Written by Dave Gil de Rubio, email@example.com Wednesday, 06 February 2013 10:02
It’s hard not to smile when you meet Betsey Johnson. Maybe it’s the tiara-like cat ears she’s sporting. Or the bejeweled hi-tops and leggings you’d expect to see on someone a quarter the age of the 70-year-old fashion icon. But it’s exactly this kind of unconventional approach to haute couture that’s allowed her to thrive for four-plus decades, accruing a devoted following that’s enthralled by all those items carrying the Betsey Johnson moniker—clothes, jewelry, shoes and other accessories. No further proof was needed than the throngs of Betsey zealots lined up outside the women’s shoe department at Macy’s Roosevelt Field on a recent Saturday afternoon.
“I hope it’s like the other appearances and people show up,” she said, sipping champagne. “It’s a party and I always so appreciate people who show up for these appearances.”
That modest, take-nothing-for-granted attitude helped her go from being just another gal from the Connecticut suburbs to winning a contest to be a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine in the early ’60s. And it was the passion for her craft that led to her becoming the youngest designer to win the prestigious Coty Fashion Critics Award at the age of 29 in 1971.
“I really wanted to get to New York and be a fashion illustrator, and only 20 girls in America won [the Mademoiselle contest],” she recalled. “So I wanted to win to get to New York and work on the magazine for a month, but most of all, to travel, because they took the editors on an amazing trip every year. The year I was there, they took us all to London for a week and London was in its absolute mod rocker phase in 1964. I just loved it—Carnaby Street, Viva, [Mary] Quant—just the early peak of ’60s fashion.”
As part of the emerging Youthquake movement that incorporated music, fashion and cultural cues from peers such as Andy Warhol, Johnson started designing clothes in 1965. Combining capricious fashion, neon colors and deep necklines with unorthodox material (a car’s interior lining and shower curtains, for instance), the quirky Syracuse alum was a hit. By the end of the ’70, she and a partner had formed the Betsey Johnson label. While the public saw Johnson hobnobbing with celebrities, behind the scenes was a different story.
“I worked hard and learned that lesson that if you don’t sell, you don’t work,” she said. “I’m proud that I stayed in business, but I did a lot of work that I really loved doing and wearing.”
For now, Betsey Johnson is an ageless wonder whose signature move is capping off her fashion shows with a cartwheel, a skill dating back to her college days.
“I was a cheerleader for the Syracuse University football team where I’d do a round-off into a handspring and then a back flip, rain or shine, with the whole football team running behind me,” the septuagenarian explained. “I was with my last husband and I threw a cartwheel in the mid-’90s at the end of a runway show and it stuck. I can still do it.”