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NEW YORK — Only Betsey Johnson could turn Wednesday night’s sit-down interview with Fern Mallis into a full-body workout.
Even Mallis looked a little worn-out after the lengthy chat at 92Y, when she said, “Betsey definitely burned more calories than any other guest.”
With her new reality show, “Betsey + Lulu,” ready to roll in April, the designer proved time and again what a live wire she is. Wearing ripped black jeans, hot pink high-tops and a bubble-gum pink top, the 70-year-old sprang out of her seat repeatedly, whether to reenact the head-cheerleader skills she finessed at Syracuse University or to impersonate Andy Warhol. Johnson, a Phi Beta Kappa grad, said of the former: “The funniest thing was I never understood football because on the ground level you can’t tell what’s going on, so I would watch the coach.” Of the latter: “I think Andy said maybe six words to me in all the years I knew him. ‘You look great. Hi, Betsey.’ ”
Half-baked as all this might sound, Johnson said she was so crazy about the fashion of the Fifties that, at that time, she literally baked her white sneakers in an oven because she needed them to be white and crispy. Johnson was just as honest about wanting to be an American Mary Quant after her first trip to London, which involved “not sleeping for a week and dancing on little mattresses in the clubs, popping pretty little pink pills.” Johnson said she “never connected with couture or any of that stuff, but I connected with that primitive basic, primal almost kindergarten clothing.”
While Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood were singled out by Johnson for their talent, following fashion today has become a lot of work for her.
“I’m so bad about the CFDA awards, but I vote,” she said.
The digital world doesn’t exactly excite her either. “I do know how to text and how to read my texts. I did learn today — thank you very much, Brandon — how to take a picture, write some words and text that,” Johnson said. “I am antimagnetic to anything you plug in. I am happy that I cannot join that world, and I never will. I really tried. I heard that Marc [Jacobs] is the same way. In that 30 seconds of waiting to log on, I can think of so many other things.”
Johnson will be sitting out next month’s New York Fashion Week. At 92Y’s post-talk reception, she said she doesn’t feel as though her collection is runway-worthy this time. “To me, showing is about my reputation. It’s got to be better than the last one. I don’t go into the bullring unless I know I am going to come out alive,” she said. “But my licenses make money. They’re wonderful. I’m the creative consultant for my brand, but I’m far from the big decision-maker at the end of the day for every dress. That’s why I now so appreciate what I had before. But that was a moment in time. The collection is not very runway-worthy but there will be other shows. I don’t want to be all over the place.”
(A company spokeswoman said Thursday the designer would not be showing in order to focus on “a breadth of new initiatives such as a dress launch, a new fragrance and a reality show.”)
With Mallis, Johnson also touched upon her career’s many lives — how winning a Mademoiselle guest editor post led to a girl-Friday gig at the magazine. Johnson spoke of starting her design career at the store Paraphernalia and becoming part of Warhol’s Velvet Underground scene. She befriended Edie Sedgwick and Lou Reed, and wound up marrying (and later divorcing) John Cale. Opening her own store, Betsey Bunky Nini, in 1969 led to a different kind of opportunity. “I was asked to do a commercial for Bayer aspirin — for $10,000 in Long Island City. I said, ‘No, I can’t endorse a product. That’s tacky.’ Then I thought, ‘I’ve taken Bayer aspirin my whole life. Be a whore. Get off your ass and take a taxi.’ I did the commercial in 100 takes. Ozzie Nelson took like 250.
“My parents made me put that money away and lock it up, until one night at Max’s [Kansas City] I ran into a Wall Street guy and I invested it in a lady gynecological machine that I forgot about because I hated the stock market,” Johnson continued. Eight Thanksgivings later, my aunt Elsie says, ‘Boy, that stock Dynatech is really going through the roof.’ I said, ‘Dynatech? That’s my stock. One night at Max’s I wrote a check for $10,000.’ ”
That wound up being the seed money for her own company, which had its share of fits and starts. In reference to the private equity firm Castanea Partners, which once owned a majority stake in the company, Johnson said, “All of a sudden, the apples coming into the bucket were not have-a-nice-day people.” She and her business partner, Chantal Bacon, “worked their asses off,” building a $150 million company with 400 employees that was “like a family.” (So much so that when massive layoffs and store closings had to be made a few years ago, Johnson insisted on having Champagne and cupcakes for staffers.) She referred to Steve Madden, who bought the company in 2011, as “a whiz kid” whom she calls “Stevie Wonder.” She knew she could quit when he took over the company, but decided, “I have got to keep working. I love what I do.”
All in all, Johnson said, “The thing I am happiest and proudest of my success is being a grandmother who lives in the same building as her granddaughters.”
Traditional as that sentiment was, Johnson was unfazed when a topless fan stood up at 92Y shouting, “I just want everyone to know that Topless Shot Syndrome is coming,” while filming the crowd’s reaction to her shirtless self. Somewhat fittingly, that pretty much brought the program to a close. While the crowd applauded, Johnson said, “I hope I didn’t bore you. When I grew up, there were no initials. Now I’m told I have the ADD and ADHD. You know, it’s all good. Thank you all.”