Betsey Johnson Talks Fashion, Love And Motherhood In Self-Titled Memoir

Apr 19, 2020
Originally published on April 19, 2020 6:06 pm

Designer Betsey Johnson has been pushing fashion boundaries for decades. She's known for her very personal, very whimsical style, for bright colors, animal prints – and doing cartwheels into a splits at the end of her fashion shows.

And, of course, there's pink. Lots of pink.

In her new self-titled memoir, Betsey, we learn more about the woman behind the brand. Yes, there's whimsy and fun, but she's also upfront about the less than fun times in her life, from difficult romantic relationships to health challenges to business failures.

"All I wanted to do is just tell my little story and see if anyone could relate to it," she tells NPR.


Interview Highlights

On her Norman Rockwell-ish upbringing in Connecticut

Seventy-seven years later, we can talk fashion-forward. Way back then, I didn't know a thing about fashion. Never cared to study it. And luckily, I was just born into a lovely family, great parents, farmland-kind-of-offshoot little suburb of Hartford. And growing up was really wonderful. I got to have a really Yin-Yang in the mix because, as normal and white-WASPy Connecticut as I was, I had my dancing school, and my costumes, and my recitals — and that was my passion. And that's what really kept inspiring me.

I mean, we wore full-tilt make up at 5 years old, you know, on stage. And my dancing school teacher, I write about her in the book, she was a Broadway show girl. Really knew her stuff. Would bring me to New York often on school breaks to study because she knew — after one trip to New York — that that's where I had to end up. Becoming the Rockette that I always wanted was a little difficult because I was way too short. ...On one side, there was super, super conservative, regular girl-next-door. And on the other side, there was this kind of fantasyland, pretend, dancing-school, wonderfulness: you know, the hair, the makeup, the costumes, the music, the recital halls. I mean, so for me, I needed that balance.

On starting out

I always loved to sew. ... I just picked it up from making costumes for my dolls, my mother sewed. The whole neighborhood sewed. So. I picked that up very easily. Very self-taught. ...

I was familiar with Pratt Institute because my father went there years ago. ... I thought that this is perfect. I'll go to New York, do my artwork by day, studying commercial art, do art by-day and, in-between, subway into New York and take my dance classes. But that crashed and burned after a short while because Pratt was extremely great and very hard and very, very, very time-consuming. I had no time to do anything but my artwork. And I was top in the class and did very well and la-la-la. But no fun, no, no cheerleading, no, no bigness. It was a very small school back then in Brooklyn and we had to go around with alarms. It was in a really tough neighborhood in Brooklyn. But yeah, about three quarters of the year through I realized this isn't my idea of college. And I lightened up on the dancing thing because it was kind of getting impossible for me to continue at Pratt. And then I realized that I thought I'd be better at art. That was a safer bet for me. Because growing up, I didn't study voice; I ruined my voice from cheerleading. But I didn't study acting. And I didn't study voice. I was just a really good dancer, I think. But not good enough — I happily realized in New York — because in Manhattan, you face grim, wonderful, quick reality, you know.

On making and wearing her own clothes

So, I don't know, one thing led to another for me. I mean, I had no plan of action at all. It's funny when I talk to kids in school who want to know how I did it, so that they can copy it from 1 to 5 ... I had no plan. I just loved my time in school. I loved entering the contest [for a Mademoiselle guest editor]. I was able to do well in the contest because the one course I took at Syracuse University — I was head cheerleader, I was a very happy camper going out with the quarterback at the time — and I don't know. I entered this contest and got me to New York. And the miracle of it was I won [the guest editor contest] in 1964. I missed my graduation, happily, because it would have been way too long and way too big. But they flew us to New York and they promised us a trip somewhere. That was one of the big things — why I wanted to win this contest.

And sure enough, that year they took all 20 of us, dressed out, you know, promoting this and that and everything. They took us to London, it was in its absolute heyday — perfect, perfect time zone — it was Beatles, Stones. Mary Quant. Julie Christie. Tom Jones to me. London basically has always led great, inspiring new ideas. ...

I had no idea what I would do after the guest editorship. To earn extra money, I made things for people. And everybody else had the idea that I would maybe love fashion design. And so I thought, OK, that's a good category, because to just graduate with an art diploma is a little too scattered. ... I connected, but I didn't know with what, I loved all the women, Mademoiselle. It was not a Vogue. You know, I was more the Mademoiselle country, down to earth, street kid — not the Vogue, grand fashion dame.

On her "look"

I just thought whatever you do, you should investigate: What do you bring to your job? What do you bring to the industry? What do you bring to the donut shop? Do you have a new recipe for donuts? Do your donuts stand out? Do they mean anything? Or do they have plenty of donuts without you? And I thought I was not that different from my girlfriends. A lot of girls, they just didn't make their own clothes. They weren't exposed to all that dancing school fabrication, and junk, that I was. But I just thought, you know, if I'm going to do anything, I should find out: Is there reason for me — or are slots already filled up? Do you know what I mean? And you're like, are there enough people doing this job beautifully, or are there some little cubbies that are still — you know — are there still some envelopes to open? And that's what I thought: Well, the best thing that I could imagine happening was that somebody would give me an opportunity to continue making the clothes I was already making for years — changing with the times ... The fashion editors at Mademoiselle knew about this Paraphernalia store. ...

I was kind of the first [designer] and they kept finding other designers that didn't last too long — but I was kind of their mainstay. And all I did was make what I wanted to, what I wanted to wear. There weren't department stores or buyers involved. It was like, you make it and we'll see if it sells. The one thing I learned right away is you're only as good as your last sale. That classic thing that I swear kids in school never learn. They only learn that when they get out and they have a real job and they have to show that they're making money for the company. And I was terrified before my first collection of maybe 15, 20 bellbottoms, pantsuits, dresses. Before my collection hit, I didn't have to show it to anybody for editing or input. ...

So I jumped into it from a very realistic, simple, logical way of being. I wasn't the brilliant young kid. I mean, I made my patterns, sold my samples, went to the factories and just kept on doing it for years and years and years.

On being a working single mother

I always wanted a baby. I didn't know exactly how and when I was going to fit that in. But I really enjoyed the single motherhood gig. I knew financially it might get rough, but I had my best friend in the whole world — Lulu [my daughter] — to be my true love, my support system, somebody to go home to and love every night. And I had this vague plan. Having a kid was one of them. I saw the relationship [with her father] was going to go totally down the tubes. And sure enough, two days after she was born, I asked her father to get out. But no, I didn't find it hard or struggle. As a single mother, I felt it was the best thing that could ever happen. It got me away from this creep. He disappeared completely. He called her on her 23rd birthday and said, 'Happy 18, Lulu.' So they met up and really didn't like each other. So that was good. Then I always have my work. So I have strange boyfriends because my work saves me. It keeps me sane. It keeps me working. It keeps me clear. Men — I just never I never did that right. And I knew it.

On her three marriages

Every time I went down the aisle, I was totally, 100 percent in love. I loved being in love. And the downside was, I really was attracted to men very opposite from myself. You know, that old story. You know, if you're warm, they're cold. If you're a hard worker, maybe they're lazy. If you were realist, they're a pessimist? Except for my first husband, who I am, dear, dear friends with him, in the time zone of the 60s. That was John Cale, who was a part of the Velvet Underground then. And we were real mom and pop, a pipe and slippers kind of people. But what was I? 23. John, is my same age and he would — John was, by night, drug scene. I was, by day, clean and mean. The times did not match up deep down with our feeling for each other and our basic agreement on what's good and what's bad and where we were coming from as people — that was always there. That was good and solid. But living by-day and living by-night, how much of a relationship can you have? And, you know, we would crisscross like ships in the night. Whatever they say. But we lived in the same little groove in Manhattan. It was a very special group of crazy people following Andy Warhol around — and most of the young people working for Andy in his movies or helping him with his art.

On the fashion industry today

Twenty years ago, a good 15 years ago, I would never start again. I don't think I would ever start again, no matter what the climate was like. No matter what the fashion business was like. I couldn't work within that corporate structure, which I have to work in now. But I was spoiled wonderfully by having the first 18 years I was in complete control. Then I freelanced where I was in complete control. ... And then I did finally realize in 1975 that I knew enough. I was good enough to try and go out on my own and find a dear friend who became my partner. But I the industry is so night and day changed. I don't know if a small business like mine that existed for 55 years and grew to like 65 stores, I don't think that could happen today at all. And I think because of this damn virus, I don't think anything's going to be the same.

On her favorite outfit she's ever designed

Oh, my God. Probably my Julie Christie dress. It was very English, very white-collar and cuff. It reminded me of England in those days and it's been a formula with me to do that sexy little flirty shirt dress that was sexy and little and flirty — instead of go to work, button down collar, shirt dress. Also my stretch clothing that I really got into seriously in the 80s. ... They were classic, timeless, stretchy little pieces that went on and under and over and in between and started with the bodysuit and those little fingerless gloves. And it was punk rock time and I'm always in heaven if I can stick to the music vibe. And between rock and roll and punk rock and the Carpenters thrown in here and there.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we just heard about how fashion might change in the future. But now we're going to turn our attention to someone who's been pushing fashion boundaries for decades. Designer Betsey Johnson is known for her very personal, very whimsical style - the bright colors, the animal prints, the cartwheels into a split at the end of her fashion shows. She dressed of-the-moment celebrities like Twiggy. And, of course, there's pink - lots of pink.

BETSEY JOHNSON: Lots of pink.

MARTIN: In her new memoir...

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Lots of pink. In her new memoir, entitled "Betsey," we learn more about the woman behind the brand. Yes, there's whimsy and fun, but she's also upfront about the less-than-fun times, from difficult romantic relationships to health challenges to business failures. Here to tell us more about it is designer Betsey Johnson, with us now...

JOHNSON: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: ...From her home in Malibu.

JOHNSON: Can I borrow that paragraph? Yeah.

MARTIN: Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: That was a very wonderful introduction. Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. I was going to ask you what self-isolation looks like for a woman who's known for doing cartwheels down the runway. I mean, how is it...

JOHNSON: Oh, I'm very...

MARTIN: ...Going?

JOHNSON: I'm very private. Yeah. It's like I have one work life, where I'm on and cart-wheeling and splitting and fashion showing and all that garbage. And then my other side is very quiet and private. I don't shop. I don't cook. I don't entertain. (Laughter) I'm a real bore.

MARTIN: So in the memoir, you write a lot about your upbringing. I have to say that it was a bit of a surprise. I mean, you describe it as this very kind of Norman Rockwell - you know, born in Connecticut. You were a cheerleader, and, you know, joined a sorority. Because for somebody who's so fashion-forward, it just seems...

JOHNSON: Oh...

MARTIN: ...So funny to me...

JOHNSON: I...

MARTIN: ...That you...

JOHNSON: You know...

MARTIN: ...Seemed like it was so regular.

JOHNSON: Seventy-seven years later, you know, we can talk fashion-forward. Way back then, I didn't know a thing about fashion and never cared to study it. And luckily, I had my dancing school and my costumes and my recitals and my - that was my passion.

MARTIN: It does seem, though, like you felt like you always kind of had your own aesthetic. Like, where do you think that came from?

JOHNSON: Well, I don't know. I had my own dancing school in high school - about 50 kids. I taught every Saturday and Sunday. My best friend was the piano player. I had to figure out - we both had to figure out, you know, the dollar for - per lesson, keep the books - very, very small town in the '50s - late '40s, '50s.

But I learned something from having a little business on the main street in Terryville, Conn., who had no dancing school teacher. So that was - I was an immediate hit in that category. But I just thought, whatever you do, you should investigate, what do you bring to your job? What do you bring to the industry? What do you bring to the donut shop? Do you have a new recipe for doughnuts? Do your doughnuts stand out? Do they mean anything? Or do they have plenty of doughnuts without you?

And I thought I was not that different from my girlfriends. A lot of girls - they just didn't make their own clothes. They didn't - they weren't exposed to all that dancing school fabrication and junk that I was. But I just thought, you know, if I'm going to do anything, I should find out, is there a reason for me? Or are the slots already filled up?

MARTIN: I get the sense that you're - about the fashion industry that you're a bit critical of the way things are now. I mean, for example, you write that it's hard to make it in fashion unless you have the blessing of Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue magazine.

JOHNSON: Oh, that's how I felt. That's why we went our own little Idaho pink way - because I knew that - I mean, eventually the big stores bought me. They had to see small stores prove me out.

But, you know, I never looked like a fashion designer. I never acted like one. I never went to a luncheon. Chantal and I to this day - my partner and I - laugh because we never did a fashion thing over lunch. We just never did those kinds of things. And we found out very quickly from having one tiny, little store in Soho that that was our way to go - to build our own little world of my stuff.

MARTIN: OK. Before we let you go, like, what's your favorite outfit that you ever designed?

JOHNSON: Oh, my God. Probably my Julie Christie dress - it was very English, very white collar and cuff. It reminded me of England in those days. And it's been a formula with me to do that sexy little flirty shirt dress that was sexy and little and flirty instead of go-to-work, button-down collar shirt dress.

MARTIN: That's fashion designer Betsey Johnson. Her new memoir, "Betsey," is out now.

Betsey Johnson, thanks so much for talking with us.

JOHNSON: Oh, thank you. And everybody, just be happy, be well and keep going full speed ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FASHION")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Fashion - looking good and feeling fine. Looking good and feeling fine. Fashion - step into the room like it's a catwalk. Singing to the tune just to keep them talking. Fashion - walk... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.