Betsey Johnson: An American Icon on Champagne, Closets, and the Road Less Traveled

Photo by Marlena Dee

Betsey Johnson opens the door. She gasps when she sees me.

“This! Is the ultimate compliment!”

She grins through her fingers as she covers her mouth. Her ponytail is filled with multi-colored extensions. They bounce as she circles around, taking in my black dress. Its skirt has layers of ruffles that spill generously in the back, and are short across the front of my thighs. The neckline is another ruffle, which slips off my shoulders and looks great when I have a tan. Clipped to this ruffle is a pair of miniature suspenders, which cross below my neck. This dress is ridiculous and classic. I’ve worn it, through years — on starlit rooftops and at greasy spoons just before dawn. This dress is Betsey’s work.

“I was good,” Betsey says, and invites me into her new Paradise Cove home.

Photo by Marlena Dee

It is bright in here, the way only Malibu can be on a Wednesday morning. Classic rock plays softly in the background. The kitchen sink is full of roses, still in their cellophane, fresh from the market. Betsey has just moved to Malibu from Manhattan — where she’s spent most of her iconic career. Betsey now acts as creative director for her label, which has, since the 2012 collapse of her chain of retail stores, been run under Steve Madden. From here in Los Angeles, she uses a Sharpie to scrawl ideas and critiques onto the designs she’s sent. When she’s done, a photo of her marked up version is emailed back to the New York office. “I can’t imagine retiring, quitting, really. I’ll just make up another project,” she explains.

“I have the fun part now,” says Betsey, the way one speaks of being a grandparent. “I don’t finance it. I don’t have to cut it and sew it and make it.”

“The best part, though,” she says, “Is what I did in these 35 years,” she motions towards my dress. From 1977 to 2012, alongside her business partner and best friend Chantal Bacon (who retired when the company dissolved), Betsey earned an iconic and devout following among generations of women who fell hard for her unapologetically feminine and playfully punk rock dresses.

During this time, Betsey manufactured pieces in volumes as small as one or two hundred, and sold them across 75 retail stores, which she also oversaw. These dresses are unique in their whimsy and detail. They range from gothic to bubble gum to naughty prom queen, but all share, at their core, a connection to who Betsey Johnson is: her sweetness, her defiance, her theatricality. Zip up a Betsey, and you make real the version of yourself who was the head cheerleader in both high school and college, who was friends with Andy Warhol, who was married to the bassist from the Velvet Underground, who cartwheels down the runway while every other designer bows.

Part of what you’re after, when you buy a Betsey Johnson, is Betsey Johnson herself.

Photo by Marlena Dee

“It was pure discovery work,” Betsey says, of her early creative development throughout her first design job in the 1960s at Paraphernalia, a hotbed of florescent counter culture in the East Village, where Betsey had the rare novice-designer privilege of sewing her own name into the pieces she created. “There was the kind of the Rock ’n’ Roll me. And there was the cute me. The pretty me. And then there was the punk me. And the bias vintage-y me. And now it’s all mixed up. That’s great when you see it comes in cycles, and comes around and around. And timeless!”

She smiles proudly, “Completely timeless! If you love it, you can wear it forever ever ever. Nobody thought I was a forever girl.”

With her retail stores closed, vintage Betsey Johnsons have become collector’s items. You can only find them by way of kismet, in consignment stores (where people who truly love clothe — including Betsey — shop.)

Betsey is midway through unpacking.

Photo by Marlena Dee

“I didn’t go through my drawers and throw out a lipstick or anything. I just told the movers, ‘Take it all,’” On the ground are cardboard boxes, heaped full of loose things — souvenirs from her decades as fashion’s free-spirited sweetheart. There are hand drawn fliers for warehouse sales; a candid photo of her at a show; a copy of the sketches that landed her the Paraphernalia gig.

DVDs are stacked without their cases: “The Magnificent Seven”; “Factory Girl,” — a biopic about model and Factory scenester Edie Sedgwick, whom Betsey frequently used as a model; “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

Betsey balances on one foot. Lifting her other leg like a dancer at the barre, she slides off the fuzzy leopard print slippers she’s wearing and switches them out for a pair of her eight-year-old granddaughter’s flip flops. “I don’t know how to be older. You know,” she air quotes, “‘Older.’”

“What should we have? Cupcakes? Fruit? If you don’t eat, it’s your own damn fault!” Betsey giggles, as she puts together snacks for us to take outside. On the fridge behind her, are several magnets with jokes on them: Wanna get a guy to stop staring at your boobs? Eat a banana.

Betsey is in love right now, with a younger man who she calls Fifi. “I think it’s karma, in a way,” she says, of the romance that blossomed over lunches at the Pacific Coast Highway’s haunts. “You look back, and you go, ‘Three and a half marriages. Why didn’t I ever meet anyone?’ And sure enough when I’d completely given up — well, not given up. I’m perfectly comfortable taking myself out to dinner.”

On one magnet is a quote from Ghandi: Be truthful, gentle, and kind.

Photo by Marlena Dee

“I’m very happy that I’ve been a good person, and good stuff is happening to me,” Betsey says.

We are on Betsey’s patio now, which is saturated in sunlight and porcelain knick-knacks. We sit on her overstuffed floral couch, surrounded by snacks and more vases of fresh flowers.“I love dinosaurs,” Betsey explains, of the toy plastic ones she’s carefully lined up on the fence. The ocean is close enough to hear and smell.

“I feel I was nice sweet, good, honest. We ran a top of the table business. And I think this is… how your life can turn out,” she tells me.

Betsey set out as the head of her own company after leaving Paraphernalia to design for Alley Cat, another paragon of Manhattan hip. Although Betsey initially believed she’d prefer to work under someone else at a design house, she attributes bankrolling her own business to the untethered creative freedom that would ultimately define her career. “The best advice I ever got,” she tells me, “Is if you want to do what you want, finance it.”

“Finance it. Finance it? With what?!’” she recalls to her younger self.

The money would come from a stint acting in a Bayer aspirin commercial. Betsey invested the entire 10,000 paycheck she made off of the gig, and within four years, her nest egg had yielded $60,000 — a sum that was matched by the bank, which had been tracking her rising progress at Alley Cat.

With this initial sum, Betsey and Bacon set off to form Betsey Johnson. With Bacon at the helm of the company’s business operations, and Betsey designing her signature ballerina-inspired pieces, the company would blossom into an unlikely American success story — one the is decidedly less tenable in today’s economic climate. “We couldn’t give it away wholesale now,” Betsey says, of the way she used to do business — overseeing everything from design to small-volume production, to the management of her 75 retail stores. “We have to sell Nordstroms and Macys — huge tickets. Nobody makes 50 of this and a 100 of that.”

In addition to selling her licensed designs wholesale at stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom, Betsey makes personal appearances there — something she counts as one of the best parts of her current role. She snaps selfies with fans as young as six and those old enough to not remember the sixties. “I like to see my girls!” Betsey says of these fetes, where she is also recognized by men who know her from “unzipping my dresses or paying the bills.” Early on, this level of celebrity may have come as a surprise to even Betsey, who never formally studied design, and who says she “invented” her work.

Photo by Marlena Dee

Of her career’s genesis, Betsey explains simply, I grew up in dancing costumes, and I just found out that I have a girlfriend who likes the same stuff, and we scraped along on that idea for 35 years. I mean, it was not easy, but it was our own little pink place.”

There was a confectionary, other-worldly quality to Betsey’s stores. Their walls were shamelessly bright pink. They smelled heavily of her perfume: sweet and dusty as your grandmother’s vanity. The dresses hung like pastilles in a Parisian window: tulle and lace and sequins cracked open from that dress-up trunk tucked in your imagination since childhood.

The salesgirls at Betsey’s stores actually wanted you to try things on. They would pull a layered tea party dress for you, knowing you were only going to buy leggings. They would hop in the room next door and slip on that new lamé thing, just for fun. “Our company was young,” Betsey tells me, “If I had consultants now, I would consult with kids eight to12. They are so there. I have always connected with young. Young is inspiring to me. You can try to live young and be young, but there’s nothing like young. Like really young. You’re just different. You’re fresh.”

“It was like a sorority,” says Betsey, of the brood of employees she visited regularly, and watched over as Den Mom from her Manhattan headquarters. “Becky from Seattle would want to work in Boston for a year, so we let the girls switch. One thing we realized, though, was that anyone from L.A. Was going back to L.A. They always did.”

“My L.A. girls, before they opened the stores at 11 o’clock, they would go have breakfast somewhere. They would go to the beach. They would come home, get their ‘hot boyfriend look’ going on — great makeup, prom dress — and they’d be at the store looking like they were going out at night at 11 o’clock in the morning. They lived it. They loved it. It was so fun. I mean, if you had to work?” Betsey giggles, batting her hand, “I don’t know of a company like mine.”

“I wish I had more of my old stuff,” she reaches toward my dress. Though Betsey has a few pieces of her own — like a comfy spandex skull dress she’s worn threadbare, she has hung onto very little of her most iconic pieces.

Photo By Marlena Dee

“That was an expensive dress, I remember,” she says about mine. “Every once in a while, we’d make something a little more expensive, and realize, ‘There’s a girl who gets that.’ I’m very proud that I did some pretty far out, special stuff, that because of ladies like you — my fans, it sold.”

“What fashion design students don’t really get from school is that you’re only as good as your last sale. I got to learn to believe in myself at Paraphernalia, because bottom line, it had to sell. If you get off the train, there’s no getting back in the garment business. One bad season, and it’s over. So it was always a gamble, always Las Vegas. Somehow, you just don’t count on inspiration. You just know that this is something you’ve got to do, and you’ll come up with it somehow.”

“You just keep pedaling. A new thing comes from where you’ve been before. You just keep pedaling because you don’t want to do the same ol’, same ol’. Pastels lead to bright. Long leads to short. Short leads to tight. Tight leads to full. It’s logical in a way.”

“Girls make the dress, though. Nothing is nothing until you get the person in it. I used to think about My Girl’s closet — that My Girl had practically everything I’d made in her closet, and I wanted to give her something that answered the question, ‘What’s missing from my closet?’ That is something you might want to buy.”

“A little flouncy ruffle dress with suspenders! That isn’t in my closet! I need that!” she grins, imitating the voice in my head. “I am very proud of my stores because that stuff is missing. It’s nice to realize what I did years after I did it, because when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really know what you’re doing. And you don’t see it last through time. And hold up and, I don’t know…” she scrunches her nose, “I done good!”

Aging has made work easier for Betsey. “You get better. You get faster. You get stronger. You get more selective. You get more specific. You don’t want to work as hard as you did before in the same way. You’ll get older and you’ll see,” she tells me, “It just works.”

Photo by Marlena Dee

“I must be getting really old. You know, if the music is too loud, you’re too old,” Betsey says, of her most recent impression of New York. “I never experienced the city so intensely. I’m so glad I never have to go back to the Garment Center. It’s just totally insane — claustrophobic cement — but while I was there, I loved it. Visiting last time though, there was an energy I used to love and need and want that I don’t any more.”

“I swore I’d never move to the west coast.” Betsey was scared out of the region after being rocked by a cluster of four San Fransisco earthquakes while working there for a stint in the ’60s. “Then I got to think, ‘What is this thing about the earthquakes? Get over it. It could happen anywhere. It’s not the place.”

Now that Betsey is an L.A. girl, her Malibu home will be her new pink place. After scrapping initial plans to paint the house yellow, (too much like a parakeet), Betsey is going with pale pink. “I didn’t want it pink at all,” she tells me. “Betsey Johnson is a pink house? Can you imagine anything more boring? How cliche.”

Betsey is a person in perpetual motion. When she speaks, she gestures with her entire body, grabbing her toes toward her head, or leaping to her feet when she remembers an old photo she’s talking about. She insists she’s got to take up an exercise routine. “Living in Malibu is totally embarrassing if you don’t get it together. Everyone is so fucking healthy, walking around and looking so good.”

“I could get up here and do it,” she says, pantomiming weight lifting as she envisions a workout on her sunny patio. “I know exactly what to do. What girls don’t know the grim reality of getting in shape? You don’t eat and you gotta move. It’s sad. I would rather not eat than exer — “ she stops herself, “I have got to get it together.”

“I think I’m the happiest I have ever been in my life,” Betsey tells me. “My only problem is that in two weeks, I don’t like the fact that I’m going to be 74.” When I ask Betsey how old she feels, she pauses and stretches. “I feel timeless. I mean, you can be old at ten, you can be young at my age. It isn’t carved out yet.”

Photo By Marlena Dee

The watch on Betsey’s wrist is stopped. It’s a gift from Fifi, who is helping her quit drinking. “I’ve stopped, the watch has stopped. If I lose it, and I won’t lie, he’ll start the clock again, because I’m losing time. I have to be sober three days before he’ll let me stop again.”

Champagne, though, is still Betsey’s favorite vice. “I was more fun when I was drinking champagne!” she tells me, “I don’t know how I can do an appearance without champagne. I stand for champagne! I’m like, ‘Lipstick, Rock ’n’ Roll, Champagne, and now all of a sudden I’m not drinking?”

She cuts herself off. “It’s good. It’s great. I already notice I’m too creative for words. I think for anyone who wants to do anything, the feeling of actually doing it is really great, because you feel to yourself like a success instead of a failure.”

Even sans champagne, Betsey remains in the business of having a good time. She’s currently in the process of opening “Villa Betsey,” a vacation property in the crystal blue beach town of Zihuatanejo, Mexico. “Villa Betsey” will be available to rent for things like birthday parties and bridal showers and will decorated with the contents of Betsey’s longtime Manhattan bachelorette pad. Now, she and Fifi share starlit nights in Zihuatanejo, but there was a time when alone, the place held less charm. “To be somewhere so pretty, and have no one to share it with…Was lonely,” she recalls.

“But look at this. Is this heaven? It’s adorable!” she says, of Paradise Cove, where she is here and now.

“This is why I did it. Why I’m so happy. Because I have girlfriends who love me right off the bat, and vice versa. Look at you!” she says to me, The Girl in her dress. “Look what I did!”

“I would tell kids: Get your blinders on. Go full speed a-fucking-head. Feel that you did something. You can’t just go full speed ahead and be a total screw up. You have to know there are going to be those days where you go, ‘Those damn dresses! That was good!’”

It’s time for her lunch with Fifi, so Betsey has to go. First, she skips off to another room. She returns with a blue sequined friendship bracelet, with a small skull sewn in the front. She has me stand so she can tie it on.

“Make a wish!” she instructs. Betsey herself has several of these bracelets on. She eyes them as she fastens mine.

“I’ve had mine for eight years,” she tells me, “They almost look cooler as they get older.”

Photo by Marlena Dee
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