s, the company had solid sales of about $150 million annually, along with licensing deals for lingerie, shoes and accessories. Looking to expand, Johnson sold a stake in the company to a private equity firm. The economy tanked, and the company fell deeply in debt. In 2012, the company declared Chapter 11, and Johnson closed more than 60 stores. The stories in the news and business press read like obituaries.
The brand was restructured and resurrected thanks to shoe impresario Steve Madden, who assumed the company’s debt and purchased the trademark in 2010, keeping Johnson on as creative director. That same year, Bacon retired.
Today, Johnson oversees licensing and organizes runway shows that function as biannual revivals ministering to the company’s soul — which, ultimately, is Johnson herself.
The clothes, says Lord & Taylor’s Solomon, never lost any of their verve: “They retain that girly, feminine sensibility, but always with a little bit of the rebel.” That look has also returned to the runway — under no less influential a banner than Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent. The first look down his fall 2015 runway was a girl in a puffy pink crinoline party dress wearing heavy black eyeliner and a snarling attitude.
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The Betsey Johnson company racks up a reported $200 million in annual retail sales.
When the CFDA announced that Johnson would receive the lifetime achievement award, she was stunned. Not that she didn’t think she deserved it.
“Every year, when the lifetime award came up, I voted for myself,” Johnson admits with a laugh. She did so for five years.
The CFDA’s board ultimately decides who receives the award. It takes suggestions from the wider fashion community, and it can ignore them, too. With Johnson, there wasn’t a lot of debate, says Steven Kolb, the organization’s chief executive. It was finally her time: She had been in the news. She had risen from the ashes. She’d been on “Dancing With the Stars.”
One afternoon about two weeks ago, Johnson took an Uber from her studio to the CFDA offices downtown to discuss the awards show with Kolb.
“You have to figure out what you’re going to wear,” began Kolb, exuding a low-key, slightly amused urgency. Johnson thought she would choose something from her archives.
“You’ll have a lot of competition on the red carpet,” Kolb warned. Kim Kardashian will be there to present an award to Instagram. Taraji P. Henson, Amanda Seyfried and Joshua Jackson will also be on the program, as well as Kelly Osbourne, who will make the presentation to Johnson. “But you give good red carpet,” he said.
There was, however, a more pressing question.
“Is there enough room for the cartwheel?” Johnson asked.
“We will be disappointed if there’s not,” Kolb said
Johnson voiced trepidation about keeping her balance on the bare stage. Perhaps, Kolb offered, someone could roll out a red carpet?
“This award is like a huge exclamation point,” Johnson said. “This is an industry seal of approval from an industry I never really played ball with.”
Everyone will expect a cartwheel, and on this night, Johnson wants to make sure they get one.