Betsey Johnson up for some fun
The playful 61-year-old still dresses like a babe and revels in collaborating with other designers.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
MIAMI -- Betsey Johnson sat on the shaded patio of South Beach's Raleigh Hotel recently and rated her love life: Needs improvement.
"I'm thinking of joining an executive dating service," she said without sarcasm, sipping dark coffee and holding Lucy, her finicky Maltese.
"I'm no spring chicken. I'm 61. I'm in a weird age bracket. ... And I like guys in their 40s and 50s," she said, laughing.
In an industry that's all about covering up, Johnson is an open book. With her hair a wild tangle of Raggedy Ann knots and her skirt, a faux leopard print, Johnson is the perfect rebuff to complaints that her clothes are too youthful. The green ribbons of her wedge sandals crisscross at the ankle. Johnson still dresses like a babe -- and carries it off.
This is a woman who has always stood for fun. When she started her own label in the late 1970s, her designs captivated the country with their girlish zing, the mix of florals with fishnet, prints with lace.
She celebrated the frivolous without apology. She cartwheeled at the end of her runway shows. Not everyone bought her stuff, but everyone paid attention.
"She filled a niche which no one else was going after," said Kathy Dean, president of the Tobe Report, a retail consulting firm in New York City. "She recognized that there was a costumer who wanted something soft and slightly edgy -- not sweet -- and a little bit bad girl."
For the bold
And then, slowly, style became more colorful, less rigid, and fashion caught up with Johnson. Her outfits no longer induced the same startled delight as when there were rules to flout.
But Johnson, with 45 stores nationwide, remains relevant to the woman who is playfully bold and boldly feminine. "Business is finally turning around. We're finally going up again. ... I feel finally, totally in control and happy about full-speed ahead."
She never thought a kid from a conservative family in Hartford, Conn., could play the game -- the "wining and dining" as she puts it -- and conquer New York City with her wild outfits, her crazy hair.
But by the 1960s, Johnson was palling around with Andy Warhol, getting accolades from Mademoiselle magazine and designing clothes for the avant-garde boutique Paraphernalia in New York City. She met John Cale, bassist, organist and violist for the band "Velvet Underground", and married him -- for a couple of years, anyway.
She played with stripes, tinkered with bodysuits and developed a girly-rocker vibe personified by stars like Madonna. She created pieces for women with a dose of fearless, knowing that wasn't everyone.
"Our theory was we would sell to one girl in every state," she said.
It wasn't until the late 1980s that Johnson's creations became noticeably softer and more marketable. "I could buy this condo because of my pink rosebuds on white and black lycra."
Four years ago, one of her modest B-cup breast implants burst, and when the surgeon removed it, he found a tumor. She later discovered another one, the size of a pea, and underwent radiation.
Johnson lectures about the experience and raises money for breast cancer research. She never replaced the implants, which were the suggestion of Husband No. 2.
"I am flat!" she announced, glancing down at her shirt and laughing. "I haven't had anything removed."
There was a third husband, too, the man she "met, married and divorced in three months." Then there was the long-distance relationship that went on for nine years after that, but "it never would have lasted that long if I had been in therapy sooner."
Her daughter and only child, Lulu, was part of the company for eight years until last year, when she decided to take some time off to consider doing something new.
Johnson said she's in a really good place now. Collaborating with other designers on jeans, T-shirts, lingerie, leggings and shoes -- all to hit stores in the coming months -- has given her a sense that she's appreciated. "I've never felt so happy designing because I feel so supported and respected."
There is the bit about dating, though. "I've been through too many guys and marriages and mistakes," she said.
Single now for four years, Johnson is up for, well, a little fun.
"I'd still be up for falling in love."