Reached in her new trailer in the Point Dume Club of Malibu on Tuesday, Betsey Johnson was ready for another day of unpacking. But that activity is one she has already finessed, as evidenced by the recently released book “Betsey: A Memoir.”
Before a lengthy phone interview could get rolling, there was coffee to be made and mountainous oceanfront views to be appreciated. Taking stock apparently comes naturally these days for the longtime New Yorker, who moved to the West Coast several years ago. “I love it. I really do. I thought I never would. Until I did that damn ‘Dancing With the Stars’ show, and I had to be out here so much rehearsing, I swore, ‘Any place but L.A.’”
Life in the trailer park is not the tin-can version circa 1950. Her abode is a very colonial-looking three-bedroom, three-bathroom home with a porch all around it. Picture a “very modern New England-y home,” she said. Much like her hometown of Wethersfield, Conn., the setup is “very neighborhood-y, when you want that, and very private, when you want that,” Johnson said.
As the 77-year-old designer attested, her life has been laced with only-in-America success, globe-trotting travels as well as failed marriages, drug-addicted partners, business struggles and a stint in a Dubrovnik jail due to an unstamped passport. Instead of “grandma-ing” along, Johnson decided to bare her career and personal life in the Viking-published book. Over a 30-month stretch, she “talked and talked and talked into a tape recorder” with cowriter Mark Vitulano, who was the first male employee she hired for her fashion company.
Reading the book will clue in strangers and perhaps acquaintances to different dimensions of her runway persona. “I get the kooky, crazy, multicolored hair, cartwheeling kid. But that’s not how I built a business. If anyone thinks you can be that for 35 years.…There was something else,” she said. “A talented, hardworking, lucky person — that’s what I feel I’ve been. And I don’t think you ever change.”
She first went to New York City with her dance teacher Ann Pimm, whom she remains in touch with and dedicated her last retrospective runway show to. “I loved New York for the competitiveness, for the craziness. But I got the picture pretty soon that I was too short to be a Rockette. My throat and voice were shot from being a cheerleader for eight years,” Johnson said.
Optimism is the root of her story and one that she hopes aspiring designers, single mothers, cancer patients and many more will relate to. “I went through open heart surgery. I went through four husbands. I designed with my name on the label from the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties — and I still am with my own label,” Johnson said.
She read the book for the first time a month ago, when she did the audio version. Her brother Bobby, however, read an earlier version and urged her to add photos, doodles and colors “bursting throughout to make it a book that you want to pick up,” she said. “I wanted a book to inspire, to help and to teach. It’s not a how-to or anything like that. Just going through the years with work and with husbands [she laughs] — oh God — and living this long, things happen. I had no idea until the book just recently hit that I was quite major. I never felt it.”
From the start of her company in 1978, she and her business partner Chantal Bacon knew they had to create something outside of “the real fashion world.” Johnson started sewing as a child like it was second nature, she said. Her mother labored over the 10 costumes that were needed each year for Johnson’s ballet, dance, jazz and tap performances.
To get the business off the ground, she and Bacon “begged, borrowed, stole and got a match by a bank loan,” Johnson said. “If it hadn’t been for Elio Fiorucci. It took us years for Bloomingdale’s to jump in, and Macy’s. But they saw it all happening at Fiorucci.”
At its prime in the Nineties, Betsey Johnson had 75 freestanding stores and annual sales were between $50 million and $100 million, she said. At that time, her signature bias-cut Turner Classic Movies-style dress — “an over-the-head, no zippers, just a great print” dress — was the trend, she said. “I swear looking at the last couple of years in fashion, I think I inspired some of this stuff.”
Johnson and Bacon, who exited the company as chief executive officer, remain good friends. In 2007, Johnson and Bacon sold a controlling interest in her company to the Boston-based Castanea Partners. “They fired all of my people and threw their people in. You know that’s the beginning of the end. Then you start going down the tubes and you go into bankruptcy. And [Steve] Madden bought me out of bankruptcy — a real buddy,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she started working with Madden around 1985 in Long Island City, when he made “pointy, little-heeled rock-‘n’-roll-type Beatles boots” for her label and licensed categories were added in the years that followed. There are currently 15 licenses — luggage, medical scrubs and jewelry among others — under the Betsey Johnson label. An active-inspired direct-to-consumer line was being produced in factories in China before the coronavirus forced those facilities to close. The debut was meant to coincide with last week’s book launch. Now that manufacturing recently restarted in those facilities, Johnson is still planning for an online launch, she said.
Johnson also spoke favorably of her first husband John Cale of The Velvet Underground fame. Johnson’s early New York story included living in the Chelsea Hotel and going to places like Max’s Kansas City. “I was very clean. Most of the people in the Sixties were on something, but it didn’t matter…” she said. “I just fit in that scene, because the girls liked my clothes. I remember dressing Viva [one of Andy Warhol’s friends]. I am just sad that I lost too much time with three men that I should have never been with in the beginning.”
As for what she wants for herself today, Johnson said mournfully, “Oh, I want to go outside.”
After escaping from her yapping white Maltese puppy “Johnny Cash” into a bedroom, Johnson continued, “I had a great lover, who I met out here about four years ago. That was great to finally meet someone — wife or not — a free outside-the-box relationship. He lived in Beverly Hills so I hardly ever saw him. [My] family has been going beautifully…” referring to her daughter Lulu and two granddaughters.
All in all, Johnson wants people to consider who she is entirely — all these different sides — work, love life, illness. “I hope at the end of the day, they think, ‘Wow. She is a good kid, good woman, good person, wanting to thank her fans and give back in a positive way.’”
Imagining the industry post-coronavirus, Johnson noted how the ultra-casualization of fashion was already taking hold before the pandemic. “We’ll either get back to slightly where we were, in terms of a Macy’s, a boutique street, a Bloomingdale’s…and we will get into fashion that is slightly fun, bizarre and inventive — the way it’s always been,” Johnson said. “On the really awful side, I see so many people don’t recuperate from this. Unfortunately, a lot people have lost their jobs, they can’t pay their rent, their life of working or running a business is over. We’ve been tottering on this brink of ‘let’s just leave it to online shopping’ for a while. Forget the store experience and the people experience. It’s all ‘getable’ on my computer.”
Having survived scarlet fever and grown up in the age of polio and tuberculosis, Johnson understands the need for a global solution to COVID-19. There is also a need to get people back to work, when it is safe to do so, she said. “They’ve got to survive. They’ve got to get back to work to earn some money. It’s not going to be easy,” she said.
Conversely, there are upsides to this global recalculation. Johnson said, “You know that you are dependent on people. You need other people. You know that you could be a better person, because you want the other person to be a better person. Hopefully, that whole world of a new existence will continue. We really need it. We needed to stop the music.”
Johnson added, “The only thing is so much of it could all be automated, so where do the people kick in? That’s what is really scary. I hope the creatives, the energized and the optimists are in the mix. Where would anything be, if there weren’t those Ben Franklins and Abe Lincolns?”