Betsey Johnson also has a low-key, private side: "I'm too much for myself to live up to"

Salon talks to the iconic fashion designer who, at 77, is still cartwheeling through life

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 10, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

"Betsey: A Memoir" by Betsey Johnson (Viking Publishers)
"Betsey: A Memoir" by Betsey Johnson (Viking Publishers)

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

We could use a cheerleader about now. Enter Betsey Johnson, cartwheeling

For 55 years, the iconic designer has been pushing the often serious, severe and snobby world of fashion toward a more playful direction, dressing generations of the women she calls her "Betsey girls" according to her punk-rock-meets-prom-night aesthetic.

Now, in her new memoir "Betsey," (written with Mark Vitulano), Johnson looks back — and forward — on her trailblazing career. From suburban Connecticut to designing for Edie Sedgwick to marrying John Cale (and gaining the unfair reputation as "the Yoko" of The Velvet Underground) to filing for bankruptcy protection and bouncing back under Steve Madden — with a quick detour to do "Dancing with the Stars" —Johnson's is a uniquely American rags and riches story. And while the book was written well before the world went into all sweatpants, all the time mode, her chatty, cheerful peek into her life and closet could make anybody dream of dressing up again, and releasing the Betsey girl within.

Salon spoke recently via phone to Johnson from her "fancy-dance trailer park" in Malibu, where she fended off the occasional barks of her dog and described her definition of "the epitome of success."

You end the book talking about wanting to be that person who can stop and smell the flowers. And here we are now, all of us, forced to stop and smell the flowers. I want to know how you're doing these days, Betsey. How are you coping?

I am just as careful as I can possibly be. I have not left my house in five or six days. I don't know what more you can do but stay home. I watch Turner Classic Movies, which gets me through most days and night. And my granddaughters' father, they live right around the corner from me in my fancy-dance trailer park, Point Dume. So I walk down every day and we visit on the porch from afar. I just don't know if I can do this for four months, five months. You know what I mean?

Reading this book, all of your exuberance and your sociability and your extroversion are there. It's hard for those of us who are of a sociable bent right now to be so confined. And I was wondering how someone like you is handling it.

I have my on and I have my off switch. I'm as exuberant and whatever else you want to call me; I'm very private. I usually go out to dinner here by myself, five o'clock. I love it. I mean, who could ever live up to that Betsey? I'm too much for myself to live up to. I'm very opposite, privately. Now, it's a real shut-down time, but I've always needed to balance the work thing with, OK, now I want to watch television for hours. Or OK, now I want to just stay home alone. I want to go out to dinner alone.

With the work, it's way less intense. I'm creative director, so I'm always sending inspiration and ideas to my different companies where they do suitcases and shoes and bags and luggage and all that stuff. Ever since selling the company, going bankrupt, I really loved that I wanted to continue, I love that I can continue in a real happy, calm way. It's just been perfect. I had no idea. Because I used to hate LA and swore I would never move out here. But you go with the flow. I would never live in a different place than my daughter and my grandkids.

When you talk about going through that hard time, you were someone who had great success early in your career. You said in your book, "This is not how it usually works!" And then when everything really started changing and the bankruptcy filing happened, you were in your sixties. How did that change you in your career, in your identity, to go from being someone who was always in the driver's seat?

It took me quite a while to learn how to do the corporate dance. I was just too defensive. I just got involved with too much and I don't have to do that. All my companies that I work with have been around for years with me. They got the brand down. They keep it going in a really good way. I realized one day I am not going to love all the people around me. I did with my company, because we really ran it like a family. Everybody loved everybody else, and they still do. I still have my pink lady sorority club going on.

But it was really hard for me. I didn't realize how hard it was. I just didn't know how to handle it. About a year ago I realized, what am I doing to myself here? This can be so much easier and so much more fun. You just have to get your head out and away from the corporate-ness.

That kind of saved me. I just thought, forget corporate, work with the people you like to work with. Go with the flow a little bit more. But it really is hard from going from "it's mine" to "it's yours." It's a night and day thing. I had been so spoiled. Since my first job in 1965, it was my way or the highway. It was tough, but I really wanted to keep working. I had known Steve [Madden] over the years in a kind of fun, light way. My partner Chantal [Bacon] was like, "I'm outta here," and great for her. She was the business side of it, so not much fun for her. But I wanted to stay on and Steve was very happy that I stayed on. I'm just so glad that he picked me up, because he gets me more than any other company I could think of. So that was lucky. You've got to have as much luck as talent and hard work, and I have been really lucky.

You do have such an unusual origin story. I was surprised that being a fashion designer had not been your childhood dream.

No. I never studied it. I could cut and sew up a storm. I learned from my mom. In my growing up home, sewing was very important, as much as you'd go shopping and buy something. My mom and her neighborhood girlfriends, it was natural for them to make little dresses and shorts and shirts. I learned so much about it. But I always liked the artwork kind of side of things or the dancing, cheerleading side.

I'm so happy I never studied it because as I talk to kids in school and stuff like that, what they don't learn in school is that you literally are only as good as your last sale. I got to really face the reality of that because it was my dress and if it didn't sell, my job was going to go down the tubes and the company down the tubes. But I don't know if you can really teach that in college or any kind of school anyway. I think you have to be out and about and doing it with a company. Then whether it's your dress that is selling or isn't selling, if it's your color, if it's your tracing of the patterns, if it doesn't work, it's over real quick.

We live in a culture now where there is so much pressure on young people now to have their entire life figured out when they're 15.

My granddaughter was sitting at the table crying the other day because she's so scared. She's going into eighth grade. My grandkids are 10 and 13, and it's ripping them away from really enjoying what they do have. But I don't think there's any way out for the kids. They're there on the racetrack that they're told to be on, unless they they don't want any part of the college gig. And it's affecting them at such a young age.

I had no thoughts or panic about college until I was in my senior year. I thought, "Let's see, what do I do about that?" I went to Pratt because my dad studied engineering at Pratt. I just basically wanted to go there because it was near my dancing school in New York. But Pratt filled up every second of my day and night so I couldn't continue dancing. It's so different now. I wish the best for kids that go, to invent their own thing which is dependent on them and not dependent on getting through college. They've got to learn. But I think you still don't get the idea about the real world until you're in it. 
I want to ask about your famous "XOX Betsey" tag that's on all your merchandise, because it's such a part of your identity and persona. You first put that note on a sweater that you made for Kim Novak.

She saw a picture of my little top in Mademoiselle magazine. They were very supportive. They gave me a lot of artwork to do for the magazine and I was making that little sweater as an income add-on. To me it just meant "kiss, hug, kiss," which was a thing with my family. When anybody wrote, they'd write a million X's or a million O's. I just grew up with that from aunties and grandparents.

To me, my biggest thrill is that I must be popular enough that the book could be called just "Betsey." I never liked my name as a fashion designer name. That was so huge, that Viking decided, "You don't need your last name. Everybody knows you by Betsey." So that was like, whoa, I guess I have achieved something here. And so "XOX Betsey" is enough.

I love it because every time I've ever bought a piece of your clothes, it's always felt like a very sweet, very sincere dialogue between you and your fans.

When I had my own little sweater business and I mailed the finished sweater to the person, every sweater had a little personal note from me saying, "I hope you enjoy your sweater." That's why Kim Novak reordered from me. I grew up with that more personal, simple, friendly, neighborly way of doing things. I could always be the girlfriend with my customer.

You talk about "the Betsey girl." Who to you is a "Betsey girl"?

You know what's amazing? Chantal and I used to sit on street corner and watch who was going into the store and who was or who was not a "Betsey girl." And we would get it so wrong, it was great. I always thought I'm not that weird. I come from a little town in Connecticut and if I exist, therefore more of me exist. I see now, my stuff is pretty timeless. I'm trying to get an archive collection together. I still wear my early-'80s, stretchy kind of simple clothes.

The "Betsey girl" just started when someone would go to a prom or dress up [and] wear something completely different than her regular daytime clothes. It was inside every girl that they wanted to feel really special and look really good and venture out, buying their first prom dress. We had no idea that's what established us. But that really did, the idea that I got that girl, first of all, for a special occasion.

I'd always ask, "Dd you have a good time in that dress?" And they'd say, "Oh my God. The best, best, best time." That connection I think, made the girl want to go back.

And there was always a range, from pretty wearable to pretty far out. As I've said throughout the years, if I was all kooky, off the charts, far out and crazy, we wouldn't have stayed in business for 35 years. There was something very basic about it. Not too many customers realize this, but every style we ever made, we also made it in solid black. And then I think what really got my customer was my clothes were comfortable. Even at their dressiest, they had a certain fun, comfort connection.

You buy a Betsey Johnson dress or Betsey Johnson sweater, because you are going to have fun in that outfit.

That's what it's turned out being. I had no idea it was going to be like that. When I run into my customers now, and they're mostly 35 and up, they can tell me exactly what they wore. They usually have a picture of themselves in the prom dress on their phone still. And they still have it in their drawer! They don't part with their old favorite Betsey dresses. That, to me, is just the epitome of success.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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