Today, the world celebrates Betsey Johnson’s 75th birthday. Ms. Johnson and her eccentric, youthful designs, which feature frills, corsets, bright colors and fun symbols like cherries and lightning bolts, have held the fashion world’s attention for over 50 years.
Despite her clear success in the cut-throat fashion business, Ms. Johnson never intended to be where she is now. She grew up in Terryville, Connecticut, a cookie-cutter, Waspy community where she let her creativity out in dance classes, especially ballet. She credits the dance costumes she wore in these classes as inspiration for many of her exuberant designs, including a line she created for dancewear giant Capezio in 2015.
After graduating from Syracuse University in 1964, Ms. Johnson won Mademoiselle Magazine’s Guest Editor contest, so she came to New York City to spend a summer working in their art department. While working on page and photo layouts, Ms. Johnson’s boss, Edie Lock, recognized her talent and skill and recommended her for a new opportunity: designing for Paul Young’s new line, Paraphernalia.
While at Paraphernalia, Ms. Johnson attracted a lot of attention from fashionistas and celebrities, helping her to create a following. She stayed at Paraphernalia for four years before starting her own boutique, called Betsey Bunky Nini, with her friend Barbara “Bunky” Washburn.
It was at Betsey Bunky Nini that Ms. Johnson really had the opportunity to let her bold and playful style shine. The store featured a punchy floral wallpaper, which would later become a signature for all of Ms. Johnson’s future storefronts, and had a room that held only Betsey Johnson original designs. Ms. Washburn told Vogue in 2015, “There was always one room in the store that was just Betsey’s designs, and that was a big draw when we opened…. Her involvement in the store is what brought us so much immediate publicity.”
In the 1970s, Ms. Johnson also became head designer of Alley Cat, an edgier brand that was popular with musicians. Her work at Alley Cat earned her a Coty Award in 1972, making her, at the time, the youngest recipient of the award to date. She was 30 years old.
In 1978, Ms. Johnson finally created her own self-titled fashion label. Everything she did captured her essence, from the actual decorations of her tiny storefronts to the cuts of the pieces to her fashion shows. She was known for recruiting models in clubs after work and asking them to model her fashions in roller rinks.
Betsey Johnson the brand continued to grow into the 80s and 90s. The company kept its original punky, funky, stand-out style as it expanded into bags, shoes, children’s clothes and more. Ms. Johnson never felt pressured to chase new trends as they popped up (and disappeared just as quickly), and focused instead on the looks and ideas that she liked.
Even after the Betsey Johnson company went bankrupt in 2012 and transitioned to having just an online storefront, Ms. Johnson has remained a vibrant, youthful American fashion star. Though Steve Madden now owns the Betsey Johnson brand, Ms. Johnson still has a hand in creating, designing and approving what is produced, and still designs a ready-to-wear line. All of her fashion shows are about entertaining the audience along with showing them her creations, and she still ends every show with a cartwheel and split. She briefly had a reality show revolving around her and her daughter, Lulu, and was even a contestant on Dancing with the Stars in 2014.
Even after 50-plus years in the fashion industry and 75 years just on this planet, Ms. Johnson has proved that she is still a vivacious, creative and playful artist whose designs and personality delight everyone around her. Happy birthday, Betsey, and here’s to another 75 years!
Featured image via Wikipedia Commons