Betsey's World

Posted by Laura
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Betsey Johnson, designer, illustrator, ex-MLLE staffer, and Guest Editor, '64, surveys her world—a drawing pad, dress form, fabrics, sketches.


It's hard not to love Betsey Johnson. In 2015 she celebrated fifty years as a fashion designer—a remarkable accomplishment she has achieved while maintaining a clear focus on creating joyful, comfortable clothes that are beloved by flirty, fun-loving girls. Below I have transcribed one of her first interviews, from Mademoiselle—the magazine that gave her her start. In 1964 she won their contest for college students to guest edit an issue of the magazine (August 1964), and which also sent her to London. After graduation Betsey joined the staff of the magazine—her swift shift from college student to magazine staffer to illustrator and fashion designer all happened within a year. Still only 23 when she was interviewed for this piece, Betsey already had a vision for her designs and large ambitions for her career—all of which she has accomplished while still dancing and celebrating life.


Photos by George Barkentin for Mademoiselle, November 1965.


Betsey Johnson, designer, illustrator, ex-MLLE staffer, and Guest Editor, '64, surveys her world—a drawing pad, dress form, fabrics, sketches.



Betsey Johnson is a short, rather squarish 23-year-old with a thatch of straw-colored hair, unbelievable eyelashes (falsies, two pairs at a time) and the energy of a split atom. She is also a fashion designer and illustrator to whom success came so fast she really didn't notice when it—and she—had arrived.

Eighteen months ago, when Betsey was a MLLE Guest Editor just out of Syracuse University (and Wethersfield, Conn., her home), she was chiefly notable for her frenetic frug, a phenomenon occurring at the drop of a drumbeat during MLLE parties. She carried that ebullience into her month-later job in MLLE's art department. Because a blank wall tempts Betsey the way it does a child with a crayon, she started tricking up the art department's stark bulletin board with collages and drawings. One of the drawings, of a high button shoe, snagged the eye of MLLE's Art Director: he put her to illustrating for the magazine. Which led to her (a) designing shoes for a shoe company (b) illustrating for other magazines (c) sketching hangtags and advertisements for several manufacturers. Because she had some strong ideas about the way sweaters should look and couldn't persuade any sweatermakers to share them, she started her own business—very modestly—with a sign in MLLE's ladies room announcing 'Sweaters by Betsey'. Which led to (a) MLLE's Fashion Editor suggesting that she sketch more ideas, which led to (b) MLLE suggesting Betsey as a prospective hot ticket to Paraphernalia Inc., a determinedly with-it New York boutique that opened in September. And that is the house that Betsey's built—so far.

No longer at MLLE, although she drops in several times a week to fit her latest designs for Paraphernalia on the young skinnies in the Fashion Department, Betsey works from her walk-up apartment, gets around town on an English bike (Hondas come too high right now). Her apartment put one MLLE editor perilously close to nostalgic tears after a photography session there. "It reminds me of my first place", she moaned. "Nothing in the icebox but Cinzano and low-calorie soda." It is, in truth, like everyone's first place: cheap, a little dark, and deeply loved. (As one grows older, the first place is apt to form a trinity with the first kiss, and baby's first shoes.) There's a round table, bentwood chairs, and a pseudo-Tiffany lamp in the kitchen, along with a fat pink satin chair so ghastly as be beyond camp. There's a small dim room next door with little in it but magazines and a stereo, semi-permanently occupied by Bob Dylan discs. "I want this one to be really stark and woodsy," Betsey says. "You know, gutsy." The tiny bedroom's all flowered wallpaper, wrought-iron bed, and embroidered pillow shams. Amy March would have loved it; Betsey, however, thinks she took a wrong turn here. But it is in the living room-studio that Betsey really lives: white walls hung with sketches and brown paper patterns, rolls of fabric, a portable sewing machine, a dress form, a Federal sofa that's battered but distinguished, ivy, an old Edison kitchen cabinet fitted up as a desk. And where she really talks...

"I wanted to be a dancer, even gave dancing lessons during high school and made so much money. Then I went to Pratt to study art and dancing together. But I couldn't do both, so stuck to art. And Pratt wanted me to forget everything else. But that's impossible! So I switched to Syracuse, and I was a cheerleader, and in the shows—well, whenever they had to have an acrobatic dancer, I'd end up doing 'Honey Bun'. I still like to dance, but I don't have time now. No spare time at all, so each thing I do is a break from another. Like when I stop illustrating, I do my clothes, or I sew for myself..."

"My sweater business got me started. I wanted some money, so I could go antiquing and buy little bits of jazz. I didn't know I'd be living with my sewing machine. [When one mention in MLLE's "Shop Here" flooded Betsey with sweater orders, she used up what fabric she had, then retired from her one-girl sweat-shop operation.] About my clothes—the cut's the most important thing. Not red/white/blue American, but a little French. Skinny, but action where it should be—like in a flippy hem. I like fabrics that stretch and give, but no darts, tucks, pleats or folds. Nothing where you don't need it. But I don't have a philosophy. Some new designers are so ready to talk about who and what they like. How do they do it? It's taken me a long time just to feel my way..."

"I weigh guys against my work, and if they're not something superhuman, the work comes first. Once I went out with a med. student who didn't realize until our second date that I wore false eyelashes. He asked me to take them off. I wouldn't, and never went out with him again. I figured that if he didn't like my eyelashes, he wouldn't understand anything else either..."

"If suddenly I earned a lot of money, I don't know how I'd spend it. I already have my stereo and my bike, and nothing else I like costs very much. Except flowers. Maybe I'd just to Europe for a year, and sit in some village. Sometimes you just want to get out of New York, away from all the competitiveness. But you always have to come back. It's all here..."

"People say 'Oh, Betsey! Aren't you excited? You're a success!' Well, if I am, I'm too busy to know it. Someday I'll just have to sit in a corner and realize it all. But I feel as though I haven't done anything yet. I want to do so much—clothes, more shoes, toys, books, illustrating. You know, when I was in grammar school I used to practice writing my name so that if I ever got famous I'd write it clearly. Betsey's world... that's all I want."



Left: A flippant, flippy-hemmed dress in blue/white striped Orlon/Antron knit, $30. Center: A silvery slipsy in aluminum-faced Acetate lame, $39.95. Right: A plum-colored crepe-back satin pullover and bell-bottoms, in Celanese acetate/rayon, $45. All, by Betsey Johnson, for and at Paraphernalia, 795 Madison Ave., NY. 10021

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