An Oral History of Betsey Johnson

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If stereotypes still linger about fashion as an industry of the self-serious and the unaware, few have done so much to combat that notion as Betsey Johnson has over the course of her four-decade-plus career. In her early 20s with her work at Paraphernalia, she helped to shape the looks of Factory denizens like Edie Sedgwick and John Cale. Later, in the face of the folky aesthetic leanings of the ’70s, she proposed the acid-hued, the form-fitting, stretchy, and comfortable. The biz’s best cartwheeler (she does one instead of taking the standard runway bow), she put an approachable, candy-colored spin on punk sensibilities and offered up a flirtatious vision of feminist dressing: active, easy, affordable, and unapologetic.

Next Monday, the Council of Fashion Designers of America will present Johnson with its Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award. In honor of this recognition, Style.com spoke to nine of the people who have known Johnson best, from the Velvet Underground’s John Cale to Cyndi Lauper, Patricia Field, and even Edie Locke, the legendary Mademoiselle editor whom Johnson dubbed her “fashion mommy.” Read on for a portrait of Johnson in their own words.

Johnson was born into Waspy anonymity in Terryville, Connecticut. Like Sylvia Plath before her, young Betsey came to New York to cut her teeth as one of Mademoiselle magazine’s guest editors in 1964. Working in the art department, she handled layouts and photo work with her now-signature joie de vivre, and made no small impression on her colleagues.

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