Betsey Johnson (born ca. 1941), dress designer for the young and young-at-heart, set fashion trends during four decades.
Fashion designer Betsey Johnson, with her red hair and perpetual ear-to-ear grin, was a colorful burst of energy in the fashion world. She first exploded onto the style scene in the swinging 1960s, a turbulent time when fashion designers were considered stuffy, pretentious, and totally out-of-touch with the growing wave of street-inspired chic and the unmistakable influence of British rock and roll on American youth culture.
During this decade, Johnson helped launch the American fashion revolution with her space age silvery sci-fi dresses, see-through plastic shifts with discreet stick-on cover-ups, a "noise dress" with metal grommets at the hem that went clink-clank when the wearer moved, elephant bell-bottoms, and 14-inch metal micro-miniskirts. In those years her designs were worn by style setters such as actresses Julie Christie and Brigitte Bardot, model Twiggy, and first lady Jackie Kennedy. Over the ensuing decades Johnson continued to be an energetic leader in fashion design. As Susie Billingsley of Vogue magazine wrote: "She got on the street fashion wagon before anyone. She's always been way ahead of what's hip."
Born in Wethersfield, Connecticut, Johnson graduated from Syracuse University magna cum laude in 1964. She landed a coveted position as a guest editor at Mademoiselle, a young women's fashion and lifestyle magazine. The short-term guest editorship led her to a permanent position in the magazine's art department. Soon she was sent by the magazine to London in the heyday of the Beatles, bell-bottoms, and belly-baring knit tops. There Carnaby Street was the eye of the style storm. Johnson was so inspired that when she returned to New York she began designing wacky wear for New York's clothing boutique, Paraphernalia.
She pioneered the now commonplace use of avant garde fabrics: car interior lining and shower curtain dresses. She imported a wool pinstripe material used for the original New York Yankee's baseball uniform for her "gangster suits." In the 1970s Johnson designed slip dresses, drop-waist ballerina dresses, double knit A-line minis, and "nutsy artsy" embroidered sweaters for the Alley Cat clothing line, then for her own New York shop, Betsey Bunky Nini.
She married Velvet Underground bassist John Cale but they divorced in 1969. For three years she was involved with a sculptor, a relationship that produced her daughter, Lulu, later her top runway and print model. In the 1980s she married again."
In the 1990s, most of her clothes, available in large department stores and her more than 20 U.S. boutiques from sexy South Beach in Miami, Florida, to the ever-so-staid capital, Washington, D.C., sold for under $150. Her young and young-at-heart customers search her out, and they are fashionably faithful. Polly Mellen of Allure magazine said: "Her clothes are fun, female, flirty, slightly aggressive and teasing. Her fashion shows are always witty, fun and slightly shoddy. But in the showroom, the clothes are real and the prices right." Johnson self-deprecatingly said: "I've never had a new or brilliant idea. I just like to make things. The truth is, fashion doesn't really change all that much. I'm still doing the same things now that I was back then."
Maybe. But they are all interesting variations on her theme. Johnson ships out dozens of new styles every month to her U.S. boutiques. In 1991, she launched a new division called "Luxe," which drew from her background in dance. The more expensive line was designed to complement the skirts and leggings that had been her trademark. In 1992 she launched her sweetly sexy swimwear collection of push-up bras, bikinis with petticoats, and skirts in black lace, gingham, madras, and velvet, all priced affordably from $35 to $75. She also unleashed a line of clunky funky women's shoes. And her 1993 line of menswear looked tailor-made for all modernday Robin Hoods: velvet capes and tunics, hooded monk robes, forest and mead-hued caftans, and paisley leggings. That year also brought her own fragrance, a light floral scent of lilies and mimosas. Forever evolving, Johnson introduced a new "Ultra" collection featuring better fabrics and more elaborate styling and priced up to $500 in 1996.
Johnson was always her own fitting model: "Small top, big bottom, that's my shape. And I think it's the shape of most women." Long known for her short, tight, "boy-friend getting dresses," she also acknowledged: "Since AIDS, everyone's pulling back and clothing is getting much more reserved and more romantic."
Part of Johnson's success was her ability to sniff the winds and sense the social and subsequent style and silhouette changes. She started with the British Invasion of America style, hopped on the early 1980s punk bandwagon with safety pins and ripped T-shirts, and kept current with the 1990s rave, grunge, medieval, and deconstructionist fashion movements, all of which began on the streets and in music clubs haunted by disenfranchised youth.
Johnson clearly understood her place in a woman's closet, telling The Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1995, "I'm usually the sparkle in a closet full of conservative clothes. Either that or my customer has a closet full of my clothes and a few conservative suits from Calvin Klein. I think you've got to give a girl what's missing from her closet. If something jazzy, tacky or sexy is what's missing, I provide it."
As 1995 brought the advent of youthful baby-doll and empire-waist dresses, Johnson explained the trend by saying, "After grunge, girls wanted to wear things that were very feminine. Something deep down said, -Is there a girl inside me?"' She simply says: "I've stopped aging in my work 25 years ago."Perhaps it is just that sense of wonder, openness, and a bizarre sense of humor that keeps this over-50 designer in touch with the youthful trends of today.
Further Reading on Betsey Johnson
For further information on Betsey Johnson and the fashion industry see Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion (1988); McDowell's Directory of 20th Century Fashion (1987); NY Fashion: The Evolution of American Style by Caroline Rennolds Milbank (1989); Women of Fashion: Twentieth Century Designers by Valerie Steele (1991); and Contemporary Designers (2nd ed. 1990) edited by Ann Lee Morgan.