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NEW YORK — This weekend, fashion’s perennial teenager is tossing a big birthday bash for herself. It just so happens that Betsey Johnson isn’t turning 16, but 60. She has invited 100 fashion girls and boys of all ages to join in her celebration on Saturday at her house in East Hampton. And if she happens to flaunt a little merch along with the party hats, that’s always been Betsey’s way. For nearly four decades, she has worked her friendly, girly persona and rock-star life neatly into her work, creating a perfect package.
This story first appeared in the August 8, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
So it makes sense that the event will provide a festive setting for Johnson’s spring 2003 fashion show. She’s bussing non-Hamptonites in from Manhattan. “This is like the biggest dance recital I’ve ever thrown,” Johnson says. “It’s going to be the ultimate show. It’s called ‘My Blue Heaven,’ because that’s what I call my house.”
The presentation will begin at 3:00 p.m. (“Sharp!”), with vignettes staged throughout the house that she describes as “an antique store gone berserk on overdrive.” In classic Johnson style, she has already been in East Hampton for a week, painstakingly setting things up herself. Guests can expect a visual wonderland with a themed tableaux vivant in every available room. These will range from nursery-rhyme motifs such as Mary, Mary Quite Contrary, whose garden grows with some very ominous-looking weed-killer, to a tough cookie in S&M gear chain-smoking while posing in a delicate floral bathroom.
“There’s a little edge to each one,” Johnson explains. “A dark edge and a funny edge.” A runway presentation will begin at four o’clock, poolside.
Johnson is billing this as the last of her theme shows. “I have never thought, ‘What are the clothes?’ and ‘Who are the models?’ My first question has always been, ‘What is the concept?’” she says. “But now what’s really important is to show more of the collection on the runway.”
Past ideas have included spring 2001’s casting of Playboy Playmates, accessorized with Johnson-designed bunny ears, and last season’s “Sisters” show, in which the models were all employees of Betsey Johnson Inc., from New Jersey salesgirls to the director of retail marketing.
Ironically, Johnson’s current notion, which is to make sure that the clothes are well-featured within the concept, coincides with her decision to step back a bit from company operations. The woman who once said that she wanted “to drop dead at the cutting table” now seems interested in a change of venue for that final scene — the garden of her beloved Blue Heaven, perhaps. (She has decided that she will make that trip to the ultimate blue heaven when she’s 93.)
But even now she’s spending a lot less time in Manhattan. Johnson has turned over her penthouse apartment here to her daughter, Lulu. She will spend long weekends in the country and hotel hop while in the city. She has already booked three weeks at 60 Thompson and has her eye on the charmingly quiet Inn at Irving Place, the hotel above the restaurant Verbena. “When you hit 60, you start to think very differently,” she explains. “You say to yourself, ‘OK, let’s make sure we’re living life to the fullest here.’ I would just like to have more of a social existence.”
None of which is to suggest that Johnson is retiring. Her first children’s line under a new licensee debuts for fall, she talks excitedly about finding a home licensee to indulge her interest in interiors and she retains an enthusiasm for her clothes that is unmatched even by her twentysomething staff. When a member of the design team comes out of the fitting room to model a pair of split-leg culottes from the last collection, Johnson flips. “Aren’t those just the killerest pants?” she gushes. “They are sooo cute! They’re the sexiest thing!”
It’s one of Johnson’s great charms that, in an industry in which appearing jaded sometimes seems like a job requirement, her unbridled enthusiasm has spanned four decades. Her story is part of fashion legend. Just out of Syracuse University, she found herself at Mademoiselle as a guest fabric editor. The magazine’s editor Betsy Blackwell discovered Johnson’s talent for illustration and gave her some assignments, which in turn attracted freelance clients. In addition, Betsey developed a brisk mail-order business for sweaters on the side.
When British retailer Paul Young came to town to find an American designer for his innovative Paraphernalia boutiques, Johnson went knocking with suitcases full of clothes. She got the job and soon found her clothes labeled Paraphernalia by Betsey Johnson hanging next to Paraphernalia by Mary Quant.
“It was incredible,” says Johnson. “I had no rules. I made all my patterns and samples. I could cut and sew up a storm.” The accolades and publicity for her fresh, mod looks poured in, from Life magazine to Vogue. Her list of fans read like a Who’s Who of Swinging Sixties It Girls: Brigitte Bardot, Julie Christie, Twiggy, Penelope Tree and Edie Sedgwick among them.
At the tender age of 23, Johnson was firmly entrenched in the fashion world. Her life became a Sixties swirl of Warhol’s Factory, the Velvet Underground and the Chelsea Hotel. She created stage costumes for the Velvets and was married briefly to one of the founders of the group, John Cale, whom she still counts among her best friends. She was also part-owner of Betsey Bunki Nini, a downtown boutique.
After Paraphernalia, she took over the creative reins of the junior line Alley Cat, winning a Coty Award in 1971, alongside fellow winners Halston and Elsa Perretti. Newsweek called Johnson “the most important young designer in America.”
But, within a few years, the fickle tide of fashion had changed. “My girl grew up and my clothes were over,” she says. “I thought ‘Well, I had a 10-year career. It was over at 33, but it was a great time.’”
As a calmer, more sophisticated style took center stage, Johnson slowed down, had her daughter, Lulu, and paid the bills as a single mother through “a million freelance jobs.”
The late Seventies in New York, however, saw the rise of punk with acts like the Ramones, Patti Smith, and Blondie. Johnson found that the old Paraphernalia and Alley Cat she broke out to wear to the punk epicenter CBGB’s became a source of envy and interest. “People would ask me about this dress and that dress,” she recalls. “My girlfriends wanted my old clothes.”
And probably, she mused, other girls would, too. Still, Johnson didn’t set out to open her own business. At first, she made the rounds of other companies, hoping that her line would be picked up as a division, but she met with little success. Enter partner Chantal Bacon, whom Johnson knew from the sales division of her former licensee for Betsey Johnson Kids. The two shared a rock-and-fashion history. “I just couldn’t do it alone,” says Johnson.
Through family and bank loans, and, oddly enough, a stock bonanza from a Bayer Aspirin TV commercial Johnson filmed while she was at Alley Cat, the duo managed to put together $200,000 and launched their new collection on Betsey’s birthday, August 10, 1978. The line was a huge success at Seventies hipster heaven Fiorucci, and Betsey was back. Although her second collection threatened to put her out of business due to over-production, it led to the fortuitous opening of the first Betsey Johnson boutique in SoHo.
Today, the company has 42 freestanding stores, and sells to major specialty stores including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. While there have been struggles along the way, current volume is about $50 million — every dollar is inextricably linked to the chatty, girlish persona of the designer.
Sitting in her bright yellow and pink Seventh Avenue showroom, Johnson looks considerably younger than she is. (The facelift she gave herself for her 50th birthday is still working its magic.) Her skinny black capri pants show off an enviable derriere, while her Warhol Marilyn-print T-shirt is sheared at the neck, “Flashdance”-style. “I kept it from the Eighties,” she says. “I’m such a pack rat.”
Despite evidence to the contrary in well-toned arms, she claims that she doesn’t work out, preferring instead to “dance around the house to my rock ’n’ roll music.” She does, however, admit to some short-term training — lots of push-ups in advance of each show — to prepare for her signature bi-annual cartwheel. And while she admits to a penchant for Red Vines licorice and champagne, Johnson appears in the pink of health.
Only two years ago, however, she found herself battling breast cancer. After one of her saline implants burst, she had them both removed, and, while examining her breasts for scar tissue, found a small lump. Initially she chose to tell almost no one. That was until the perfect opportunity presented itself in a very public venue — Bryant Park for the unveiling of the Chevy Cavaliers she and Tommy Hilfiger had designed as part of Concept:Cure, the industry’s breast cancer fund-raising initiative. (Johnson had signed on before her diagnosis.)
“Fern [Mallis, former CFDA executive director] was in tears,” Johnson says. “But then she was happy that she had a new spokeswoman. It’s such a growing club.” Mallis introduced Johnson, saying that she had “something special” to announce to the crowd. Johnson approached the microphone and started off in her sunny voice saying, “Hi, I’m a breast cancer survivor!” She went on to tell her story and to encourage women to get regular mammograms.
Johnson’s recovery is poignantly symbolic of a consummate survivor. As a designer, she has dressed more than a few youth subcultures, from the Sixties Mod to the Eighties Girl-who-just-wanted-to-have-fun to the Nineties Grunge rocker and beyond. And all the while, she has delivered her unique style of youthful, affordable fashion. “You’re judged every day — your clothes sell or don’t sell,” she says. “But that’s what I like about this industry. Nobody gets off easy.”
In fact it wasn’t until 1999, when the CFDA awarded her its “Timeless Talent” prize, that she felt that she had the respect of her Seventh Avenue peers; she has always felt appreciated by the women and girls who wear her clothes. “Oscar and Ralph — they’re nice human beings,” she says. “But I’ve built this friendship with my customer who, when she sees me, goes, ‘Hey, Betsey!’ And that’s exactly what I wanted: a girlfriend kind of response.”
Betsey has kept it personal from day one, back when she ran her mail-order business from the offices of Mademoiselle. She used to send clothes to customers with a hand-written note saying, “I hope you enjoy my T-shirt!” It is just that kind of personal involvement that makes her decision to step back surprising, even if it has opened the door for her daughter Lulu to assume more responsibility.
Although they sport the same tattoo (a lightning bolt above the left breast) and charm necklaces with their respective first initials, Betsey opts for a punkier look, while Lulu goes for the glamour. While Betsey is sitting for her portrait, Lulu, 27, fusses over her, fixing her hair. She applauds her mother’s decision to lighten her workload. The two are close, and Lulu says they’re more like sisters or best friends than mother-and-daughter.
Although Lulu once struggled with the notion of succeeding her mother, she now welcomes it. “The more she steps back — the more I want to fill in for her,” Lulu says. “I was fighting it for so long, but about two years ago I realized that this is what I’m supposed to do.”
Betsey, for her part, is convinced that her daughter was always meant for the fashion biz. “Lulu is one of my main assistants. But she also kicks in a lot with the big boys — the merchandise, retail and wholesale teams,” Johnson boasts. “She is also my representative out there, my spokeswoman.”
With a new schedule that will certainly allow her more time for herself, Johnson plans to enjoy a number of pursuits — including actively searching in the singles market. “I hate not having a boyfriend,” says the veteran of three marriages. “I’m happiest even in the most screwed up relationship.”
While she’d prefer a younger man — in his forties or fifties — she seems completely comfortable with her own age. “Tina Turner was my big inspiration,” she explains. “I thought, ‘Hey, you can be in shape. You can look great. You can wear what you want at whatever age.’” Johnson credits her generation with creating a “new-functioning 60-year-old,” and cites Cale, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and David Bowie as examples. (The last two, however, haven’t hit that number yet.)
Besides, Johnson knows perfectly well that anything old can be new again. By her calculations, no designer has made anything new since the Seventies. She loves reworking retro themes and takes a practical approach to tweaking old designs for a new audience. Of her Eighties cotton-and-Lycra floral dresses that she will revive on Saturday, she says, “My customer is young. She wasn’t born when these dresses happened.
“I love my past,” Betsey continues without apology. “It just keeps me going and inspires me all the time.”