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How Betsey Johnson Built a Fashion Empire and Lost Her Name


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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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.”)

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.”

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