Betsey Johnson (1942 – ) American
As a child, Betsey Johnson spent her time in dance classes. Her early love of dance and its tulle-enhanced costumes directly influenced her adult design sense. She eventually left Connecticut and moved to New York where she studied at Pratt Institute and graduated from Syracuse University. In 1964, Johnson got a fortuitous break when she won a Mademoiselle guest editor contest, resulting in an internship at the fashion magazine.
After working as an assistant in the art department at Mademoiselle she was hired as one of the designers for the popular Paraphernalia boutique in 1965. The boutique was modeled after the London store Biba, creating up-to-date and revolutionary fashions for the youth market. While designing for Paraphernalia, Johnson continued to develop her style combining her childhood love of those feminine ballet costumes and the newer influences of rock and roll and current street fashion.
Her A-line minis, groovy pantsuits, and drop-waist knit dresses were very popular. Her long vintage-inspired prairie dresses in small floral prints were reminiscent of the calicos described in the Little House on the Prairie book series. Paraphernalia was popular with the fashion and rock and roll crowd such as models Penelope Tree and Twiggy, members of the Velvet Underground, and actress Julie Christie. In fact, style icon and Warhol star Edie Sedgwick was Johnson’s fit model.
Johnson left Paraphernalia and in 1968, she opened a boutique with two Paraphernalia co-workers called Betsey, Bunky, Nini. In 1970, she was hired as a designer for Alley Cat, a junior sportswear company until 1974. During her time at Alley Cat, Johnson became their head designer and had creative control, designing everything for the price conscious line aimed at teenagers and young adults. Her rock and roll and rockabilly influenced clothing were a success, sometimes incorporating hippie-like maxi skirts, vibrant knitwear, and petticoats.
Her designs were made accessible to another market, home sewers, when she collaborated on a line of Betsey Johnson for Alley Cat patterns with Butterick Patterns. Her designs were first produced under the Betsey Johnson of Alley Cat label and later as Betsey Johnson. She produced over fifty patterns with Butterick.
She worked for Alley Cat until 1974 and in 1978 started her own company, Betsey Johnson, LLC with business partner Chantal Bacon. With her own company, her designs started to embrace the ballerina aesthetic. Now Johnson is known for her tulle-enhanced feminine styles and the generous use of the color pink. This was not always a pale ballerina pink but frequently a shocking hot pink shade usually combined with other bold colors and black. She no longer used prairie prints, instead her floral prints became large-scaled with roses in vibrant colors. They were printed on cotton-Lycra jersey to create form-fitting and sometimes overly frilly dresses.
Shoes and accessories were designed to complement her clothes. Like other designers, Johnson also held licenses for items such as lingerie, handbags, eyewear, hosiery, and fragrances.
As a breast cancer survivor, Johnson has been involved in securing funding for several breast cancer organizations such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition and the CFDA Fashion Targets Breast Cancer Initiative. For years she has also hosted a yearly event in her boutiques and has created limited edition items whose proceeds fund breast cancer-related charities.
Over the years, Johnson has been known for a particular look and persona, with her shocking yellow, orange, red or white-blond colored wigs that immediately announce her presence. Her mega-watt smile and natural exuberance lead her to perform her signature cartwheel down the runway as an ending to her shows even though she is now in her late sixties.
Her runway shows incorporate loud rock music, inventive lighting, her colorful clothes, and rock and roll styling, all with energy to match the designer’s own.
Film Connection: Betsey designed the wardrobe that Edie Sedgwick wore in her last film, Ciao! Manhattan (1972).
Home Sewing Connection: In 1971, Johnson was included in the Butterick Young Designers collection along with designers Mary Quant, Jean Muir, and Willi Smith.
Her style, innovations, and lasting influence on fashion:
- In 2008, Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement in Fashion Award.
- While at Paraphernalia she designed a “Do-It-Yourself” transparent vinyl dress kit packaged with stickers that could be placed in strategic locations on the dress.
- Johnson was once married to Velvet Underground member John Cale, who wore her designs on stage when performing.
- Johnson’s daughter Lulu starting working at the company after graduating high school and is now a creative director.
Sources: betseyjohnson.com; Fashion: The Century of the Designer, 1900-1999 (1999) Charlotte Seeling; “Betsey Johnson for Alley Cat” (2009) Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising museum blog.