Why fashion’s wild child refuses to grow up: Betsey Johnson

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Vogue’s Andre Leon Talley isn’t the only one causing a stir in the fashion world with a memoir this summer.

His book, The Chiffon Trenches, hit the headlines thanks to his candid portrayal of the fashion business and his spectacular fallout with his former boss Anna Wintour. But, if you thought no-one could beat him for a fashion tell-all and for disparaging comments about the notoriously icy Vogue editor, think again.

Fashion designer Betsey Johnson’s new memoir is another deliciously gossipy fashion read and she also lets loose with her own excoriating opinions about La Wintour.

With Betsey’s zany style and larger-than-life personality, she has been a force in the fashion industry for five decades. She built her multi-million-pound empire from scratch, designing fun clothing with a touch of bad-girl attitude.

Fashion designer Betsey Johnson’s new memoir is another deliciously gossipy fashion read and she also lets loose with her own excoriating opinions about La Wintour

Twiggy was one of the first to model a ‘Betsey’ in the Swinging Sixties, and the designer’s outfits have been worn by generations of girls and young women since. Julie Christie, Ali MacGraw, Lauren Hutton and Joni Mitchell were in the first wave of Betsey’s celebrity fans, then came Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, followed by a younger generation including Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.

Despite this astonishing longevity, the quirky designer, who ended her runway shows with acrobatic cartwheels and the splits, says she has never been accepted in the rarefied circles of high fashion.

‘The first time I met Anna Wintour she was cold and stand-offish, and I knew right away she didn’t like me,’ she says.

‘I had no formal fashion training and my clothes were for the youth market, not the runway, so I didn’t fit into her high-fashion world. She never cared about me, helped me or supported me. I always felt like an outsider, but it was a good thing because I made it work for me.’

Close: Betsey with her daughter Lulu and her children. The rambunctious designer misses seeing people, but has her white Maltese dog, called Johnny Cash, for company

Close: Betsey with her daughter Lulu and her children. The rambunctious designer misses seeing people, but has her white Maltese dog, called Johnny Cash, for company

The 77-year-old fashion doyenne is talking from her home in Malibu, California. Although our homes are only a few miles apart, we must meet via FaceTime. So how is fashion’s famously free spirit coping with lockdown?

‘I’m dying here without being able to go to restaurants,’ says Betsey as her face fills the screen. ‘I don’t cook and I don’t shop — all that rigmarole, I can’t stand it. I stay in my house and have things delivered.’

The rambunctious designer misses seeing people, but has her white Maltese dog, called Johnny Cash, for company.

‘I don’t feel so crazy with self-isolation because I yak, yak, yak to Johnny all the time,’ she says.

She is wearing no make-up, except for a swipe of her trademark red lipstick, and she’s got on rosebud-print leggings, a pink, lacey vest and a grey T-shirt which she’s slashed at the neckline and cut off at the sleeves.

‘The leggings are from my 1982 collection and I still fit into them,’ says the 5 ft 1 in designer nonchalantly. White terrycloth slippers complete the outfit.

What about her signature white blonde hair extensions? Betsey nods her head to show me they are verging on birds’ nest territory.

Every few months she flies over hairdresser Andrew Gregory, a lavishly tattooed expert in fake hair from London. Each re-do takes 13 hours. It costs her upwards of £25,000 annually, but she says it’s worth every penny.

‘Listen, Barb, it costs money to look this cheap and tacky,’ she says jokingly. ‘My real hair is the thinnest, crummiest, most boring hair in the world. And it’s brown, my least favourite colour.’ Brought up suburban Connecticut, Betsey was an avid dancer as a child and learned how to sew from her mother, who made her stage costumes.

Betsey got her big break in 1964, winning a competition to work as a guest editor on Mademoiselle magazine. Part of the prize was a trip to London. At 21, she found herself in what she describes as ‘ground zero for cool’.

Betsey Johnson (pictured left) with Victoria Justice says she has never been accepted in the rarefied circles of high fashion

Betsey Johnson (pictured left) with Victoria Justice says she has never been accepted in the rarefied circles of high fashion

‘People were actually dressed like the models I’d seen in magazines,’ she writes in Betsey: A Memoir. ‘Girls really did wear white lipstick, skirts really were that short and men really did wear crazy-coloured suits . . . People looked like aliens and I loved it!’

She tells me: ‘You’ve got to remember that in America at that time it was still padded hips, cone bras, stiff fabrics and girdles, so this was revelatory to me.

‘I queued up for two hours to get into Biba [the legendary London boutique]. I was completely fascinated by the way English people looked.’

Johnny Cash barks in the background, breaking Betsey’s train of thought. Clearly, she cannot sit still for long. Would I like a tour of her house? Yes, I would.

She moved recently to a Malibu ‘trailer park’, that is, in reality, a prestigious gated community. She sold her last mobile home for $1.95 million (£1.54 million) seven months ago, and is still settling into her new three-bed, three-bath home.

I catch glimpses of a top-of-the-range kitchen, a living room with vintage Art Deco furniture and a porch with views of the golden beach where the TV series Baywatch was filmed.

Paris Hilton (left) and Betsey Johnson. Betsey worried about laying out her life in print, but is thrilled with the success of her book

Paris Hilton (left) and Betsey Johnson. Betsey worried about laying out her life in print, but is thrilled with the success of her book

The walls are white. It seems very tasteful, I observe. ‘Yes, I’ve got to redecorate,’ declares Betsey, whose last home was painted bubblegum pink.

She sits down and recounts how, inspired on her return from London to New York, she made crocheted sweaters with short, tight sleeves and a scoop neck trimmed with velvet and little bows. When the design was featured in Mademoiselle, orders started to fly in.

In 1965 she landed a job as one of the designers at Paraphernalia, New York’s answer to Biba.

In 1965 she landed a job as one of the designers at Paraphernalia, New York’s answer to Biba

In 1965 she landed a job as one of the designers at Paraphernalia, New York’s answer to Biba

One of the first models she worked with was Twiggy. ‘She was cute, adorable and very English,’ says Betsey. ‘She had the body, the movements and the look. She was the model of the moment.’ 

Then Julie Christie, another icon of Swinging London, chose one of Betsey’s dresses with a starched collar and cuffs for a cover shoot, after winning the best actress Oscar for the film Darling.

In the book, Betsey writes: ‘Julie was the It-girl of the moment — it was huge exposure for me.’

Another coup was dressing the 16-year-old British model Penelope Tree at Truman Capote’s fam- ous Black and White Ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1966. ‘She wore a little, black, slip-top bra, with panels that floated underneath, and on the bottom half she wore pantyhose,’ recalls Betsey.

‘She was very young and beautiful, and with her long, straight hair and eye make-up, she was the freshest thing at that ball — everyone else was older and old-fashioned.’

Betsey Johnson pictured with Iggy Azalea. Betsey built her multi-million-pound empire from scratch, designing fun clothing with a touch of bad-girl attitude

Betsey Johnson pictured with Iggy Azalea. Betsey built her multi-million-pound empire from scratch, designing fun clothing with a touch of bad-girl attitude

Betsey’s first marriage was to the Welsh-born musician John Cale, who co-founded The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed.

Betsey and John married in 1968 — Betsey designed a burgundy velveteen trouser-suit for her wedding outfit, but was informed by New York officials that a woman could not legally be married in trousers.

‘I went to the bathroom, took them off, pulled my jacket down as far as it would go and went back and completed the ceremony. Isn’t that bizarre?’ she laughs.

Their marriage soon ran into trouble because of her husband’s drug use.

‘I started going to work every day wondering if he’d be alive when I got home, and the stress of all that uncertainty began to take its toll on me.’

They divorced two years later. ‘He was a night person and I was the girl who was at work every morning at 8.30am sharp,’ she says. ‘But to this day, we remain great friends and he’s still my favourite husband.’

Cale cleaned up after the birth of a daughter and now warns of the dangers of heroin addiction.

A year later, in 1971, Betsey became the youngest ever designer to win the Coty Fashion Critics’ Award. In her memoir, she reveals Donna Karan and Diane Von Furstenberg were put out that the 29-year-old had been honoured.

‘I can understand where they were coming from because I was this new, young kid on the block,’ she says now, tactfully.

Kelly Osbourne (left) and Betsey Johnson. With Betsey’s zany style and larger-than-life personality, she has been a force in the fashion industry for five decades

Kelly Osbourne (left) and Betsey Johnson. With Betsey’s zany style and larger-than-life personality, she has been a force in the fashion industry for five decades

At 33, she found out she was going to be a mother, but the relationship with the baby’s father, whom she identifies only as Joe, was already in trouble. She gave birth to daughter Lulu and brought her up alone.

‘I wasn’t a very maternal, coochy-coo type of mother,’ says Betsey. ‘I remember I had to let Lulu cry it out sometimes on the cutting room table because I was so busy working. I’d excuse myself at client meetings and go nurse her in the bathroom. I took care of business first, but she was always clamped to my hip. We’re extremely close. She’s the sensible one, not me.’

Her daughter is 45, has two daughters of her own and lives near her mother in Malibu.

It sounds like an Edina-Saffy relationship from Absolutely Fabulous, I suggest.

‘Oh yes, Lulu is the mother hen,’ agrees Betsey. ‘She knows what’s right for me, but, of course, I don’t always listen.’

In 1978, aged 36, she joined forces with her best friend Chantal Bacon and began her own brand. The company grew to 65 stores across the U.S., plus a boutique in Covent Garden.

‘Movie stars such as Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore would go to my retail stores and pay full price,’ she says. ‘The only one who went to my showroom and insisted on getting stuff wholesale was Cher. I never met her in person. She was hanging out in a bar in New York one time and I wanted so badly to go over and say hi, but I was terrified.’

Betsey went on to marry two more times. She met, married and divorced one husband within three months, after she found he was addicted to drugs. ‘The way I see it, I made a mistake and corrected it quickly,’ she writes. She had a ten-year relationship with a man she describes in the book as husband #3. The marriage lasted only a few days.

‘I refuse to mention his name,’ she tells me. ‘We argued going down the aisle and, to this day, I wish I’d had the strength of Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride to say: “I’m out of here.” ’

She was 57 when she discovered she had breast cancer.

‘I’d had my boobs done and one day I woke up and the left one was gone, deflated overnight,’ she says. ‘It saved me, because I found this pea-sized lump.’

She continued to work during treatment and told no one except her daughter. ‘As a businesswoman, I was worried it was showing weakness and no-one would sell me fabric if word got out. Of all the women I knew in the fashion industry, I didn’t know one with cancer. Nobody talked about it in those days.’

She broke that taboo nine months later, when she stood up at a fashion event and spoke of her experience. ‘People were wonderfully supportive,’ she adds.

She had gone into partnership with a private equity firm, but in 2012 had to declare bankruptcy and close her shops. With the help of a friend and a fashion entrepreneur, she eventually relaunched the brand and still runs her Betsey Johnson label online.

How does she feel about being 77? ‘Don’t say that number!’ she squeals. ‘I feel like I’m 63.’

Has she retired the cartwheels and splits? The phone jerks and I think it’s a technology glitch, but there is Betsey on the living room floor, doing the splits.

She didn’t bother to have her breast implants replaced so she is ‘flat as a pancake’, and has a tattoo of a lightning strike on her left breast. For her 50th birthday, she treated herself to a facelift.

‘Last year I went in to have a chin tweak, so I’m ready to meet a new guy,’ she says, flashing a wink. She has also recovered from open-heart surgery.

Betsey is the recipient of the Council of Fashion Designers of America Timeless Talent Award — created just for her — and has a plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame. For someone who was never at home with the fashion elite, it must be nice to be recognised?

‘I’d never have stayed in business for so long if I was just this kooky, over-the-top person,’ she points out.

Betsey worried about laying out her life in print, but is thrilled with the success of her book.

Referring to the grandmothers, mothers and daughters that bought her clothes, she says: ‘My girls come up to me and tell me stories about how great they felt in my dresses. It’s made me realise what a great life I’ve had. I did good!’

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