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Behind the Hype

Betsey Johnson ceo Chantal Bacon reflects on a sizzling history.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 07/22/2008

Chantal Bacon isn’t really a businesswoman.

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

“I’ve always thought of myself as an artist,” said Bacon, the 58-year-old business head at Betsey Johnson, the firm she founded with the punky, spunky designer 30 years ago. “I have no real business training, I just knew when I met Betsey that we could really make this work.”

It was 1975 when Bacon decided that she wanted to make a life change. She was living and working in London as a model and stylist, which she had been doing for about five years. While she said she loved being there, she had dreams of something more.

“It was a great time to be in London — it was all about glitter rock, velvet suits and chiffon shirts for guys — it was just a fun time for clothing and fashion.”

Even so, she wanted to leave London. So, she picked up and moved to New York.

“I gave myself two years for something great to happen in New York,” she said. “And if it didn’t, I was going back to what I was doing.”

With a degree in art from Douglas College, she quickly landed a position selling children’s apparel designed by Johnson. While it was far from being her dream job, the position paid the bills and taught her about business, in which she had no previous experience. It would serve a purpose, Bacon thought, until something bigger and better came along.

“A friend of mine in London knew someone who was working there, so I was pretty much set up that way,” she said. “It was there when I met Betsey and we had an immediate connection. You know when you meet somebody and you just kind of speak the same language? I really loved her sensibilities. Everything about it was something that I could really relate to.”

In early 1978, Johnson asked Bacon if she would consider leaving her job in sales in order to go into business together. For Bacon, it was a no-brainer; she was ready and willing to take the risk. They pulled together some money from family and bank loans and launched Betsey Johnson.

“All I knew is that we both had the same vision and I really liked what she did. We just had the same kind of energy,” Bacon said. “We wanted to have a nice day. We basically wanted to do it the way we saw doing it and it was important that we built a company where we enjoyed coming to work every day.”

So, on Johnson’s 36th birthday, Aug. 10, 1978, they set up shop with a showroom in what was then called the Mary McFadden building on 35th Street and Eighth Avenue. Bacon and Johnson decorated the space in their signature punk graphic printed walls and they painted the floor bright red.

“I used to have to paint my way out the door at the end of the day when the paint would wear off in areas,” Bacon remembers.

Johnson designed the first collection in the SoHo loft where she lived. Bacon prepared for a runway show.

“It was so crazy, that first show,” she said. “I did the seating for the show and then ran backstage to model in it. I was literally doing everyone’s job — modeling, sales, shipping, bookkeeping — I worked 14-hour days and it didn’t even matter. People in the industry already knew Betsey from her experience designing for other brands, so there was a lot of hype surrounding our launch. It was such a great time, I loved it.”

The day after the show, Bacon said, was what officially made it real. “I will never forget this: Here we were, this brand new company, and a look from our very first show was on the cover of WWD,” she said. “It was incredible. And then, when we opened the paper, there was this whole double spread with an article about us. We just looked at each other and knew we had something here.”

Then, she said, things just started happening. They opened a Betsey Johnson store in SoHo and Bacon took meeting after meeting with bankers — whom, she said, served as her business teachers — and Fiorucci was the first company to place an order. The owner, Elio Fiorucci, loved Johnson’s designs.

“He had his store on 59th Street and had live girls in the windows who repeatedly interchanged their Betsey looks,” Bacon recalls. “We did so phenomenally.”

Business took off, and soon they needed more space. Over the years, Johnson and Bacon moved their showrooms several times and while Bacon said that there were ups and downs, giving up was never an option. They had a pact to stick with it and never lose their passion for the business.

“Betsey gets excited about it every season, she has a passion for what she does and a real clear vision of what she wants to achieve,” she said. “I think that’s really important when you have a partnership that you’re on the same page. We’ve always been on the same page.”

About 15 years ago, they landed a space on the 21st floor at 498 Seventh Avenue, where they remain today.

“We are bursting at the seams, we need more space, we have so much going on and people are on top of each other,” she said. “We are going to have to take some additional space.”

Today, Betsey Johnson is, sources said, a $200 million business. There are 58 stores in North America, as well as 14 licensed stores in Japan. The wholesale business is also booming, as the brand is sold in department and specialty stores including Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom. There are 10 licensed product categories — everything from swimwear to watches — and, as of August 2007, a new partner in the business in Castanea Partners, a Bostonbased
private equity firm.

“For me, finding Castanea was a relief,” Bacon said. “It meant that our meetings were now going to be a board of people, more people to bounce ideas off of. It wasn’t going to be just Betsey and I controlling what has become this enormous business.”

Bacon said that it was only about five years ago that she started thinking about a possible sale of the company. It was necessary, she said, in order to keep the business on a growth track.

“I don’t think I had long-term goals until about fi ve years ago and then I started thinking, ‘OK, well how are we going to keep this continuing?’” she said. “How are we going to build this to go to the next level? How are we going to move this forward? And that’s really when I started thinking bigger picture.”

Robert Smith, co-managing partner of Castanea Partners, said at the time that he was attracted to the Betsey Johnson business for many reasons.

“They really took control of their own distribution, opening stores and expanding their licensing program. It adds significant dimension to it,” said Smith. Further, he believes Johnson has developed a solid wholesale business.
“That attracted us. They’re at the beginning of their evolution. Our hope is to really assist them in building the right team and to manage this growth and opportunity well.”

Now, Bacon said, the first order of business is to prepare for the next 30 years. With the financial injection from Castanea, the company’s goal is to add 10 to 12 Betsey Johnson stores a year, bring in more licensed products — possibly cosmetics and children’s wear — and increase wholesale distribution, while expanding these categories globally.

Also, while Johnson has become well known for her prom designs, Bacon said that this year she is making an effort to bring back the sportswear she became known for in the first place. So in the next show in September, the runway is expected to be filled with denim jeans, tops, skirts, jackets — a full mix of sportswear. They are able to do this, she said, because of Castanea’s support.

“It’s so great to be able to build a team to help to make some of the decisions,” Bacon said. “Betsey will be here for the rest of her life, but it will be nice to know that this company will keep going.”

In February, Johnson marked her 30th year in business with a fashion show highlighting some of her top looks from years past.

“When we started going through all of the vintage looks, we realized that we are successful because Betsey has such a clear vision of her customer. Through the ups and downs in business, her vision never changed,” Bacon explained. “It just goes to show, that a good designer is a designer who will create something that still looks just as relevant 30 years later.”

And as for never getting her business school education, Bacon said she has no regrets.
“To this day, I really believe that the absolute best experience in business you can have is to throw yourself in there and just do it,” she said. “I never had a second to even think about going to business school. I was too busy working.”

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