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.
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.
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.