Betsey Johnson, the iconic 75-year-old American fashion designer who made tutus “rock-and-roll” and turned the runway into a catwalk for cartwheels is as effervescently free-spirited as she is astute and dedicated to the pursuit of living fully. But let’s not forget she’s a businesswoman who turned a niche boutique brand into a household name that to date, still holds weight. Below, the edited transcription of a conversation with Betsey Johnson on career, getting older and loving life, literally.


I lived in New York for 55 years and Syracuse before that for university. And Connecticut for high school before that. But for the last two years, I have lived in Malibu. Enough just got to be enough in New York. I really never loved the claustrophobia of the garment center, but I always believed that New York was the place to be for fashion, so I wanted to be there. I finally moved because I was over it. I didn’t want it anymore.

My daughter and her husband wanted to move with their kids, too. They already had one foot on the West Coast. I used to think there was no way I’d move from New York to California, but Malibu is different. It won’t be different for much longer but for now, it’s good. And I can work from anywhere; I haven’t learned the computer yet but I text.

On work and success

I was 33 when I launched my business, which is also when I met my partner, Chantal. And man, I loved it. That’s what made it successful. Something about what we did was different from the way everyone else did it. We were quirky. I never hit a trend; I was always too early or too late, too crazy on the runway and never really respected by the wholesale community because we were a boutique operation. The only time I ever got coverage was when someone like Veruschka or Lauren Hutton would wear my clothes.

For me, success had nothing to do with money. Success was functioning. I’m sure it’s the same for every designer. All you want to do is look out the window and see someone wearing your clothes.

We never thought we’d sell but [in 2007] we felt it in the air: it was time. We didn’t want to because we loved the company, but we were working so hard and the only thing that brought in money was licensing. I would work with shoe brands, bag brands. Licensing kicked in and we didn’t even have an agent. It just came to us. The easy thing is often what makes you the money, but it’s hard to make it that easy; you’ve got to do the hard thing to make it easy. You’ve got to have a name, a look. You’ve got to have a brand, a customer, a following. You have to really be able to see why you are the most valuable strawberry in the garden.

On failure

We had to sell the business, though. It was getting really tough. We sold a second time in 2012 to Steve Madden. He jumped in when it was a great time to buy me. I wanted to keep working. I wasn’t hot, but I was still very much hanging on. I was starting to feel the pain of my customer from the stores closing. To this day, those women still carry on about the clothes of mine that they cannot let go of. Because it was timeless! I look at my shit now and it was either a classic vintage inspired dress, a sexy little bustier tutu number or a rock ‘n roll t-shirt dress. And they’ve held up! [After Steve bought us,] I started with licensing.

The ebbs and flows of the business didn’t really burn me out. I wanted to keep working because it made perfect sense why business was getting so tough. Where were clothes at the time? I don’t think I was very happy with my design or executive teams. It wasn’t the little pink family business anymore like it had been. I just felt so lucky that we sold. We worked our asses off for 35 years and just barely had the money.

Photo by Susan Wood via Getty Images.

On style

My personal style has always been central to the brand, and it’s always been experimental because I’m my own guinea pig. I used to wear everything I made and that’s the only reason I made clothes. I could never find anything I liked but I could always cut and sew. I never took a fashion course. I didn’t always dress or look like this, by the way. You should see my high school pictures. Navy blue high neck sweaters, pearls, short hair, no makeup.

On aging and regrets

I’m 75 now. Do I have any regrets? About three and a half husbands, yes. [Laughs.] I’m kidding; I don’t really regret anything; why regret something that’s over with? I am a worrywart, though. I remember hearing Ralph Lauren say, years ago, that you operate when you are scared. I don’t know much about astrology, but I’m a Leo with Taurus rising, so the blinders are on. I’m very straightforward. I love my work, and what made it interesting was that it wouldn’t have been any good if I hadn’t worried about it, thought about it and cared about it. I guess “worry” is another word for “care.”

But honestly, I have not felt the years coming along. I recently read an article about hating to age and I realized how it added up from the kid I had, the grandkids I had, the boyfriend and husbands I had, the counselors I went through, the traveling I did, the working. You know, work always saved me. It was the only time in my life where I forced myself to find balance — personal and external. Work took priority over everything. Every man, every issue. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was able to stay independent because of it. I don’t know if it’s possible to do what we did years ago, today. I think [the industry is] too huge and too fast.

Advice to young designers

Something I’m not sure young designers are learning today is that you’re only as good as your last sale. You’re only good if you sell.

Make it, wear it, be your own guinea pig, have your friends wear it, and at the end of the day, would you buy it? Would you give up a week’s salary, two week’s salary for it? Because that’s what it has to boil down to.

Advice for those trying to find their place in the world

You’ve got to wake up in the morning and be happy. Feel happy to be alive. I believe you do have to drum up your happiness. I believe you can go either way and it’s all in your head. And who doesn’t wake up in the morning and go, “I feel like shit”? But you’ve got to force yourself to think, “You know what, there’s something I want to accomplish today.” You have to make up some reason for why it’s going to be a good day.

Staying positive and optimistic is necessary to function. And I think you have to have a dream. You have to have a personal vision and go for that. Zero in on something. I did a McDonald’s commercial once and they asked all of these older people to talk about what they loved doing most when they were young, and it was so amazing how everyone interviewed — older, famous, established — was doing what they had wanted to do as kids. But they didn’t know it.

I just love living. I love being alive. And boy do you love it more when you get older. You can’t do anything about [getting older], so don’t waste time thinking about it. I like that I made myself into what I want to be at my age.

Photos by Edith Young. 

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  • Alli

    Betsey, you changed my life with this dress back in 8th grade. I saw it on Modcloth, and later in a department store on a trip to Chicago, and I wanted it sooo badly but my parents wouldn’t buy it because a) it was way too expensive for a still-growing middle schooler (fair) and b) they claimed it was too “outrageous” for me to wear to my 8th grade dance (not fair). I later found a possibly even more outrageous dress at a price they couldn’t argue with, wore it to the dance, and cemented my love of outrageous, man-repelling style, which has enjoyed many upgrades since. And it all started with you, Betsey. (I still dream about that dress…can someone dig one up for me in a size 8?) https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c7d50abebaa9a1d032b40056a12f646bec87f1dde42d4e06eef6122e6026a526.jpg

    • Mekalah Loxley

      Oooh that reminds me of the most perfect pale pink, embroidered and mirrored cami top I had in the 90s. Still got it despite it being two sizes too small, I just can’t bear to throw it away! I love Betsey! X

      • Alli

        That top sounds amazing!!! Keep it forever!

        • Mekalah Loxley

          I will! I’m hoping one of my neices will want it one day! X

  • Adrianna

    Betsy Johnson must be the funnest grandmother

  • Eliza

    I’ve got a black tulle Betsy dress in my closet that I will keep until the day I die! It was my first MAJOR totally independent purchase. I ate top ramen for 2 weeks after buying it and had 0 regrets. I think her dresses have a coveted spot in many of our hearts. I’m definitely going to try that baby on and scamper around my apartment tonight!

  • Caroline

    As a child/teen, I grew up chubby and always felt very self-conscious. I stayed chubby no matter what I did. After suffering from an anxiety episode, I had lost way too weight and felt like a skeleton in my clothes. I felt like I couldn’t get my body right. After gaining some of the weight back and trying to rediscover myself, I found myself inside a Betsey Johnson store casually looking around. My eyes immediately went toward a strapless floor-length light pink and fuchsia gown with tiered ruffles. After trying on this dress, I never felt more beautiful than I ever have in my whole life. Although it was much too expensive to wear to my school dance, I have never stopped thinking about it. I wish I could find this dress and thank it for everything it has done for me. And thank you, Betsey!!

  • Allie

    Betsey! Her clothes mean the world to me. I buy as many pieces as I can, and wear them as much as possible. She’s been a huge inspiration to me over the years. I just started my own company (a small video game company), and whenever I start getting scared of being too… much, I always think back to Betsey. Also, I work in a co-working space with other indie video game developers that are 95% jean and tshirt wearing dudes. So you can probably imagine how much I tend to stand out wearing Betsey 😅.

  • Liz

    When I was a kid in 5th or 6th grade, everyone was wearing Abercrombie and Hollister, which my family couldn’t afford. I felt pretty lame in my clothing and was sad I couldn’t wear “designer” clothing like my peers. My mom drove me to the Betsey Johnson storefront, walked me inside, and made me touch all of the clothing, telling me “This is a designer. This is someone with a vision, who makes unique clothing to stand out.” I’ll never forget my introduction to Betsey and what that amazing store did for me as a kid! I wanted to be a fashion designer for years after that, and though I didn’t become one, I did major in fine art in college 😉

    • starryhye

      Kudos to your mom! That’s awesome

      • Liz

        She’s so awesome!!!

    • McMecq

      Your mom is super and so are you!

      • Liz

        ❤️

  • Lizzie

    I came into this without being a huge Betsy Johnson fan, and now I only want to wear pink tulle dresses with a black leather corset and two different shoes. This is a fantastic article that highlights the good in being alive. Thank you for sharing!

  • Millie Lammoreaux

    Betsey was the first actual designer I ever learned about. I’m guessing it was in Seventeen magazine when I was 10 or 11, and damn, I thought she was the epitome of cool. 20+ years later, that still rings true.

  • I’ll never forget my first (and last) time in the Betsey Johnson store in NYC. I was 12 years old (2004) and the tulle skirt dresses…ahg. I felt like I was in a dream Barbie closet. I convinced my mom to buy a cream colored silky dress with black lace trimmings and a floral print. She still wears it! I’m adding this to my collection of articles to frame. I love Betsey’s energy and the advice is solid.

  • Pat S

    I had a black velvet dress which I splurged on for a winter wedding. I loved that dress and it was actually pretty tame and classic. My kids made me donate it but I still long for another….

  • She is the best, wisest, crazy-ass woman because of statements like this, “But you have to force yourself to think, ‘You know what, there’s something I want to accomplish today,'” and this, “I like that I made myself into what I want to be at my age.” ❤️

  • starryhye

    I remember watching FashionTelevison and watching Betsy cartwheel down the runway. I’ve always loved her joie de vivre and especially her use of color.

  • Ai-Ch’ng GB

    Loved this interview so very much! When she says, “I just love living. I love being alive. And boy do you love it more when you get older. You can’t do anything about [getting older], so don’t waste time thinking about it. I like that I made myself into what I want to be at my age”, I love Betsey Johnson all the more. She makes me get up and truly live!

  • Katy

    She’s one of the greatest of all time. A true original, and so sweet. I’ve been a huge fan for years. I have way too many pieces of her quirky jewelry, and my high school style was basically defined by this one mint green blouse with crazy tulle ruffles at the shoulders. Thank you, Betsey!

  • Veronica Wilkins

    WHERE CAN I FIND THAT MICKEY D’S COMMERICAL?!

  • kelly restivo

    Betsy is the appitamy of happiness to me, she has always made me smile

  • Lisa Monday-Gomez

    love it..very positive and inspiring for everyone 🙂 Betsey ROCKS!!!

  • Liza

    I had my daughter when I was 21, and I was soooo poooor. But I saved up and bought a $200 leopard print bag from Betsy to use as a diaper bag. I was able to maintain some semblance of my style as I transitioned into a crazy new time in my life…. and to this day I use and love the bag–and my daughter’s a senior in high school!! ❤️ U Betsy!!!!

  • Sabletoothtigre

    I always have ebay alerts on for vintage BJ slip dresses. I WILL NEVER TURN THEM OFF.

  • Jac

    I think the piece I’ve had longest (~2011/2012? I’m a compulsive donator) is a 90s Betsey dress I got as a gift froI m my brother, who miraculously found it at a goodwill. I can’t imagine a time when I’ll have stopped wearing it.

    https://img0.etsystatic.com/045/0/7594508/il_570xN.719588512_9ssw.jpg