Born: Weathersfield, Connecticut, 10 August 1942. Education: Studied at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, 1960-61; B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, 1964. Family: Married John Cale, 1966 (divorced); married Jeffrey Oliviere, 1981 (divorced); married Brian Reynolds, 1997 (separated); daughter: Lulu. Career: Guest Editor, Mademoiselle, New York, 1964-65; designer, Paraphernalia boutiques, New York, 1965-69; partner in boutique Betsey, Bunky & Nini, New York, from 1969; designer, Alvin Duskin Co., San Francisco, 1970; designer, Alley Cat, 1970-74; Butterick patterns, 1971 and 1975; Jeanette Maternities, 1974-75; Gant, 1974-75; Betsey Johnson's Kidswear division of Shutterbug, 1974-77; Tric-Trac by Betsey Johnson, 1974-76; Star Ferry by Betsey Johnson and Michael Miles, 1975-77; head designer, president, treasurer, B. J. Vines, from 1978; owner, Betsey Johnson stores, from 1979. Awards: Mademoiselle Merit award, 1970; Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1971; American Printed Fabrics Council Tommy award, 1971, 1990; Council of Fashion Designers of America Timeless Talent award, 1999. Address: 498 Seventh Avenue, New York, New York 10018, USA. Website: www.betseyjohnson.com .
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For the youthquake generation, the names Betsey Johnson and Paraphernalia symbolized the hip, young fashions of mid-1960s America just as Mary Quant and Biba did for the equivalent age group in Great Britain. In the early 1970s, a second wave of young women with a taste for affordable style discovered the flippant body-conscious clothes Johnson designed for the ready-to-wear firm Alley Cat. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, Johnson's clothes have been characterized by her sense of humor and an innocent, tongue-in-cheek sexiness. Wearing a Betsey Johnson dress is like putting on a good mood.
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Syracuse University, Johnson won a guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine. There, colleagues put her name forward to Paul Young, who was scouting out fresh new design talent to launch his Paraphernalia boutiques. It was a good match: Young encouraged experimentation and Johnson began to develop what was to be a long-standing interest in such unorthodox materials as vinyl, sequin sheeting, and the then-new stretch fabrics. Her "kit" dress, for example, was of clear vinyl with a trim-it-yourself package of stars, dots, and ellipses cut from reflective adhesive foil. The "noise" dress had a hem fringed with loose grommets.
Johnson's approach to clothing is very much influenced by her early days as a dancer. "I am basically about a ballerina torso and a full skirt," she told a reporter for the Soho News in 1982, "a dancing school dress-up craziness." Johnson's emphasis on tight, stretch bodices also grew out of her dancing school background. Not surprisingly, the shift in the 1970s to a subdued, tailored look was incompatible with Johnson's style as a designer. She continued to have her own label with a variety of manufacturers, but it was not until the end of that decade that Johnson's real joie de vivre emerged again, this time for her own company.
Johnson's company and her girlish, bohemian style have continued to endure, despite the economic downturns of the late 1980s and the
The youthful spirit of the company is kept alive through Johnson's own playful personality and the design talents of a young staff, including her daughter, Lulu Johnson. Betsey Johnson is the first to admit that her designs have changed little conceptually over her long career, but she is able to manipulate this basic style to suit a contemporary mood. Johnson's loyalty to her own vision has been crucial to her success and appeal. Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale's fashion director, recognizes Johnson's enduring style: "Betsey reinvents herself," Ruttenstein says. "If she keeps doing what she does, fashion comes around to her every few years."
updated by Megan Stacy