Ask Betsey Johnson how she's doing, and the designer might tell you she's a cat on its tenth life. Pause for reaction. But when you take into consideration that her career spans a wild 50 years — and that she has a spot on the Fashion Walk of Fame, is a long-term breast cancer survivor, and holds a CFDA Lifetime Achievement award — you may realize she's not joking.
In between her bursts of laughter — in which she'll take you back to the '80s, when she was bopping around New York with Andy Warhol and co. and paid just $200 a month for her downtown apartment — Johnson isn't afraid to get serious and reflect on her time in the industry. As she readies herself to accept yet another accolade, this time from the Accessories Council for being a style icon, she starts from the beginning. "I’m the overly-friendly type, like my father," she tells Refinery29. "As he was getting older, he would go Hi! Hi! — everywhere — Hi! Hi! Hi! And though I live in this little trailer park now, it feels like I’m reliving my little neighborhood in Connecticut, because everybody’s outside."
After graduating from the Pratt Institute, Johnson won a guest editor competition at Mademoiselle and began as the in-house designer for Paraphernalia, a Manhattan-based boutique that has been credited for being the epitome of original New York style. She'd go on to open Betsey Bunky Nini, where pal Edie Sedgwick was her muse, and in 1978, launch her eponymous label, one that would forever make its mark on street style in and out of the city.
Though she needs no introduction — and has no problem making one herself, via cartwheel — the designer has always raged against the status quo. She was one of the first to launch an archival collection with Opening Ceremony, back in 2009, which consisted of 35 pieces that reflected her time at Alley Cat and Paraphernalia. That led to another archival re-release in 2014, when she collaborated with Urban Outfitters to live-out her passion for romance and grunge. Next came Blue by Betsey Johnson, a bridal line (that includes intimates), which lead to the teaming up with Say Yes To The Dress, where the designer helped provide more than 100 New York high school students with head-to-toe looks for prom.
As a pioneer of creating clothes for real women — and using them as models in her shows — Johnson has built her empire on the idea that fashion is a way to stand out, on purpose. "I was the one they guessed most likely not to be a fashion designer because I was fat-ish," she says, tugging at her belt loops. "I’ve been laughed at my whole life, clothes-wise. Or, at least, questioned. But I don’t care, because I’m my own guinea pig; I kind of deliberately wear what I want to get a reaction. But, believe me, the reaction over the years has not been very accepting or good for me."
She's right — it hasn't. In 2012, Johnson filed for bankruptcy. After closing all 63 of her brick-and-mortar stores and firing almost every employee she had, Johnson, with the help of longtime friend and supporter Steve Madden, relaunched her line to include kids and eyewear — this time, at a lower price point across department stores like Macy's, Nordstrom, and Dillard's. But, after championing practically every category out there (especially accessories, which account for a good chunk of her business) why has she never done menswear? Turns out she never had to. "I didn't do menswear — I did rock 'n roll. The men I liked would come to the showroom and wear my girls clothes. I know Jagger got my clothes from girls. [Steven] Tyler was a big fan. They didn’t care what side the zipper was on, or the snaps, or where the buttons were. I don’t know...I just never connected to collars, I guess."
To start from scratch in her early-70s, though, an age when most designers are retiring, was a testament to her physical and emotional stamina — and her commitment to creating clothing that glorifies all of the best parts of being a woman.
"It was real," she says. "I realized that if you can just have the money or the confidence to go Okay, this is who I am, I’m gonna do it, that’s the way it works. Because it’s true blue. But eventually you figure it out, and in my own company, there was just way too much work." But it was her fans — yes, all of you — who brought her back to life: "I have fans from hell. They're amazing. And what I really love now is nobody’s afraid to come up to me and say hello, which is the best part. Do you think I got this far on self-confidence? No. There is no self-confidence behind this. There is now, I guess, but my fans — my girls, my people, my guys — have really made my career."
Now that she's 75-years-old, is there anything that makes Johnson tick? And how does she feel about millennial pink? Well, if you can get her to sit still long enough, she'll tell you. But if there's anything the legend can focus on, it's the idea that while trends come and go, fashion is wherever you find it.
As she leans back in her chair, clutched to a graphic pillow, she stares at an array of personal photographs, and smiles: "My life feels like Heaven right now. I live in paradise. What I’ve loved about [the industry] is I know I don’t look like a designer. And I definitely know I don’t act like one, either. But these awards, are they joking? Because me, a style icon, is absurd...but I love it."