Only in America: Betsey Johnson

in category of Fashion, Tracey Vest


Fashion is a serious business. From stone-faced runway models to raging assistants, the industry has a number of no-frills components. But while being a shrewd business person is respected, even necessary, it’s refreshing when we see a designer exude freewheeling fun in their art and personality. One of those bright minds is none other than fashion designer Betsey Johnson.

Known for her trendy yet accessible designs in clothing, jewelry, shoes, and more, Johnson strikes a unique chord between high fashion and ready-to-wear brands. As if platinum bangs, ruby red lips, and bright, jewel-toned frocks weren’t enough, Johnson also brings an infectious playfulness to her runway shows, even turning a cartwheel at the conclusion of many.

Hailing from the upper northeast in Wethersfield, Connecticut, Johnson was born in 1942, the second of Lena and John Johnson’s three children (I know, she suffered the dreaded middle child complex). After graduating from high school, Johnson briefly attended the famed Pratt Institute and eventually graduated from Syracuse University.

We have another Mademoiselle connection, as she interned for them in the summer following graduation. It was here that her career began; within a year of winning the magazine’s Guest Editor Contest, Johnson became the in-house designer for Manhattan boutique Paraphernalia. She then became entrenched in what is now known as the “youthquake” fashion movement, as well as the underground scene perpetrated by the likes of Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Twiggy, Edie Sedgwick, and The Velvet Underground.

Sedgwick would become Johnson’s house model at her first Manhattan boutique, Betsey Bunky Nini. During the ’70s, she took over the Alley Cat fashion label, a popular brand among the musicians and artists of her underground days. In 1978, Johnson launched her own fashion line, only to have it flop and leave her with 3,000 unsold pieces of spring clothing and a serious financial struggle.

She responded by bouncing back, opening up her first retail store in New York City’s SoHo district. This move would eventually lead to more than 65 stores worldwide by 2011. Her one-of-a-kind creations and indomitable spirit have been immortalized on the Fashion Walk of Fame; the Coty Award winner has also been honored by the National Arts Club, receiving their 2009 Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement in Fashion.

She was briefly married to Velvet Underground frontman John Cale in 1968; they split a year later. Johnson also has one daughter, LuLu, and now a granddaughter, Layla.

Her life outlook is a humorous yet true reflection of the carefree fashion she supports, as indicated in her quip: “Girls do not dress for boys. They dress for themselves, and of course, each other.”     


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