“I like the everyday process and the people, the pressure, the surprise of seeing the work come alive walking and dancing around on strangers. Like red lipstick on the mouth, my products wake up and brighten and bring the wearer to life.”
—Betsey Johnson (Biography.com)
Just who is Betsey Johnson? The result of a normal, white bread Connecticut upbringing? The designer of True Fashionista, brightly-colored ensembles made from atypical fabrics? A name synonymous with both the 60’s Youthquake scene AND the late 70’s/early 80’s New Wave/punk rock fashion? She’s all of the above! After all, we are talking the only fashion designer known for ending her runway shows by doing a cartwheel into a split. (More on that later..)
Betsey Johnson has been perfecting her version of happy for much of her life. Born August 10, 1942 to a mechanical engineer father and guidance counselor mom and raised in what she calls “a very WASPy Protestant family” in Wethersfield, Connecticut, she created her first garment at age four.
“It was an apron with a doggy print on it,” she recalled for The New York Times in 2012. As a child, she fueled her creativity with dance and art. It was a combination of the two that propelled her toward a career in fashion. Johnson loved the elaborate costumes she wore for her dance recitals and spent many hours sketching costume ideas, realizing at one point that fashion was the perfect meeting of her interests. As she tells Biography, the result is what a drawing can’t be – reality created from a two-dimensional image.
Upon graduating high school in 1960, Betsey pursued her interests in art and design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before transferring to Syracuse University for the remainder of her college experience. Degree in hand, she dove headfirst into the New York fashion world via winning Mademoiselle magazine’s Guest Editor Contest, which then turned into a job in their art department. One short year later she landed a designer job at a quirky New York clothing boutique called Paraphernalia. It was here that Johnson developed her True Fashionista, colorful hippie-inspired style, using unconventional fabrics like shower curtains, car interior lining and old New York Yankees uniforms in her designs that helped to pioneer the 60’s “Youthquake” movement. She found herself ensconced in the Swinging Sixties, hanging with Andy Warhol and his crowd at Max’s Kansas City, even briefly married Velvet Underground member John Cale.
In 1970, shares Biography.com, she left Paraphernalia to assume creative control of youthful sportswear brand Alley Cat, where her brightly colored, crazy-patterned clothing continued to draw attention. The following year, her work earned Johnson the prestigious Coty Fashion Critics Award, making her the youngest designer ever to win.
Johnson was riding a whirlwind of fame and popularity, but then the 70’s happened. Her fan base grew up and went to work, and interest in her bright designs faltered until the emergence of the New Wave/Punk movement of 1978. Revived by the musical revolution that mirrored her ensembles, Betsey partnered with ex-model Chantal Bacon to start the Betsey Johnson label. They opened their first store in the trendy SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, and the True Fashionista Betsey Johnson look was officially back and raging!
“We wanted to make clothes for us and our friends — the kind of stuff we were wearing at Mudd Club,” Ms. Bacon told the New York Times, staying with the company until 2010. “We were doing a lot of pink and black striped Lycra when everyone was doing the earth-toned Annie Hall thing.”
In 2006 at age 64 (64!), Johnson started doing her now legendary cartwheel into a split move at the end of her shows, not just to cap off the evening, but to show the world that she could still pull off the acrobatic move she’d done for most of her life. “A long time ago I promised I would always stay in shape, and be able to do a cartwheel and a split forever and ever and ever,” she told YouTube show Racked in 2016. “If I can do a cartwheel and a split, I’m good,”
Really, though, it’s all about the clothing. Her career faltered a bit in the early 2000’s when 65+ stores couldn’t keep up and she declared bankruptcy before the company was bought and corporately reimagined by Steve Madden in 2010.
Co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Paper magazine Kim Hastreiter remembers Johnson’s 1978 career rebirth for Business of Fashion, “She put rock chicks on roller skates for her fashion shows and was constantly eating popcorn and licorice. She always had a boyfriend and then sometimes she’d get married.” To be sure, Johnson married three times, and had a daughter she named Lulu the third time around. At 45, Lulu Johnson a former model, runs the company with her mom and can be seen with her family in the short-lived Style Network reality show, XOX Betsey Johnson.
So here it is 2020. Betsey Johnson has survived breast cancer, open heart surgery, bankruptcy, three marriages and so far, a pandemic. Yet she still maintains her signature blond extensions, wacky clothing creations, an eternally optimistic attitude and is rocking a True Fashionista age 77. So we’re all wondering…can she still manage her signature show-ending move? (Um, virtually…)
Graciously shared by Anne Bratskeir for Newsday, Betsey ‘fessed up, “I split all the time, but I will only do a cartwheel on grass these days because of wobbly runways and slippery floors. Now when I do appearances, I always split and I have a split fan club and they do splits with me.”