How Betsey Johnson Built a Fashion Empire and Lost Her Name

In a dishy new memoir, the designer Betsey Johnson revisits the heyday of her “pretty and punk” clothing brand and her painful decision to sell it off.Photographs by Pat Martin for The New Yorker

In 1964, Betsey Johnson was a twenty-two-year-old magazine editor, working in the fabrics department of Mademoiselle. She had landed at the magazine by winning its summer scholarship contest, a program that placed promising young ladies in “guest editor” roles while housing them at the Barbizon, an all-female boarding house on East 63rd Street. (Past alumna of the program included Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.) Though most guest editors spent just one season at the magazine, Johnson had stayed on to fill a spot vacated by a woman on maternity leave. With a full-time job, she decided that it was time to leave the strict environment of the Barbizon, where pants were forbidden and some residents had a designated chaperone. She moved to another all-women’s hotel, but was soon kicked out for smoking in her room. So she found a fifth-floor walkup underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, and, to make rent, began supplementing her magazine income by designing women’s tops.

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Johnson had studied art at the Pratt Institute, before transferring to Syracuse University to study fabric design. (She’d wanted to finish school somewhere where she could be a cheerleader.) Now she found a hand-crocheted fabric and stitched it “into sweaters that hugged the body,” she writes in her new memoir, “Betsey,” which was published last month by Viking Books. (It’s co-written by her former receptionist and longtime confidant Mark Vitulano.) “They had short, tight sleeves and a scoop neck that was trimmed with a half-inch of velvet. I finished them off with a little bow on the front. They were adorable, if I do say so myself.” Johnson wore one of her own creations to work, and, after her colleagues asked her where they could buy one, she started taking orders, at twenty dollars a piece. “I made a poster with an illustration of a girl wearing the sweater and hung it up in the ladies room at the magazine,” she writes. “Well, that did it.” The demand became so high internally that the Mademoiselle editors put a picture of a model sporting a Johnson sweater in the magazine’s “Shop Here” section. When the actress Kim Novak wrote requesting to buy one, Johnson tucked a handwritten note into the box, signed “XOX, Betsey.”

This story, which comes early in Johnson’s memoir, encapsulates many of the traits that would come to define her as a designer: the good-girl perkiness mixed with misbehavior, the extreme industriousness, the penchant for sexy silhouettes lightened with frilly embellishments. In her memoir, and in person, Johnson, now seventy-seven, often refers to her customers as “my girls,” or “Betsey girls,” as if they are precocious little sisters. Johnson’s signature aesthetic, which she calls “pretty and punk,” tends to take an almost comically high-femme idea (a poofy tulle skirt, a slinky slip, a baby-doll dress) and rough it up it with leopard print, or studs, or skulls—prissy sweetness cut with a touch of poison. At the height of her career, her brand was a must-have for young women taking their first steps into designer party gear; a Betsey dress was a rite of passage, a wearable bridge to adolescence. For decades, Johnson’s core business was making hot-pink prom dresses with black lace-up corsets and neon trim, selling well-mannered teen-agers a dream of rebellion from within the school gym. Her taste seemed to spring as much from her tenure at Mademoiselle, among white-gloved editrixes, as it did from her later associations with rock and roll.

One Piece Skirted Swimsuit for Girls

In fact, it was the editor Edie Locke, Johnson’s mentor at Mademoiselle, who helped her land the first job that put her in contact with the world of rock stars. Paul Young, an entrepreneur from London, was launching a new store on Madison Avenue called Paraphernalia, and was looking for unknown designers to feature. Young’s taste was forged on Carnaby Street—the mod miniskirts and latex go-go boots of the swinging British youth—and he was looking for American designers to channel the same sensibility. He gave Johnson a tiny workroom, which she shared with a “beautiful hippy-dippy Greek” pattern-maker named Tulah, and encouraged her to make whatever she wanted. Because Johnson’s job at Mademoiselle had been to source interesting fabrics, she started there. She bought lamé fishnet and made a shift dress that she called the Silverfish. She bought faux suede and made, she wrote, “something I called my ‘Story of O’ dress. It was a little A-line with large, strategically placed brass grommets sewn into it, exposing your skin.” (One advertisement asked, “Can you bear the strange din of your Betsey Johnson noise dress?”) Paraphernalia became an uptown hub for downtown musicians and artists. Andy Warhol shopped there, as did Twiggy, Nico, Edie Sedgwick, and Patti Smith. Johnson met the members of the Velvet Underground, who were patrons of the store, and began a breakneck romance with John Cale; they married in 1968, the same year that Cale left the group, and divorced not long after.

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“I felt like Yoko, breaking the band up,” Johnson told me back in February, when I met her inside a suite at the Gramercy Park Hotel. She was wearing bright-yellow hair extensions, which gave her head a chartreuse glow, a pink sweater with a large embroidered eye on it, and a dark rim of kohl eyeliner. A giant, vintage Betsey Johnson gown in cherry-red tulle, draped over a chair in the corner of the room, looked like a saloon costume from an old Western. Winningly daffy and unfiltered, and prone to reminiscing, she told me about the time she spent living in a downtown loft with Cale, making clothing for the Velvets. “Lou [Reed] wanted gray suede. Maureen [Tucker] and Sterling [Morrison] really let me rock out with my velvet and my studs,” she said. When Johnson and Cale wed, at City Hall, Andy Warhol tagged along and took pictures. (The judge initially refused to perform the ceremony because Johnson was wearing a pants suit of her own design; she solved the problem by walking to the restroom, removing her pants, and wiggling her jacket down over her tights.) When I asked Johnson if she got along well with Lou Reed, she snorted, “To this day, I think the only good thing Lou Reed said to me was that I cut a good crotch.”

Betsey Johnson
Betsey Johnson

Johnson left Paraphernalia, in 1969, to open the boutique Betsey Bunky Nini with two friends, and from there went on to design for the juniors’ label Alley Cat. But she left the company a few years later, breaking her contract six months early. (“They wanted me to use ugly fabrics,” she told me. “My personality was ripped apart.”)

Transparent Strap Beach Slides

In 1977, she launched her own label with a business partner, a fashion sales rep and former model named Chantal Bacon. Johnson gave Bacon half the company up front. “I wanted someone to work as hard as I worked,” she told me. A year later, she opened her first namesake store, on Thompson Street, in Soho. “There was the downtown girl who would buy my clothes,” Johnson said. “There was a customer that just grew between the cement.” At first, Johnson and Bacon funnelled any profits into expanding the brand to other cities. “We’d go to places like Boston, on Newbury Street, sit outside, have a cup of coffee, and just check out if there were any girls who we think might wear my clothes,” she said. In New York, when they would scout new store locations, in their Fiorucci spike heels, Johnson said, “The police used to think we were hookers.”

In the eighties and nineties, Johnson’s business exploded. Johnson began showing at every New York Fashion Week, ending all of her runway presentations by doing a cartwheel. Daryl Hannah wore a velvet Betsey dress dotted with rosebuds to an Oscars party. Rock stars bought the clothes. “Debbie Harry was a Betsey girl. The B-52s were Betsey girls,” she said. “Linda Ronstadt—she bought one dress and then she copied it.” “Betsey” chronicles Johnson’s heyday in a peppy, dishy voice laced with bravado. Of her early collections of lycra leggings and Day-Glo crop tops, she writes, “Basically, it was activewear as streetwear, which was unheard of back then.” Of her corporate expansion, she writes, “I began to feel like the Mildred Pierce of retail. There is a line in the movie where Mildred says ‘Everywhere you went I had a restaurant.’ In my case, everywhere I went I had a store.”

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By the time I became familiar with Betsey Johnson—I remember coveting the voluminous pink Betsey confections that my peers wore to bat mitzvahs in the late nineties—she was a global name, albeit one that had lost a lot of the underground cool that it had had when Johnson was drinking with the Velvets at Max’s Kansas City. Her keen entrepreneurial streak—the one that led her to make flyers to hang on Mademoiselle’s bathroom walls—meant that she was always open to licensing deals. There were Betsey Johnson kids’ clothes, Betsey Johnson sheets, Betsey Johnson bath mats, Betsey Johnson luggage. She was one of the first women in fashion to sell not just clothes but a life style. Going into Betsey Johnson stores, which were all painted the same shade of blaring pink, felt like walking inside a hoydenish carnival; it may not have been sophisticated, but it was fun. She seemed to be inviting her customers to an endless slumber party.

Ultimately, Johnson’s business instincts did not protect her from losing her company. In 2007, Johnson was pulling in more than a hundred and fifty million dollars per year in sales and overseeing sixty-six stores in the United States. But Bacon was ready to move on, and so the two women decided to sell a majority stake in the company, to the Boston-based private-equity firm Castanea Partners. After the 2008 crash—and, according to “Betsey,” creative clashes with the new owners—the Johnson brand found itself $48.8 million in debt. “There was so much time wasting and wheel-spinning over bullshit,” Johnson writes. In August, 2010, the shoe entrepreneur Steve Madden scooped up Johnson’s debt—and, eventually, control over her name—for an undisclosed sum. Johnson stayed on as creative director of the brand, but she was no longer her own boss. “I have this strange feeling that Madden maybe bought the company for ten dollars,” Johnson told me. “I never cared to ask. The whole thing was such a nightmare. Anything I do now, rain or shine, is under his umbrella.”

Deep v-neck bikini Dot print Backless

I called Johnson a few weeks ago, at her home in Malibu, where she moved, from Manhattan, in 2016, after appearing on “Dancing with the Stars.” (She lasted four weeks, going out after a lacklustre jive.) She told me that she has been spending the pandemic taking long daily baths and short walks, wearing capri pants from her early collections. “I have this crummy mask—it’s two weeks old,” she said. “It’s covered with lipstick, because no matter what I keep my lipstick on.” The economic fallout of the coronavirus has put many fashion designers at risk of going out of business. A new Dow Jones report shows a 16.4-per-cent decline in retail sales in April, particularly in fashion, the steepest dip in almost two decades; the brands J. Crew and John Varvatos and the department stores Neiman Marcus and J. C. Penney have all declared bankruptcy.

“It is like ‘Soylent Green,’ where they were melting people down,” Johnson said of the current state of the industry. “It feels like one of those surreal, unbelievable science-fiction things. Nobody’s really making anything. Everybody’s on dead-stop hold.” Still, she says, she has no plans to retire—“I hate that word.” She is planning on using this downtime to design a new capsule collection, called “Betsey: A Memoir,” that replicates some of her looks from the nineteen-eighties. “I’m going to get my sewing machine out, relearn how to thread it,” she said. “The little factory in China I’m working with was closed, but they’re starting to reopen.” If Johnson does start sewing again, though, she will be doing it for free—last month, Steve Madden informed her that she was furloughed.

Source: The New Yorker

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