I went to Camp Seneca Lake, which was a (mostly) Jewish camp in Penn Yan, N.Y. Every Shabbat we would have to dress up, and after Shabbat dinner, there would be something called “Shabbat Walk”, during which you could break away from your all-girl bunkmates from the Seneca section and take a 15-minute walk with a boy from the Mohawk camp (all of the age groups were divided into tribes). This girl who always got a “date” was a girl named Rachel…and she ALWAYS wore a different Betsey Johnson dress every week. I envied her for innumerable reasons. When I turned 13, I realized Betsey Johnson was definitely the Jewish girl’s “go-to” party dress when I saw how many of her flouncy, patterned frocks made appearances on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah social scene. It’s been quite a few years since the beginning of my adulthood, but Betsey’s designs were definitely good pieces to pique my interest in labels.
Born in Connecticut on August 10th, 1942 (Happy belated, dollface), Betsey Lee Johnson had what she calls a “normal” childhood. Her parents, John and Lena, also had two other children: Older sister Sally and younger brother Robert. Betts’ dad was a mechanical engineer, and his work, she says “was similar to my pattern work.” (Lifetime). By 3rd grade, Betsey could draw anything. Before that, when she was 4 years old, she started to dance, and this dance background would later prove to influence her fashion shows. Her instructor, Anne Pinni (spelling?), was a former Broadway showgirl, and each year Betsey had at least 10 dance numbers, with at least 2 solos. From Anne, she learned to sew, and most importantly learned about theme; Each dance performance had some sort of theme. Betsey learned through Ann had to conduct performances, and because of Ann’s teachings, every runway show from Betsey had to contain a beginning, middle, and end. According to Betsey, “It’s not just clothes on a runway” (Lifetime).
Betsey went on to attend Syracuse University (where she was a cheerleader) and the Pratt Institute. She graduated in 1960 and moved to NYC when she won a Mademoiselle contest as a “guest editor” with 19 other girls her age. Mademoiselle sent her to London in 1964, where she claims that the London beat became “her beat” (Lifetime). Although she had no portfolio, Betsey brought suitcases of her already-constructed designs in a suitcase with her to show a popular NYC boutique called Paraphernalia. She was hired on the spot in 1965.
Paraphernalia, Betsey Bunki Nini, and Betsey Johnson
Betsey spent 5 years at Paraphernalia, and she recalls that during that phase of her life, she had free reign to design whatever it was that she liked. There was no merchandise person telling her what would sell and what would not sell. Edie Sedgwick was her fitting model, and Betsey says she was a “Edie Wannabe”. She even designed a signature “Edie” dress, which was a jersey knit with a criss-cross back. She would hit nightclubs with Andy Warhol (Lifetime) and then-boyfriend John Cale of the Velvet Underground. Betsey starting outfitting the members of the band, and started wearing her designs herself regularly. In fact, when she went to City Hall with John Cale for their nuptials, she wore a crushed-velvet pantsuit, and the officials at City Hall turned her away for wearing pants! That did not deter Ms. Johnson from her plan to wed, as she returned to City Hall wearing the shortest mini-skirt she could find – this served as an “F you” to the officials there. Regardless of negative criticism, she never compromised her wild style. Betsey says, about designing for the Velvet Underground: “I always made John his black canvas suits with big hunks of ruffles and bows coming out, which were gorgeous. And Lou [Reed] wanted his crotch to be big, so I would always cut him a crotch.” (WWD, 2008).
Later on, Betsey started her own company, called Betsey Bunki Nini with two friends. (Missbehave, 2008). She claims she was a “girlfriend designer” to women; her clothes were accessible and her designs were not up on a pedestal. She gained control of the ready-to-wear label Alley Cat, which often catered to “bigger ladies”, and she had a great time there, musing, “Why shouldn’t women of all sizes have a great, fun dress?” (Lifetime). But by 1975, Betsey was fighting Alley Cat for total creative control, so she gave up the rights to her royalties to Alley Cat. She was ready to leave – as she was also pregnant with daughter Lulu.
By 1978, Betsey was ready to venture out on her own, with a label bearing her own name and owned by her. She claimed that other design houses loved her, but didn’t want to invest any money in her, as her zany designs were often thought to be high-risk in the commercial world. She partnered up with business associate Chantal Bacon, whom she met in 1975 while designing the children’s line Shutterbug, to start designing under “Betsey Johnson”. Betsey scraped together all of her money to start the line, including money she earned starring in a Bayer aspirin commercial (Inc., 2004).
Betsey and Music
Punk rock was a major inspiration for Miss J, and her body-conscious designs seemed perfect for the artists of the 80’s, including Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. Johnson says that with the onset of MTV, her business changed greatly, and because of the network, there was a new fashion focus to videos. Betsey claims that watching videos is a key way to know what is in fashion (WWD, 2001). The first artist to wear a Betsey Johnson piece in a video was Cyndi Lauper as a member of the band Blue Angel. Madonna wore a dress of Betsey’s in the early 80’s and was photographed in said piece. Johnson admits that because of the Madonna frenzy, she and partner Bacon decided to produce many of the dress Madonna donned, and as a result, they overproduced the garment and lost a massive amount of money. She says she cut and sewed apparel before orders came in for items. During that time, Betsey had to dig into her treasured vintage designs in order to raise money to keep her business. As Betsey remembers: “At one low point, we opened up my loft and put all of my vintage up for sale. It takes three months to make up for one month of bad business. You go through ups and downs, but you never really are a sure bet.” (WWD, 2001). Betsey was eventually able to get back or borrow a lot of her older items for her 2008 Retrospective show, where she showcased her looks from the early 80’s.
In the end, Betsey’s business flourished, and she has gone on to outfit Janis Joplin, Debbie Harry, Nico, Avril Lavigne, Rihanna, and Katy Perry (among others), who used Betsey’s clothing throughout her 2008 Warped Tour shows and red-carpet appearances (WWD, 2008). Amy Winehouse even wore BJ to her 2007 short-lived nuptials to Blake Fielder-Civil. But with all these star-studded encounters, it is rumored that Betsey never gives her clothes away for free or send stars free items. It is known that she also doesn’t do customs designs for stars anymore. “I never liked custom,” remarked Johnson to WWD in 2008, “because they [artists] always change their minds.”
The Broadway of Betsey
Throughout all of Betsey’s shows, it is obvious that she is driven by popular music. In one of her earliest speeches as a guest lecturer at F.I.T. in 1983, Betsey gave a fashion show set to the music of Prince. As “Little Red Corvette” blasted through the college’s dinky PA system, Betsey showed off taxi-style checkered sweaters and sweater dresses with phrases like “CAUTION”, “STOP”, and “1983” emblazoned on the front of them. She also showcased items featuring her 1969 Jacquard pattern, which she claimed buyers would not buy because “the elephant trunk faced downwards, so buyers wouldn’t get it.” All throughout her impromptu show, the models strutted across the podium and danced around as Betsey explained her influences on the microphone.
Storyline is important throughout all of Betsey’s productions. Every show she has music matched to the stage, the clothes, and the attitudes of the models in these clothes. She throws her shows as runway recitals. As mentioned previously, Betsey learned through former dance instructor Anne how to conduct performances; every runway show from Betsey had to contain a beginning, middle, and end. We know she is popular with the music set, a fact that influences her shows, but there is even more of a Broadway element that goes with each season. At one show, there was a Cats-like opener, and at another show in the 80’s, there was a geisha-like quality to her models, and was even filmed in a house that may have been meant to be a Geisha house. In one 1993 show, daughter Lulu opens up with a dress which turns into a bathing suit. For the change, she closes a curtain, and it seems as if there is a Striptease-style theme. She has also leaned heavily on children’s themes, including Toys, Prom, and Fairytales, “Won’t Grow Up”, and Bedtime Stories. Betsey says, “The clothes are great, but it’s really a party you’re planning.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sw–h-iDc3I&feature=related). Betsey notes that she feel she needs the props and theme development to support her show, going as far as telling Nylon TV “I always love a gimmick”.(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCfQ8AtQ7yU&feature=related). In 2008, Betsey said of her runway shows: “It has to be an experience – we get great write-ups about the visuals, the tables, what’s on them, what’s in them, the whole storyline, the hot pink gift bags. I think underneath, I’m terrified of just showing clothes. I need other stuff.” (Missbehave, 2008). In 1995, Betsey even opted out of showing her collection in the tents at Bryant Park for fashion week because it didn’t fit into her plan for her theatrical runway show. A spokesperson for Betsey Johnson explained, “Basically, the only reason we’re changing is because the venue is 99 percent of the theme, and the theme this season is Broadway. It was just too much hassle getting the stage and the curtain and everything else in the tent” (WWD, 1995). With all the designers out there in NYC competing to SHOW in the tent, it was a brave move by Betsey to move her runway location to fit her needs, rather than comply with the bigwigs of Bryant Park.
The Illustrations of Betsey
When Betsey was starting at Pratt, she wanted to be a clothing designer, but she also really wanted to be a commercial artist. Betsey claimed that at Pratt, you couldn’t be both, so she chose clothing (F.I.T., 1983). After she graduated, her first illustration job at Mademoiselle was illustrating shoes. She landed this specific position after she sent a get-well card to one of the heads of the magazine after she had issues with kidney stones. The card was a shoe with a kidney stone in it, which Betsey illustrated herself, and the powers at Mademoiselle took notice of Betsey’s drawing talent. (F.I.T., 1983). Johnson only made $62.00 dollars a week doing these illustrations, so she started multiple side freelance gigs to pay the rent. Betsey illustrated “clothing catalogs” and left them in the Mademoiselle office bathrooms. From there, women flipped through the catalogs and Betsey would make any of the garments the ladies would order from the catalog. Betsey also designed a pair of canvas high-heeled sneakers for Nina Footwear that were never produced. Nina’s chairman, Stanley Silverstein, found this illustration when he was cleaning out a closet, and gave the original back to the Nina company. Our co-founder, Liz Baca, snapped a picture of Betsey’s design and prototype on one of her visits to the Nina headquarters (see photo). Lastly, Betsey designed and illustrated Vogue Butterick patterns on the side that were extremely successful.
Betsey’s love for illustration never seemed to quite go away, as the designer inked most of her packaging and still designs most of the sale flyers for the store. Betsey’s drawing style is as signature as her pieces. She always includes some type of cartoon lettering in a thought-bubble, roses, and her phrases are always abbreviated with a period, whether necessary or not. The characters from her imagination all have a youthful glow, yet their witchy, wrinkled hands and straw-like hair suggest they are older than the teens they are meant to represent. The illustrations could be unintentional self-portraits of the artist, perhaps? Check out some of Betsey’s drawing and flyers in the photos below.
Although Betsey has married and divorced three times (or 3 and a half, as she says), she has always had daughter Lulu as a constant in her life. Betsey notes “I thought I always made it clear to men that work came first” (Lifetime), but with Lulu, things were different. From Lulu’s birth, Betsey incorporated Lulu in the business, going so far as bringing the tot to her workspace everyday while she sketched as sewed. As Lulu grew to be a pre-teen, she recalls hating her mother’s “weirdness”. She remembered her mother coming to PTA meeting with orange stripes in her hair and being mortified. (Lifetime). Although she shunned her mother’s designs at first, preferring a more conservative look over her mother’s wild aesthetic, she started incorporating her mother’s designs into her wardrobe in the 1980’s by starting to wear black fishnets, bra tops, and boots. Lulu has served as a model for her mother throughout the years. In the 1990’s, Lulu helped design the Ultra line by Betsey Johnson that was for the slightly more sophisticated consumer. “She’s not that adventuresome. She represents, I think, a conservative volume type consumer to me. So when Lulu loves something special that I love, that’s a good sign.” (Footwear News, 1993). Betsey maintains that her strongest and most valued relationships are with her daughter and her two granddaughters, Ella and Layla.
The Breasts of Betsey
In 1992, Betsey got breast implants. She explained that she wanted to augment her breasts because she was always making little corset tops, but not filling them out appropriately. It was in 1999 when Betsey went for a massage and noticed her “left tit was gone” (Lifetime). She had her implants removed the following week, and around the scar tissue, noticed a bump that felt like a small green pea. She had a needle biopsy, and discovered she had breast cancer. Johnson dreaded announcing the cancer, and also all of the questions that would surely follow the announcement. She cause a rift with daughter Lulu when she said, “You can hurt my business terribly if this leaks out,” for Lulu was angry she couldn’t share the devastating news with anyone (Lifetime). The cancer had not spread past the breasts, so Betsey was diagnosed AND treated before she even told her business partner Chantal Bacon! Betsey was so secretive, she even conducted a runway show during the middle of her radiation treatment (Lifetime). She finally announced to the public that she was a breast cancer survivor at a GM press conference originally held to promote a car she had designed for breast cancer research. The Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Fashion Targets Breast Cancer program made a signature Betsey t-shirt in her honor. It featured a bulls-eye, red lighting bolt, and the designer’s lipstick mark, with the words “Have Courage, Girlfriend!” over the shoulder. (WWD, 2005) As a tribute to her mother and her mother’s fight, Lulu got a lightening bolt tattoo over her breast, identical to the one her mother acquired in the same spot some 30 years earlier.
*The Coty Award in 1972
*Plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame
*Signature Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2005 from the National Association of Women Business Owners
*”Timeless Talent” award in 1999 from The Council of Fashion Designers of America
*Designer of the Year award at the Fashion Accessories Benefit Ball in 2007
The Branding of Betsey
It is difficult for an artist in any field to make the decision to stay exclusive and true to his or her art or to sign over some of their rights and “sell out”. With a brand like Rocawear, for example, started by rapper Jay-Z, licensing always seemed to be the main goal with the creation of the brand itself. Lots of industry people create brands specifically to sell the licenses to those brands, but what about those who do what they do for the art of their craft?
While the Betsey Johnson brand is now a household name, with her licensed products now in major department stores such Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Nordstrom, she seems to have struggled with the concept of her brand throughout her career. She has successfully licensed her name for legwear, footwear, handbags, cosmetic cases, watches, accessories, cold-weather goods, intimate apparel, eyewear, and fragrance (although her denim licensing venture with Innovo in 2004 flopped). In interviews, she seems to relish the freedom she had at stores like Paraphernalia to design whatever she wanted, and to be as crazy as she wanted to be with her out-of-this-world designs. In 2000. When she launched the side project Ultra, she told WWD that the reason she wanted to spice up her collection with “’totally extreme’ items from the runway” was because she was getting frustrated with trying to make everything with the customer in mind. She said “We were so focused on making everything so salable. But it’s like turning off my light switch. I need to turn on that light switch.” (WWD, 2000). Yet her offshoot Ultra no longer seems to be a label sold in commerce by the company, which indicates that Betsey may have faced some losses in the past in efforts to keep her brand exciting and original. Based on quotes by Betsey, it seems as if the matter of contention was maintaining creative control over the products that were out there in the marketplace bearing her name. In 1986, Betsey told W she modeled her business on the world’s largest fast-food chain: “When you walk into a McDonald’s anywhere in the world…you know exactly what you’re getting. They have a formula, and so do we.” (W, 2009). Would Betsey be happy licensing her brand if she could determine exactly what the public was getting? She seemed to grapple with this question in 1993 when she was asked what kind of shoes she would create for her 1993 shoe line which was to be licensed by Lowell Feuer: “It’s more of a business situation. It’s easy to design; it’s hard to merchandise. What’s great and is going to sell, what’s great and isn’t going to sell, and what isn’t great but will sell? We’re just going to do it systematically.” (Footwear News, 1993).
As Betsey started licensing out more of her brand (doing so reluctantly, I would guess), she noticed that the cheaper accessories and bags boosted the business at the Betsey Johnson boutiques. As her partner Chantal noted: “It’s great because not only is there the whole income from the licensing stream, but the licensing is putting a whole chunk of business into our own Betsey stores because we are able to sell so many categories that we didn’t have before. If you are consistent with what you represent and consistent with where you sell and consistent with your customer, you shouldn’t run into a problem with overlicensing. The licenses should feed off of each other, so that your consumer has many choices in all categories. If they like you in one category, they will most likely like you in other categories” (WWD, 2006). Through Ms. Bacon’s theory of licensing, Betsey benefits from the increased traffic of consumers through her stores. In return, Betsey has more money to do whatever she would like with her shows and her main garment pieces. In essence, it seems through the licensing of certain products, Betsey was able to retain control over her runway looks, and could focus less on them being “salable.” As a result, Betsey Johnson seems to have come to terms with the licensing elephant in the room, and in 2007, received the Designer of the Year award at the Fashion Accessories Benefit Ball. According to WWD in 2007, “To thank her licensees who have helped her create her ‘World of Betsey’, Johnson opened up the pink coat she wore to the event to show off a stapled piece of each licensed category in her brand with the appropriate licensee labeled next to it.” Looks like she’s happy with her licensing choices!
Fun Betsey Facts and Quotes
- Betsey opened a four-room hotel in Zihuatanejo, Mexico under the name Betseyville.
- M.I.S.S. friend Alice Adams (Rock It Retro) sold Betsey a dress off of Ebay that eventually landing her and M.I.S.S. Liz Baca (our co-founder) in the tents at Bryant Park for the F/W ’08 J show!
- Betsey does two cartwheels a year – one at her Fall show, and one at her Spring show.
- “Inspiration is some part of it, and making clothes that sell is about 90 percent.” – Betsey Johnson in WWD, 2001
- “I never keep anything beautiful in the closet.” –Betsey Johnson in Footwear News, 2004.
- “Today the fashion world is for people who love to be stressed. They love to fight, they have to battle.” – Betsey in In Style, 2005.
- A friend of M.I.S.S., named Tria, was once an intern for Betsey Johnson. When I asked her what was one of the craziest things Betsey did during her time there, she said: “She wore roller skates all day at work one day. She was really sweet and tried to get to know me even through she knew I was only there for a short time.”
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