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Mademoiselle, Lycra, & The Splits: Betsey Johnson's Career

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Betsey Johnson's career came about with whimsy, passion, hard work, and luck.

Betsey johnson career.
updated on:
December 8, 2022

The other day I was at the library and browsing through the biography section when I was drawn to a copy of Betsey Johnson's memoir (Betsey: A Memoir by Betsey Johnson). I remember when it came out and thinking, "Well that is totally up my alley!" One of my favorite things in the world is reading all about women's careers and their thoughts about life. Cue Betsey Johnson.

Who is Betsey Johnson? I have been a fan of Betsey Johnson's brand for such a long time. One of the first articles I actually wrote here on Roseglass Collective was 10 Vintage Betsey Johnson Dresses You Need To Snag From eBay NOW. Her whimsical, expressive, and feminine designs have spanned a career of over 50 years - it's pretty hard to have an iconic brand for that long.

As you'll discover if you read her book, Betsey Johnson's career was mostly owed to her optimism, work ethic, passion, and a whole lot of luck! One thing I really loved about her story was she went with the flow and trusted that everything would work out properly (albeit with a whole lot of hard work). It was kind of cool to see how she navigated her young adult life following all the little signs that popped up along the way that encouraged her to keep going.

After reading her memoir, I was so inspired by her story, and I wanted to share a little bit about her career timeline here. If you're interested in learning a little bit more about Betsey Johnson's career and her famous designs throughout the years, keep reading!

Vintage Betsey Johnson label (Image via @luckyvintageseattle)

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Where to buy Betsey Johnson's memoir?

I thought that Betsey Johnson's memoir was great if you're interested in fashion (especially throughout the 60s-90s). It would make the perfect gift for a fashion student. It was such a fast read and is filled with personal stories about Betsey's life and career. It even includes some hand-drawn sketches by Betsey herself and of course photos of some of the landmark career moments that she mentions throughout the book.

Betsey: A Memoir by Betsey Johnson

Buy on Amazon

Betsey's memoir is definitely worth the read in my opinion if you want to hear her story in her own words.

Betsey Johnson's career timeline

Here are some key moments in Betsey Johnson's career:

1942: Betsey Johnson is born

1960: Betsey goes to college at the Pratt Institute but eventually decides to transfer to Syracuse University

1964: Betsey enters Mademoiselle's guest editor contest and wins

1965: While working at Mademoiselle, Betsey is recommended as a new and upcoming designer to Paul Young

1965: Betsey's designs are featured in Paul Young's new "youthquake" store in Manhattan called Paraphernalia

1969: Betsey and Paraphernalia part ways, Betsey starts Betsey Bunky Nini with friends - a boutique in NYC

1970: Betsey starts working for Alley Cat, a juniors label that makes affordable designs

1974: Betsey parts ways with Alley Cat, ending her contract 6 months early

1978: Betsey and her business partner Chantal Bacon create the Betsey Johnson label and generate much success, opening stores across the country

2007: Chantal decides to step away from the Betsey Johnson label, they sell a majority stake in the company

2008: Stock market crashes, the label has accrued substantial debt

2010: Steve Madden buys the company for an undisclosed amount, Betsey stays on as designer

The beginning years

Betsey Johnson was born on August 10, 1942 in a white picket fence type town in Connecticut. She looks back on her childhood with fondness. She started taking dance lessons as a child and was deeply influenced by her dance instructor Ann Pimm who would design custom dance costumes for the girls for their performances. Betsey's mom would also sew back-to-school clothing for her daughters as well as her dance costumes. At this point, Betsey didn't have an interest in becoming a fashion designer, but she would help her mom sew her clothing as was common for that era.

In her high school years, a young Betsey Johnson didn't know what she wanted to do for her career, but she knew she wanted to be in New York City. She was relatively popular and a cheerleader at her school. She had a talent for drawing, so in 1960 she decided to go to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. When she got there, she was unsettled by the tone of the environment at the school. Most kids were serious about their art and wanted to become the next "Picasso". Betsey declared she only wanted to do her art and somehow make it into a career. She also wasn't satisfied with the school's lack of a substantial football team and cheerleading squad. She then decided to transfer to Syracuse University.

While at Syracuse, her spirits lifted and by chance she took a class on fabric design. She wasn't necessarily expecting it to turn into anything, but she started designing crazy patterns with bold colors, which earned her praise from her teachers. The university even had her outfit 2 dorm rooms with the fabrics she designed.

At the time of her graduation from Syracuse University in 1964, Betsey still wasn't sure what she was going to do after college. But then she entered a contest.

Mademoiselle

Betsey's flair for sourcing/designing unique fabrics proved invaluable to her future designs (Image via @vanjanela)

Betsey Johnson was an avid reader of Mademoiselle magazine. At the time, it was considered a magazine for intelligent young ladies. In the 60s, Mademoiselle ran a contest for young women to enter to win a guest column in the magazine and a summer internship in New York. This contest was won in the past by Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath! Betsey jumped at the opportunity and sent in samples of her artwork. Still at this point, she wasn't even considering a career in fashion, she just wanted to do art.

She ended up being one of the winners and went to New York for the internship. When she arrived, she was hopeful she would be assigned to an art department. When she was assigned a spot in the fabrics department, she was initially disappointed. Back then, it was common for magazines to have a fabrics section as people still made a lot of their own clothes and would take inspiration for drapes and other fabric-related things.

Although Betsey was initially bummed about being in the fabrics department, she soon realized it was an amazing opportunity. While at Mademoiselle, Betsey soaked in every bit of information she could about fabrics (something that unquestionably would prove valuable to her in the near future), and made an impression on those who worked there. The internship also included a trip to London which was a major hub for fashion at the time. When she got back from her trip, her supervisor was out on maternity leave, so she stepped into a much larger role at the magazine. It led to a an offer of a full-time position.

Even Mademoiselle's editor-in-chief Edie Locke was impressed with her upbeat personality and her designs. One time, Betsey sourced a unique hand-crocheted fabric and designed it into a flattering sweater with a scoop neck, velvet trim, and a ribbon on the front. She wore it to work and was asked by multiple coworkers where she got the sweater. She started taking orders at $20 a piece and would go home after work to make the pieces. She even posted a hand-drawn ad for the sweater in the women's restroom at work and interest exploded.

Edie Locke believed in Betsey Johnson's design so much, she featured it in the magazine's shopping column. When famous actresses started to order the top, they knew it was big! Betsey made sure to include a handwritten note in her early pieces, something she tried to always incorporate through the years.

In 1965, Paul Young called Edie Locke and said he was looking for up-and-coming designers to design for his new store called Paraphernalia. It was a hip, young spot intent on bringing the futuristic fashions being displayed in London to New York. Although she didn't want Betsey to leave, she knew it would be a big opportunity for her and she recommended her for the job. Betsey hadn't even made it a year at Mademoiselle before she was whisked off to design for Paraphernalia.

Paraphernalia

In the 60s, a movement dubbed "youthquake" by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland was exploding in popularity, especially in London. It was a major shift to taking inspiration from the new youthful generation and away from more conservative styles. Mini skirts, paper dresses, metallics, mod, and colorful styles were all hallmarks of the youthquake age.

Paul Young was a businessman who decided to open a new store called Paraphernalia to bring the youthquake style to the US. When Betsey showed Paul her designs, he hired her right away. Although Betsey didn't really know how to make patterns for her designs yet to send them off to be manufactured, she was provided a pettern maker and she learned as she went along. She also considers herself lucky that she has been able to put her name on many of her designs. Many young designers do not typically get their name on their labels when they are first starting out.

She worked hard on her designs, sometimes staying up extremely late and on weekends. Betsey initially suffered a setback when her first round of designs was slated to not be ready until after the official opening of the store. On the bright side, when her designs finally hit the shelves - they flew off! Betsey even describes a time when she went into the store and all her designs were gone. She literally thought they had been stolen or there was a mistake, but they were just so popular the store couldn't keep them stocked. Betsey's flair for finding and working with unique fabrics was an asset to her designs, as well as being true to her own style. These skills made her popular amongst young women at the time.

Some of Betsey's popular designs at the time were the "Silverfish" dress, a silvery reflective dress, the "Noise" dress with metal grommets exposing certain parts of skin, and prairie dresses inspired by her hometown in Connecticut.

Paraphernalia was a huge success initially, with people like Andy Warhol coming to hang out as well as The Velvet Underground. Twiggy and Edie Sedgwick even modeled for Betsey Johnson's Paraphernalia designs. Over time, however, Paraphernalia's popularity waned as the trend of youthquake style slowly fizzled out. By 1969, Betsey wanted to get away from the party scene of Paraphernalia and start fresh.

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Betsey Bunky Nini

Betsey and another designer from Paraphernalia "Bunky" along with another friend joined forces to start a boutique called Betsey Bunky Nini. Betsey was set to be the designer and had her own room where she decorated the walls with custom murals and rose wallpaper. Because Betsey's designs were so popular at the time, her presence at the store drove its success initially. By 1975, Betsey's involvement in the store had slowly been reduced as she started working on other design projects and freelancing for other companies.

Alley Cat

From 1970-1974 Betsey decided to design for Alley Cat, a junior's clothing line for a more stable and long-term career move. Alley Cat made affordable clothing (under $100) for young women. Betsey always wanted to focus on ways that more people could access her designs, and carried this with her through today. She never wanted to be a super exclusive designer - she wanted everyone to be able to wear her clothes.

At Alley Cat, Betsey also designed patterns that would enable people to make her designs at home with fabric that they could choose themselves. This added to her mission of making her clothing affordable and accessible to the average person. In 1971, while at Alley Cat, Betsey won the Coty Fashion Critics' Award.

After a few years working at Alley Cat, Betsey started to feel restricted in her designing, so she broke her contract to get out her deal with them 6 months early.

Betsey Johnson

Another cool vintage Betsey Johnson label (image via @luckyvintageseattle)

By 1978, Betsey was tired of designing for commercial brands. She enlisted the help of a friend Chantal Bacon, who was a phenomenal fashion salesgirl to start the Betsey Johnson label. They were entirely bootstrapped and Betsey even used Chantal as a fit model. The concept for the first collection was Lycra sportswear as everyday wear mix-and-match pieces. At the time, the idea of athleisure was farfetched. For their first fashion show, Betsey set up more of a performance art style, which made her stand out from other designers.

The first collection was a major success with Italian brand Fiorucci. Soon after came a setback with the second collection. The two women were unsure of how much inventory to order for their next show. Betsey's strength was in designing and Chantal's was in selling - not necessarily manufacturing. They ordered way too much product and needed to sell much of it at a discount to make back some money.

After their minor setback, the girls opened up a tiny store to sell their product. It was in a seedy part of SoHo, but it was wildly popular with the girls there. So many people would come that there would be a line outside and people would take turns going in the store because only a few could fit at a time. They quickly expanded. Betsey describes in her book that her and Chantal would travel to different places, get a cup of coffee and observe if there were enough women walking around that would maybe wear her clothes.

Business boomed in the 80s and 90s, with celebrities like Molly Ringwald, Cyndi Lauper, Daryl Hannah, and many others wearing her designs. By the 2000s, Betsey was inducted into the Fashion Walk of Fame and was given a Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement in Fashion. The cartwheels and splits that are featured at the end of her runway shows have become a signature of hers - little nods to her past as a dancer and cheerleader.

In 2007, Betsey and her business partner Chantal decided to sell a majority of the company. Shortly after, the economic crash of 2008 complicated Betsey's relationship with the buyers. The company accumulated a substantial amount of debt before Steve Madden bought the company in 2010.

Today, Betsey still designs for the company, but no longer has access to using her name for business.

What did you guys think of Betsey Johnson's career? It was super fascinating to me how much of it along the way she never gave up and always had hope things would work out. It definitely makes me sad that she had to sell her company, but at least she still gets to design!

She definitely goes into more detail in the book, and I didn't want to give everything away, so make sure to check it out for yourself if this post interested you!

The ultra-coveted fruit print dress: Betsey is known for her creative and vibrant prints (Image via @theashclarke)

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