Haute Historian: Betsey Johnson’s Youthquake Revolution

June 8, 2015 • Haute Historian, Magazine

Betsey Johnson, History,

At the end of every fashion show, Betsey Johnson performs a cartwheel down the runway. It’s a long tradition the famed designer still turns out at 72-years-old! And so, when Johnson accepted this year’s Lifetime Achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, it was only fitting that she cartwheel her way onto stage, ending in the splits, a celebratory gesture for a long-celebrated fashion designer.

Johnson’s career began while she was a senior at Syracuse University in 1964. She worked for Mademoiselle on the side as a guest editor, and started making sweaters for the other editors working there. Consequently, she landed a designer job at popular London boutique Paraphernalia, creating unique, irreverent collections. The boutique’s Manhattan location strived to bring London’s mod youthquake scene to America, and Johnson turned out to be the perfect designer for the store. Sexy and youth-oriented, she became known as a major player of the anti-Seventh Avenue design movement of the 60s. Although she didn’t invent mod, she helped bring it to the masses.

With that style starting to wane in the late-60s, Johnson opened her own boutique with business partner Barbara Washburn, who acted as buyer, and Anita Latour, who handled business. The result was Betsey Bunky Nini, a boutique the housed designers such as Ossie Clark and Kenzo alongside Johnson’s own line. A former dancer, Betsey drew influence from ballet costumes and the London underground scene. She created micro-mini skirts; space age, silvery sci-fi shifts; and a “noise” dress that had metal grommets. During this time, her career skyrocketed and she eventually became head designer for the boutique Alley Cat. Her involvement with the boutique won her a Coty award. She was the youngest designer to win the prestigious award.

Johnson began her own line in 1978 with ex-model Chantal Bacon, who knew how to handle business, which was a skill Johnson lacked. The duo clicked right away and decided to start a business together. Their business grew quickly, opening stores throughout the U.S. and earning its place during New York Fashion Week for years to come. With bright, fun and engaging stores and entertaining runway shows, Betsey Johnson, Inc. became a success. The business grew to incorporate watches, jewelry and lingerie. In 2012, the economy had finally taken its toll on the over-expanded business and Johnson filed for bankruptcy, closing its boutiques and laying off hundreds of employees. Bacon resigned to move on to other endeavors and Steve Madden became Johnson’s parent company. In 2013, Steve Madden announced Betsey Johnson would continue her line at a lower price point online and in department stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom.

Whatever the economic situation, it’s safe to say that Johnson will continue to make her mark on fashion on her own terms, with her own flair.

1. Betsey Johnson (right) in her New York studio, September 1966
2. Betsey Johnson, 2013
3. Betsey Johnson doing the splits after her retrospective runway show, 201
4. Look from Betsey Johnson’s Fall 2014 RTW
5. Look from Betsey Johnson’s Spring 2015 RTW

– Tanisha Wallis

Image Layout: Second City Style

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