If you had a bat mitzvah or went to prom in the last 20 years or so, your look probably came courtesy of Betsey Johnson, the iconic fashion designer and entrepreneur known for her perfect party dresses — and for doing celebratory cartwheels after all her runway shows. Now 77, Johnson has released Betsey: A Memoir, a chronicle of her life so far, and a fashion legacy that’s, yes, cartwheeled her right into our hearts.
When I was 26, it was 1968, the year I got married to John Cale [the famed musician, who was also in the Velvet Underground].
It was a whole different kind of life for me. College had been the last of my cheerleading, la-di-dah, WASP-y life. I had just graduated when I won the guest editor contest at Mademoiselle and got to New York. And everything that happened after was luck. To me, success is hard work, talent, and a lot of luck.
I started out on an amazing New York roller coaster of working at the magazine for about a year, then they connected me with that genius who invented Paraphernalia [an iconic NYC boutique]. In my neighborhood, there was Max’s Kansas City, there was the Chelsea Hotel — I was just so lucky as this like, white, WASP-y, very non-drug-taking kid to hang out at Max’s Kansas City, which was the living room for all us crazy kids. I was just in the right place at the right time.
I do not believe in regrets, period. And thinking back, I don’t have any.
We were all so passionate. In your 20s, you’re trying to imagine getting something together. My people were dancers, theater people, artists. It wasn’t like, okay, I have my bachelor’s in law or medicine. You don’t need to take the clear-cut path in life if you have passion.
In New York, I got to do what I loved. At Paraphernalia, I had to make my patterns, I had to sew my first sample, I had to be at the little factories, because the quantity that we made was quite small — 50 of this, 100 of that. That was the important part: Know every step of the process, even the smallest ones. If you’re in the commercial business, your stuff has to sell, and pretty immediately. So there’s always that terror balanced with the wonderful feeling of walking the streets and seeing somebody in your dress, or whatever. Being an artist means being totally scared all the time.
The Velvets asked me to design their clothes — we were all hanging out together anyway and I fell in love with John Cale, and we got married at City Hall. I was on such an up. It was terrifying, but wonderfully scary,
John and I split about two years later. He realized he had to get out of New York. It’s when he left the Velvet Underground — he and Lou Reed never saw eye-to-eye. So John left, and it was good for our relationship in a way, because he moved to California. And we’re still friends.
When we got divorced, I was like, okay, moving right along, moving right along. My mother baked me like a dozen chocolate chip cookies so I would feel better. And I just felt like I had no time to dwell on that. Where would it get me?
You can mourn something, but if you don’t let go of it, you lose what you’re supposed to be doing.
I can only handle two things at the most: my work life and my love life. And the work life always won. It’s always my happy place, and my place to keep going. You should try to find something that gives you that happiness.
It happened that my friend’s boyfriend was playing basketball with this big garment guy who was the main salesman for [fashion brand] Alley Cat, so the next thing you know, I’m getting interviewed for this job at Alley Cat, which was a young, junior company. They just could not find a designer that stuck. And they had been through some good ones, it’s just the fit was wrong. But we clicked. I was still making most of the patterns. Alley Cat was kind of my shining, lucky star kind of time, where I was acknowledged.
Again — see how much luck has to do with it?
I was never into the one-of-a-kind custom thing. I loved the idea of making something unique, but I wanted to be able to make 50 of them, 100 of them, and have it all at a good price — because you don’t get to a good price unless you make quantity.
But also, I thought of designing and making clothes, which was a very, very artistic thing as a job. The only fashion course I took was fabric designing. I made a lot of strange fabric designs with my fingernails cutting through the screens and stuff. Now my fabric designs are all over a couple of dormitories. I liked the commercial side of things, not the lonely, frustrated artist side of things.
And luckily I worked in design places where I could do what I wanted, so I could be very creative. My art translated over to the knitting machines very easily. My print design stuff and my artwork were always a part of my fashion stuff, as it is now.
I always sewed. And to me, it’s like, I don’t believe in anyone being a designer unless they’ve cut and sewed their own clothes. I think that goes for any career really. You have to know it inside and out.
The thing I really learned when I had my first job was, if it doesn’t sell, you do not have a job.
Back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, there were trends, which I didn’t really follow. It was like, petticoats and Little House on the Prairie dresses. But, to me, any good trend doesn’t last any longer than a marriage, and my longest marriage was two-and-a-half years. Alley Cat did last about four years, but they started telling me what to do and I hated it. I had to pay money to get out of my contract with Alley Cat, but I just couldn’t stand it anymore. And I felt like I had lost my entire career.
You will probably go through most of your shit — the good, the bad, and the ugly — in your 20s.
And then one day I met a guy on the street. I always knew I wanted a kid. I didn’t know how I was going to get one, but I always wanted a kid. So I met this guy and we lived together a couple of years and all of a sudden I got pregnant. My daughter Lulu has hung out backstage throughout so many of my fashion shows. I was so happy to have her. But my connection with the guy was off… and I knew it was going to be over. And right after Lulu was born, I threw him out. I mean, there was just no way he was able to be loving or caring to me or Lulu, and I was tired of him depending on me for money.
Never, ever be afraid to do something on your own. I felt being a single mom was the best thing that ever happened to me. Being alone, or being a single mom, is better than being in a bad relationship.
After Alley Cat, I scraped up some money. My parents had saved me $10,000 I made from doing a Bayer Aspirin commercial. My business partner kicked in with a little, my father kicked in with a little, and we opened our own business — on my birthday, during the holiday season. Which is not a season you open a company. But I had a designer friend who was so great, and he said, “Betsey, you’re ready? Do it.”
I’ve never grown much as a designer. I just kept doing the same old thing I’d always loved and always did. I just changed it up with new fabrics, new prints, new colorings, new stuff. But basically I’m the same tight sheath dress, ballerina dress, or short miniskirt dress.
My repertoire was very limited. But that was the reason for my success. I just always did what I believed in. And I, luckily, made it happen on my own. We were working for nothing, but we saw that creating our own stores was the ticket.
Be independent. Don’t care about trends.
My business partner Chantal and I — our store was our own little pink palace. And after opening one store, we thought, Hey, this could be the way. And any money we made, we saved up, and another store. And now, who knows? I swear, my granddaughter, Ella, is going to be as good as I was and better. She’s already making her own hoop skirts and clothes. She’s nine.
When you’re ready: Do it.
Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?
Meg Whitman's Advice To Her 26-Year-Old Self
Margaret Cho: Advice To My 26-Year-Old Self
What Does The Future Hold For Jobs In Fashion?