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I don't believe in the good taste/bad taste thing. It's like being in or out, and I think it's all stupid and snobby. I don't believe in taste - only in personal likes and dislikes. You should like what you like and the heck with anybody else.

Betsey's Beginning

American fashion designer known for her girly, free-spirited design aesthetic and over-the-top color palette. Betsey Johnson entered the world on August 10th, 1942 in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Her childhood included dance lessons, which would later influence her designs both in style and in movement. Betsey attended Pratt Institute after high school and went on to graduate from Syracuse University, where she was an art major. She landed on the fashion scene in 1964 as a fabric editor after winning Mademoiselle magazine's Guest Editor Contest. By 1965 she was the in-house designer at Paraphernalia, a trendy boutique in Manhattan.

All of the clothes at Paraphernalia were experimental. Always changing. It had nothing to do with the customer. It had everything to do with the time, the moment. We were giving the customer something brand new, something that she didn't have a clue she wanted. It was all very spaceship. "What would you wear on the moon?" That was the big question of the Sixties. Everybody felt real future, real positive, real up, optimistic, and the whole Timothy Leary drug trip...Paraphernalia was where you could buy it.
Becoming a Fashion Scenester

She was a member of what Vogue called the "youthquake movement," lived in the Chelsea Hotel, and was involved in the Warhol scene at the time; Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol's superstars, was her fit model and wore her clothes in the film Ciao! Manhattan. Betsey and Nico, another superstar and sometimes singer for the Velvet Underground, would hang out at her loft and make muslin dresses by hand. The Velvet Underground wore velvet suits Betsey made for them, although Lou Reed was incensed that the pants were not tight enough in a certain area. She dated Sterling Morrison and married John Cale in 1967, and dressed models Twiggy, Lauren Hutton, Penelope Tree and Veruschka, and actresses Anouk Aimee, Brigitte Bardot and Julie Christie. She left Paraphernalia in 1968, opened her own boutique, Betsey Bunki Nini, in 1969, and was given the chance to work with designer Alvin Duskin in San Francisco in 1970.

Betsey Makes it Big

Betsey became even more successful in the early seventies, but her marriage to Cale did not fare so well, and they divorced in 1971. The position of creative director for a trendy youth-oriented clothing label, Alley Cat, was given to her in 1971, and she became the youngest designer to receive the Coty Award, a prestigious honor in fashion, in 1972. Newsweek declared her "the most important young designer in America."

However, by the mid-seventies, Betsey's popularity had waned, as her whimsical creations were pushed aside in favor of more conservative styles, and her career at Alley Cat ended in 1974. So she freelanced, making sewing patterns for Butterick, and designing shoes and dance clothing for I. Miller and Capezio, respectively. Betsey also designed for Gant, Jeanette Maternities, Tric-Trac and Star Ferry, small clothing lines. After her daughter Lulu was born in 1975, she even developed a children's clothing line, but it was not successful.

They wanted grown-up dresses, and I thought, well, this is a good time to have Lulu. And I freelanced for other corporations. I did everything - menswear, jeans, sportswear. Then, after 10 years of that, punk happened with the Sex Pistols, Blondie, the Ramones. Rock 'n' roll was reinvented, and I went, "Whoa! It's my speed again," so that's when I decided to go on my own.

On Her Own

Betsey eventually grew tired of producing designs for other people's labels, and decided to start her own line. She and ex-model Chantal Bacon got together in 1978, managed to scrape up $200,000, began Betsey's namesake label and opened a store in Soho. She designed dresses made of cellophane that came with stars you could stick on, sweaters with brightly colored fish on them, or jumpers with skulls that were made to look bleached out. The clothes were a hit at Fiorucci, a clothing megastore.

The beginning of the eighties saw another Betsey Johnson boutique pop up on Los Angeles' Melrose Avenue. She also married Jeffrey Oliviere in 1981, but the two would later divorce. Betsey Johnson Luxe and Betsey Johnson Jeans, two lines separate from her original one, were introduced in the eighties and nineties. Betsey launched a line of perfume and cosmetics in 1995, and in 1996, yet another line, Ultra by Betsey Johnson, came out. More stores appeared all over the world: in California, Chicago, Vegas, London, Vancouver and Toronto; that number would eventually expand to 63 stores worldwide.

Making clothes involves what I like...color, pattern, shape and movement...I like the everyday process...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.

Fashion Accolades

She gave marriage a try again in 1997, with a man named Brian Reynolds, but it didn't last and the couple separated. Betsey had the honor of receiving an award created especially for her in 1999, the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Timeless Talent Award. Despite this spectacular acheivement, 1999 was a tough year for Betsey: she found out she had breast cancer when one of her implants ruptured, but she would go on to beat it and become an ardent activist in the fight against the disease. Betsey was given her own plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame on New York City's famed Seventh Avenue in 2002, a huge achievement in the fashion industry.

Her line has also been expanding in a different way since 2003: along with clothing, Betsey now designs purses, glasses, outerwear, jewelry and shoes. She's even forayed into home furnishings. 2003 also saw the acquisition of Betseyville, a small hotel she purchased in Mexico, which she at first used as a vacation home but now rents out to customers.

That year, Betsey accepted the CFDA's request that she become an Honorary Chairperson for Fashion Targets Breast Cancer. That same year she was given an award for her work as an activist by the National Breast Cancer Coalition. She also bought another home in Mexico in 2004, which she calls Villa Betsey. The NAWBO-NYC committee and Signature Awards presented her with the 2005 Lifetime Acheivement Award in March. In November of that year, she also received the same distinction from the Accessories Council. Betsey was named Designer of the Year at the 2006 American Apparel and Footwear Association's Image Awards; her granddaughter, Layla, was also born.

The End of an Era

In 2007, after decades of being independent and privately owned, her company was purchased by Castanea Partners, a private equity firm based in Boston. Betsey contributed tips on personal style to a book titled Cherry Bomb in 2008. In 2009, she received the 2009 Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement in Fashion from the National Arts Club. Steve Madden, Ltd. stepped in in 2010 to assume ownership of the company's $48.8 million outstanding debt and now owns the intellectual property of Betsey Johnson. Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of the company's financial troubles and in the spring of 2012, Betsey Johnson filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, closing all stores, liquidating all assets, and laying off over three hundred employees. Betsey Johnson will remain in control of the brand, and plans to focus on selling less expensive dresses in mass retail stores like Macy’s. In September 2012, Betsey celebrated the 40th anniversary of her career in fashion with a retrospective that featured classic designs from past collections and a performance by Cyndi Lauper.

Buy what you love. Forget the trends - what's in and what's out. Even if the item is a crazy little bra or hotpants, it's important to love it for what it is.

Some of Betsey's trademarks are baby-doll dresses; broomstick-style skirts; black or plum-colored velvet mini-dresses; frilly, intricately designed gowns constructed of tulle and lace and often in bright, neon hues; her signature rose print and other vibrant prints like leopard and cherry; flowered cabbage rose dresses; corset and bustier-inspired tops; dresses that resemble ballet costumes...

Betsey as Fashion Innovator

Though many might want to dismiss her as a "cartwheeling kook" (she closes each runway show with her trademark cartwheel down the catwalk) who somehow tapped into a specialized niche in fashion, Betsey is much more innovative than people give her credit for.

Although it's commonplace now, she was one of the first to use the stretchy fabrics like Lycra and Spandex in non-athletic clothing, and it was quite a big deal at the time. Betsey also continually breaks tradition with the people she chooses to put in her runway shows. Instead of using professional models, Betsey has featured strippers, club kids, transvestites, and even former Playboy Playmates attired in fuzzy sweaters and sequined capri pants, and of course, bunny ears. Betsey has even sent herself down the runway - sort of. In 2001, Betsey designed a collection she called "Betsey's Closet" and as she says, "cloned myself." Models had wild mops of streaked hair and lightning bolt tattoos and frolicked Betsey-style in corsets, bloomers and bubble satin mini-skirts.

We're not brilliant, big-boy garmento movers and groovers, but we've had a wonderful, enjoyable, panicked, crazy, happy time over the past 25 years - all because we own it.

Sources:

Betsey Johnson. http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/Ja-Kh/Johnson-Betsey.html
Betsey Johnson. http://www.inc.com/magazine/20040401/25johnson.html
Betsey Johnson, Edie designer. http://catyconte.proboards37.com/index.cgi?board=Media&action=print&thread=1115701697
Betsey Johnson - New York Fashion Designer. http://www.newyorkmetro.com/fashion/fashionshows/designers/bios/betseyjohnson/
Betsey Johnson official biography. http://www.betseyjohnson.com/bio.html
Heavens to Betsey. http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/living/fashion/14952534.htm
Honolulu Star-Bulletin Features /2005/03/17/. http://starbulletin.com/2005/03/17/features/story1.html
Salon.com People: Betsey Johnson. http://archive.salon.com/people/bc/2001/04/24/betsey_johnson/
Swingin' Chicks of the '60s. http://www.swinginchicks.com
www.vintagefashionguild.org/labels.php?page=J&mode=searc

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