License to Thrill

With licenses for footwear, swimwear, accessories, perfume, watches and lingerie, Betsey Johnson's reach continues to expand.

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Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 07/22/2008

It may have taken about 25 years for Betsey Johnson to get into the licensing game, but once the company did, it hit the ground running.

This story first appeared in the July 22, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.


“We always had this mind-set that we wanted to do everything ourselves,” said co-founder and chief executive officer Chantal Bacon. “But every time we tried to make a shoe, or make a handbag, we failed. It was just too difficult.”


Bacon said the requests for more products from customers were overwhelming. Almost every day, a Betsey devotee would walk into one of the designer’s more than 70 stores worldwide and ask when they were planning to sell more. The answer was almost always the same — “we are working on it.”


Then, in July 2003, Johnson met Carole Hochman, a veteran in the sleepwear category who was already producing products for Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Jockey and Esprit. For Hochman, the opportunity to work with Johnson presented the chance to enter the bra and panty arena.


Almost immediately, the contemporary designer opened up to the possibility of licensing. By September, Hochman, Johnson and Bacon were meeting to discuss a Betsey Johnson intimates line; the collection launched at retail in 2004.


“Betsey girls are good girls at heart, but love to have an edge,” said Susan DeMusis, executive vice president of merchandising at Carole Hochman Design Group. “They are cool, flirty, pretty, fun, and they can be just a little bit naughty. Betsey always has fun in life and everything that she does. This shines through in all her product lines.”


Today — from bras and panties to nighties and boyshorts — the intimates line continues to sell well at department and specialty retailers. Bacon said it was this relationship with Hochman that opened her eyes to more partnerships.


“Once we saw how great a partnership like this can be, we realized how far we can go,” she said. “If we continue to team up with people who are experts in their fields, we can take this brand so far beyond our expectations.”


So, Bacon and Johnson took licensing seriously, developing a series of deals. Today, there are 10 licensed categories, including handbags and belts, optical and sunglasses, watches, costume jewelry, legwear, swimwear, shoes, fragrance and, most recently, outerwear, which bows at retail this fall.


“We are not in a huge rush to add more. I think we have all the majors,” said Izumi Kajimoto, Betsey Johnson’s vice president of licensing, who joined the firm in January after a four-year stint at Marc Jacobs. “Of course, we are open to other opportunities in licensing, but we aren’t in a rush to sign deals that will not enhance our brand.”


With that said, Kajimoto said she does hope to eventually sign a deal for a line of color cosmetics and, somewhere down the line, children’s wear.


“We are very hands-on when it comes to design, so it’s really important that we partner with people who genuinely understand our aesthetic,” she said. “It has to be the right fit.”


It was shortly after the launch of the intimates line that the company began working with Daniel Friedman & Associates on a line of handbags and belts.


“Back in 2004, when we started working with Betsey, we were really interested in getting into the designer market,” said president and ceo Daniel Friedman. “We were already working on belts for Ellen Tracy and Steve Madden, so adding Betsey Johnson was huge for us.”


When the bags and belts launched at retail, Friedman said he was surprised at how fast they sold.


“These are quality leather bags with a designer name on them for between $185 and $300 retail,” he said. “So we really had something with this line. They stood out for the value and the design.”


Then, in 2006, Friedman’s company was acquired by Steve Madden, giving it more growth potential. So, that year, Friedman launched Betseyville bags, a collection of nonleathers retailing from $75 to $150.


“Betseyville is fun and unique and we use all of these great Betsey-designed prints. The line took off almost right away,” he said.


Today, Betseyville bags sit in about 400 doors. The collection has extended into luggage and cosmetic bags.


After seeing a series of licensed Betsey Johnson products already at retail, Susan Crank, president and ceo of Lunada Bay Corp., the Anaheim, Calif.- based swimwear manufacturer, wanted in as well.


“We could feel the momentum the Betsey Johnson brand was building, and knew the time was perfect to introduce a swimwear collection,” she said. “When we met with Betsey and her team, we just clicked. It was an amazing, dynamic meeting and we knew it was meant to be.”


The first Betsey Johnson swim line hit retail in May 2006 and included a range of one-pieces, tankinis and bikinis
— all decked in signature Betsey prints, including leopard and rosebuds.

“The collection exceeds all expectations each season,” Crank said. “Betsey Johnson swim pieces are so special that her consumers have an emotional have-to-have reaction.”


The designer has partnered with The Levy Group to produce a full collection of outerwear that will include rainwear, fake fur items, active jackets, down coats and wool coats. Betsey Johnson outerwear will stay true to its namesake by using a palette of her favorite colors, such as pink, turquoise and orange, in addition to black and white.


Also included in the line will be signature print linings, such as Betsey’s leopard; baby rosebud, and lace and Betseyville rose, together with construction details like zipper pulls and neck chains in the form of a lightning bolt icon or rosebud charm. Snaps and buttons will be found in the shapes of hearts and roses.


“We wanted an unmistakable, original identity,” said Donald Levy, president of The Levy Group, which produces outerwear under such labels as Liz Claiborne, Dana Buchman, Esprit, Braeten and Donnybrook. “Betsey Johnson’s aesthetic combines contemporary, punk, pretty and glamour, [and will join] the coat department, where many sportswear names are thriving.”

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