Betsey Johnson Biography

Fashion Designer(1942–)
Fashion designer Betsey Johnson developed her edgy, offbeat style during the new wave/punk era of the late 1970s.

Synopsis

Betsey Johnson grew up with a passion for dance and art. Her fashion career skyrocketed when her avant garde designs became part of the 1960s "Youthquake" movement. In the 70s, however, her career slumped until the punk rock style inspired her to create fashion for a new generation. Johnson opened a boutique in New York's Soho neighborhood, eventually followed by more than 60 stores worldwide.

Early Life

Fashion designer Betsey Johnson was born on August 10, 1942, in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Johnson grew up in the nearby town of Terryville as a child, where she indulged in her two greatest loves: drawing and dance. She had a precocious talent for art, and throughout her youth, she trained in various styles of dance. In fact, it was a combination of these two interests that eventually led Johnson to fashion designing. She loved the elaborate costumes she wore for her dance recitals and spent many long afternoons sketching costume ideas. "What I tried to do was a combination of dance and art," she recalls. Johnson says that she settled on fashion designing when "I realized that making clothes is completing what a drawing can't be—going from two dimensional to reality."

Johnson was a cheerleader in high school, and upon graduating in 1960 she decided to pursue her interests in art and design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. But after one year at Pratt, she transferred to Syracuse University, where she proved a stellar student, graduating magna cum laude as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa society in 1964.

Betsey Johnson photo via brand manager

Photo: Mick Rock courtesy of Betsey Johnson Licensing

Aspiring Fashion Designer

Almost immediately after graduating from college, Johnson made her first splash in the New York fashion industry by winning Mademoiselle magazine's Guest Editor Contest and earning a job with the magazine's art department. Only one year later, in 1965, Johnson landed a job as a designer at Paraphernalia, an offbeat New York clothing boutique. It was at Paraphernalia that Johnson developed her whimsical, hippie-inspired style, characterized by the use of unique fabrics such as shower curtains, the interior lining of automobiles and the pinstriped wool of old New York Yankees uniforms. Johnson is also known for employing bright, neon dyes, puffed sleeves, deep necklines, and low waists. Taking her cues from the more avant-garde London fashion scene, Johnson—along with designer Mary Quant and artist Andy Warhol—helped pioneer what became known as the "Youthquake" movement in fashion, art and culture.

In 1970, Johnson left Paraphernalia to assume creative control of Alley Cat, a youthful sportswear brand, where she continued to design clothes with bright colors, outlandish patterns and sexy fits. In 1971, in honor of her work at Alley Cat, Johnson won the prestigious Coty Fashion Critics Award, becoming, at only 29 years old, the youngest designer ever to receive the honor.

Betsey Johnson Label

After this quick rise to the top of the fashion world, however, Johnson's career stagnated. By the mid-1970s, Johnson's youthful demographic "moved up to work and dress-for-work clothes, and my customer disappeared." Alley Cat went out of business, and Johnson sustained herself with freelance work designing children's and maternity clothes. "I thought it was all over until Punk started in London," she recalls. "It felt like a reincarnation of the 60s. It felt the same as when I was 22."

In 1978, revived by the punk movement, Johnson partnered with ex-model Chantal Bacon to start their own company, the Betsey Johnson label. Together they opened Johnson's first retail store in Manhattan's fashionable SoHo neighborhood. "Our partnership is better than a marriage,'' Johnson said of her relationship with Bacon. ''We keep our private lives separate, but we've been through a lot together. She keeps the books and I keep the look." Since its inception, the Betsey Johnson label has grown steadily in size and reputation. The company currently has 65 stores worldwide, including locations in London, Toronto and Tokyo.

Personal Life

In 2000, Johnson's fashion career was briefly derailed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer was detected early; a turn of good luck that resulted from a strange incident when one of her cosmetic breast implants lost its shape. "My doctor said it was an absolute miracle my breast implants deflated," she recalls. "I probably wouldn't have had another mammogram for six months." Johnson underwent radiation therapy, eventually going into remission. Johnson barely lost a step from her ever-youthful ways—after returning to full health, she still managed to complete the trademark cartwheel she performs at the close of her biannual fashion show. She also continued to reimagine her brand and, in 2003, Johnson expanded her label into a lifestyle brand, bringing her signature prints and flair to products such as handbags, footwear, swimwear and jewelry.

Once a young newcomer pioneering new trends in the 1960s, Johnson is now a firmly established veteran in the fashion industry. In 1999, the Council of Fashion Designers of America awarded her its coveted Timeless Talent Award, and in 2009, Johnson received the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement in Fashion. Asked what continues to motivate such an accomplished designer after four decades in the industry, Johnson replied, "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, drawing attention to her beauty and specialness, her moods and movements, her dreams and fantasies."

Betsey Johnson has been married three times, first to Velvet Underground musician John Cale, from 1968 to 1971. She then married Jeffrey Oliviere in 1981 and, following a second divorce, she married Brian Reynolds in 1997. Johnson and Reynolds have since separated. Johnson has one daughter, Lulu, born in 1975.

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