BETSEY JOHNSON’S NEW CHAPTER

Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio

NEW YORK — Betsey Johnson, who is still doing cartwheels on the runway, now wants to strike a balance between trendiness and seriousness.
Fashion’s wild child, who had long kept her offbeat runway creations separate from the salable merchandise she sold in the stores, is offering a compromise. Starting for fall deliveries, Johnson will spice up deliveries with a group of 20 “totally extreme” items from the runways. That includes HotPants and motorcycle jackets.
“We were so focused on making everything so salable. But it’s like turning off my light switch,” she said. “I need to turn on that light switch.”
In the past year, the designer and her executive team have made some changes, from expanding the company’s freestanding retail stores to branching out into new categories.
The strategies include:
Tightening the company’s merchandise. In the past three seasons, 10 to 20 percent of the company’s stockkeeping units have been cut. For fall, the total number of styles will be 170.
Launching a Betsey Johnson girls’ collection this spring, which made its debut in 10 Saks Fifth Avenue doors. For fall, the line will be rolled out to Nordstrom and Blooming-dale’s.
Expanding into petites for fall, aiming distribution at department stores.
Rolling out more signature stores. The company has 30 freestanding units and plans to have 38 by the end of the year, according to Catherine Nation, executive vice president of retail and marketing. The goal is to open 10 to 12 stores per year.
A year ago, Betsey Johnson introduced a new store prototype with the opening of its 5,000-square-foot shop on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.
The prototype is more minimalist, with aluminum lighting and ceilings, silver floors and silver fixtures. The older stores have an “antique boutique” look and are bit cluttered, Nation noted.
Converting its designer-priced Ultra Collection into a line of solid-color fashions instead of prints. The line, which retails from $400 to $800, is used for celebrity dressing and is in 13 of Betsey Johnson’s stores. The strategy should help the designer separate Ultra from her signature line.
So far, the company’s fine-tuning is working. Its wholesale business, which is in 800 doors, increased 100 percent this year, according to Kim Hingley, executive vice president of wholesale.
“We’ve used our own retail stores as a testing ground, and that is how we have been able to tighten our focus,” said Hingley, noting the strategy helped define the best styles for department stores.
This year, the company is expected to generate sales of $40 million to $50 million, according to Chantal Bacon, a partner with Johnson in the business.
About 65 percent of the volume is generated from its own stores and the rest is from wholesale. About 20 percent of the business is from outside the U.S. Bacon said half of that comes from Europe.
Bacon said the company was considering a strategic alliance, but going public was not in the plans.
“We’re certainly not oblivious to what is going on around us,” said Bacon, pointing to a slew of firms that have gone public or are developing strategic partnerships.
Looking for the next level of financing is integral to growth, she said. However, Johnson doesn’t want to lose the family-type atmosphere that has helped the company thrive since she and Bacon founded it in 1978.
Nation has been with the firm for 18 years, and Hingley for 15 years. Patty Moran, vice president of retail, and Stacia Heath, corporate director of retail, have worked there for 13 years. Johnson’s 25-year-old daughter, Lulu, is involved in all aspects of the business, from styling to merchandising, and has been there for seven years.
As a testament to her staying power, Johnson was honored Monday night at the 16th Annual New York Fashion & Beauty Industries’ gala to benefit Citymeals-on-Wheels, which delivers meals to the homebound elderly. The benefit raised $130,000.
The timing is right for Betsey Johnson’s expansion, according to company executives. The current trend of hippie chic is playing right into Johnson’s hand, whose trademark is frilly, “girly” styles.
“I hope it lasts,” said Johnson. “There are so many choices. We are not locked into one particular trend.”
For fall, Betsey Johnson’s collection includes lots of fur-trimmed coats, embroidered cardigans and dresses with rose details.
The fall collection also has an edited group from her rock ‘n’ roll-inspired collection, including HotPants and motorcycle jackets.
Company officials are counting on an expanding consumer demand for trendier clothes to help fuel its national store expansion. This month, Johnson plans to open a unit in Cherry Creek, Colo. In June, there are plans to open units in the Beverly Center in Los Angeles and in Nashville, according to Nation.
A store is slated to open on July 15 in Aventura Mall, Aventura, Fla., and the company is close to signing leases in Kansas City, Mo.; Northbrook, Ill.; Somerset, Mich.; West Palm Beach, Fla., and Phoenix.
The new stores will be about the same size as the older ones, which range from 1,000 to 1,600 square feet, Nation said. Betsey Johnson’s SoHo store in Manhattan is about 3,000 square feet. Its Melrose unit is its largest to date.
“We were so L.A. and New York, but people are dressing forward in middle America,” said Nation.
Johnson, who has been shy about personal appearances, has been stepping out. Last month, at the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship in New York, she showed her new line for girls, as well as her Betsey Johnson collection. Johnson’s staying power with teens, whose attention span for any one brand is usually brief, was evident.
“I’ve been buying all my dresses from Betsey Johnson since I was eight years old,” said Bianca Miuccia, now 20, who was anxiously waiting in line at Saks to chat with the designer. “All my prom dresses are from her.”
Dianne Cisneros, fashion director of designer and ready-to-wear at Saks, said the tighter merchandise mix has helped.
“She has a stronger point of view,” she said. “She is so much more focused. Before, there were so many more options. It wasn’t edited well. Now it is very clear.”
She added, “Betsey Johnson has a cult following. She appeals to the mother, the daughter. She is only getting stronger. Her prints are one of the best in the market. She has been around for such a long time, but she has been able to reinvent herself.”
Specialty stores are still a strong focus for the designer’s business.
Diana Faranca, a buyer at 25 South Boutique, in Newton, Pa., said Johnson “really grasps the junior-to-young-contemporary crowd.”
She added, “She is so hip and cutting-edge. The line has so many bright colors, and she is very original.”
For spring, Betsey Johnson’s bestsellers include dresses with spaghetti straps, ruffles and handkerchief skirts, as well as tie-back tops.
For fall, Faranca purchased capris with beaded trims and matching jackets.
“Johnson gets better and better,” Faranca said. “Her stuff is so recognizable. She is getting more original as the market gets saturated with a lot of the same things.”