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Betsey Johnson's Own Personal 'Style For The Ages'

Originally Posted: April 29, 2009

Diane Roncone

  |   21 Comments · Print Article

Classic Betsey Johnson, sitting on the back steps of her East Hampton home. Photos by Diane Roncone

East Hampton - It had been a few years since I was last at Betsey Johnson's house in East Hampton. As I walked up the driveway, something was different. Then it dawned on me that there was now an oversized two-story garage - in bright blue. The garage doors were open, revealing an interior that was painted hot pink! It was a sure sign of things to come.

As I walked toward the front door, I noticed a car seat and a baby's large toy on the porch, and thought that the house looked remarkably normal. I knocked on the door. Betsey's friend Ruby, holding Betsey's youngest granddaughter, Ella, let me in. Ruby and baby Ella went to the backyard to get Betsey, who was playing with three-year-old granddaughter Layla. I looked around. Children's toys were strewn about, a red child-sized Mercedes convertible was "parked" under the dining room table, a baby bottle was on the counter, and then in walked the one, the only, the larger-than-life clothing designer, Betsey Johnson.

It's a wonderful life. Betsey is seen here playing underneath a blooming cherry tree with her granddaughter Layla.

We reminisced for a moment about how Betsey, for her 60th birthday party, donned a full-on ball gown while photographer Patrick McMullan snapped a great shot of her as she kicks off a front handstand into the pool. It was as if he captured the absolute essence of Betsey Johnson's spirit. I was working in Manhattan at the time and had gotten wind of it. Being a huge Betsey fan, I bought the photo from Patrick before Betsey had a chance to see it. My daughter and I framed the picture in a zany hand-made frame and headed into Betsey's 7th Avenue office to give her the birthday gift. She loved it and still has it in her city office today.

We settled at the kitchen table, with Layla climbing into the lap of Grandma Betsey - a/k/a "Mimi." I set up my tape recorder and thanked her for taking time out of her busy schedule to see me.

What is your schedule like? Is it crazy?

Betsey Johnson: We're going through a wonderful transition. There's just a huge, wonderful, higher level, more experienced level that we want to go to as a company. My partner and I had the company running for 30 years but we were far from up to par, you know, with systems, and finance, and control of the licensing, and I wouldn't let go of the design work. And my partner said to me, 'Betsey, by 2010, you're not allowed to be at work more than 12 hours a week.' And that sounded like forever away. And all of a sudden it's almost 2010. (Looking at the tape recorder): Are you sure this is working? I'm a jinx with things like this. I don't go online - and I can barely work a cell phone - and then I lose them all the time. I don't email, I don't BlackBerry.

You don't BlackBerry?

BJ: Nope! I have my little pink Filofax that I love and a NoteKeeper. I try and cut back on my telephone calls and my mail. At the office, though, we're thinking of getting into the Twittering and the blogging and getting much more computer savvy.

(Layla takes my microphone and tries to talk into it. Betsey tries to get Layla to sing 'Take Me Out to The Ballgame' into the microphone.)

Betsey has as much fun as her grandchildren, Layla and baby Ella, on the backyard swingset.

Has the recession had an impact on your design style?

BJ: Huge! The recession - it really swamped us in September. It's been so hard. I mean, the promotions - we are practically giving things away. We still have some great bestsellers at full price, like prom dresses, sportswear pieces, and tee-shirts. I'm breaking into the whole casual category. We're watching the bottom line like crazy with our partners. If I can figure out a way to open a store for $150,000 for décor, we want to open three stores in the next few months. I think everyone's used to the hardness of it, the promotions we constantly have to do. I'm doing a separate extra collection with this wonderful store in New York, in LA, and soon, Tokyo, called 'Opening Ceremony,' and they're letting me do a 100 percent pure revival collection for fall and spring of my 1980s work, which was more modern, more edgy, more stretch, you know, cotton/Lycra, bodysuits, leotards. It's great but it's going to be another tough year. I'd love to do children's wear, bridal, and menswear. I'd love to scale everything down, very Calypso-esquey. There are a few things on the fire. We're really looking to do cosmetics, all those products and color, make-up and perfumes. We're coming along but it's a hard year to tread water.

I remember back in the day when you said you would never live in East Hampton.

BJ: I was out here in the 1960s. I was with the, you know, the Warhol crowd and we were treated so rudely, like we were freakos, and I said I'd never come out here again. Ever. And I didn't - never came out again.

Anyway, Lulu [Betsey's daughter] got me to rent out here for one summer. I asked her, 'What do you want to do for the summer?' I sent her out with a video camera. I said, 'We're gonna go definitely $30,000 for the summer, max. 30, 30, 30! Let's aim for 15.' She took pictures and for $15,000 to $30,000 - I had no idea what the money was, what the real estate was. So, of course, the real estate lady always shows you the one a little over your budget, which was $60,000. It was like a red old barn-Swiss chalet, you know, like open ceilings and loft areas, lots of windows. We just loved it. And sure enough, by the fall, Lulu's like, 'Oh, can't we buy something out here?'

You should have seen it when I bought it. It was shutter-less and all white, contemporary, modern. It was a completely different house. It was like an art gallery kind of space.

Then Lulu met Arthur [her husband] on a blind date at Scoops, the ice cream store, in East Hampton. They're out riding around in their wedding present from Arthur's brother, which is a beautiful little silver Porsche. (Laughs). Nice wedding present! He's a young lawyer, he's terrific. They're crazy-great together. They cannot wait for the day when they can rip this wallpaper off, paint it white, modernize it. And I said, 'You know, when I'm in heaven, then you can do whatever you want.'

Betsey touches up her lipstick right in the heart of the home - the kitchen.

Yes, when they take you out, feet-first, like in 'Grey Gardens.'

BJ: (Laughing) Yes! You're not changing this! But I find that if they don't come out, I don't want to come out. I'd rather stay in New York and see the kids on the weekend than be out here alone.

We have a little house upstate. Sometimes I go up by myself and it can be lonely.

BJ: Yep, really lonely. I see the kids every morning when I'm having my coffee. And I love to take Layla out to dinner. I don't cook and I don't shop.

Don't you find that hard, though, going out? Do people bother you?

BJ: In my neighborhood? They're nice. People come over and say hi and I love that. I'm not bombarded. I love to get bombarded when I'm supposed to, like at events. You just feel great. It's kind of what it's all about. But in my neighborhood I go right across the street, to a family Italian restaurant, every night at 5:30. They give us a table way in the back. I bring the crayons. I just will not stay home and eat by myself. I just really love going out with her and she's getting really good.

BJ: I was downtown in New York, always Tribeca and SoHo, years and years and years and years. I just moved about six months ago, uptown, and I love it. I just love it. But I did this seven-year number in Mexico that I just want to forget about. I have two houses down there. [Villa Betsey and Betseyville]. They're both up for sale. They're gorgeous. The kids don't want to go there. I wish now that I had a small offshoot apartment with just a key and a garden, just a little condo in Florida with that non-stop Jet Blue. I wish I had done that. Now I have this place in New York and I just pray to give away Mexico.

How often do you get down there?

BJ: I don't want to go anymore. It's very, very lonely. I built, like, an Italian villa. I was just so into decorating and furniture shopping. I mean, most people spend money on clothes or things like that. I was crazy about decorating - I made all the wallpaper, the curtains, had all the ladies in town needlepointing the pillows. I went up to the mountains and had furniture made. I mean, I was nuts.

You had this creative outlet and...

BJ: And then it was done. And then why I did the second house - I should have never built that second house. It's on the coastline. It's palatial, it's all archways, it has a Granite pool, it overlooks the Pacific. So anyway...

You've had some tough times, though. I know you're a breast cancer survivor. How has that impacted your life?

BJ: I didn't tell anyone but my daughter so I didn't have to live with it everyday. I went to something the other night for young cancer survivors. I shouldn't have been there but they like an older lady around to inspire the younger girls! It's an eye-opener. It hits home every once in awhile and I sure hope I don't get it again. (She knocks on wood three times. I do the same). But I had the director of Cornell Presbyterian Hospital do my lumpectomy; I had radiation for a month. I was very lucky. I caught up with him the other night at this benefit. They're the only hospital in New York into the real cosmetic/psychological approach to mastectomies and lumpectomies, and making it so you're not scarred for life, wonderful plastic surgeons. I always have two breast cancer nights a year during the prime spring and fall months, and give money from the sales. We do Super Saturday. My first and favorite charity is breast cancer.

A smiling and happy Betsey Johnson, heading off to Guild Hall.


Looking back, do you feel that you have achieved the main goals you set out to achieve back when you had 'the dream'?

BJ: Absolutely yes, over and over and over and beyond. But it was a dream I never had. I wanted to be a commercial illustrator and that's a whole other story. I went to art school; I was a cheerleader for nine years at Syracuse; I also wanted to be a dancer more than anything.

(Rubbing her fingers together): But I could cut so naturally. I loved it. I could do patterns. I just loved the fabric, the ruffling, the pleating.

You always seem to embrace your inner child. I think that as women get older, we're expected to act 'refined' and behave 'properly.'

BJ: I'm 67 this year. You know, growing up in the 1950s, there was a standard. Well, I couldn't stand for it. I say screw it, I'm doing my own thing. My dancing school teacher taught for 60 years. Taught for 60 years. She retired at 82, with her leotard and her tutu on in every class up until two years ago.

Tina Turner was always a great inspiration to me in terms of, 'I got my leather jacket, I got my legs, I got my fringe,' you know? And now that I've moved uptown, Lulu's like, 'Oh, Mom.' I dress a little bit nicer but I like to entertain people with the way I look. It's a little bit more put together than it is downtown but I'd still go anywhere on Madison Avenue looking exactly the way I look now. I really have never cared about becoming what I'm 'supposed' to become (laughing) - especially when you've got the Rolling Stones still performing! Age is all in your mind.

Betsey Johnson maintains 'age is all in your mind.'


One last question. How you feel about the reemergence of the Pucci design?

BJ: (Looking surprised for a second, then laughing out loud): Let it all hang out! (Waving hand around in the air): I don't feel there's a Pucci power in the air. I mean, everybody that's had its day, and all that good stuff, is still having their day or evolving their day, just like I'm bringing back my 1980s things. I'm wanting to collect more of my vintage so if anybody has my vintage that they'd like to rent to me or sell to me, pieces from 1965 through to the 1990s, they can email vintage@betseyjohnson.com. I'm looking for unusual pieces to revive again, to be inspired by, because I just didn't save. You know, who thought of saving anything - except Zandra Rhodes, who saved everything she ever made and now she has a museum in London! I didn't have the closet space. I'd make my stuff, wear the stuff, and that'd be it.

You don't still have your cheerleading outfit, do you?

BJ: I do! It's in the archives! My white pleated shirt and my old Syracuse "S" sweater.

Betsey and Ruby very quietly and very gently laid the sleeping Layla on the couch. Betsey had to head over to Guild Hall for a meeting about the August summer gala fashion show that she's doing with 'Ralph, Vera, Calvin, Donna' [Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan]. She sat at her kitchen counter, where there was a small makeup mirror, and touched up her lipstick. This was endearing, since this woman owns two villas in Mexico, a place downtown in NYC, a place on the Upper East Side, and a home in East Hampton. Afterwards, she walked me out to the driveway, hugged me and said, "It's been great hangin' with you." Same here, Betsey, same here. Until next time.

Save the date for Betsey Johnson, Friday, Aug. 14, at Guild Hall's Summer Gala with a preview of "The Art of Fashion in the Hamptons." The exhibition features Betsey Johnson, Vera Wang, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Tory Burch, Nicole Miller, Elie Tahari, and Reed Krakoff.




Related Articles:

Guest (Guest) from south africa says::
i love betsey's free spirit. i hope i have the same fun outlook on life when i'm her age, so nice to see someone be who they are and not conform to what the world expects you to be.
Dec 1, 2010 3:45 pm

Guest (sara) from NC says::
Hey does anyone know where I can see her style of design with Interiors, not clothing?
Jun 29, 2009 10:31 am

Guest (anielise) from kokomo in says::
how tall is she? Because i've seen how skinny and long her dresses are. Well as i should say her minny dress[which are so cute] i loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooove your designs.
May 28, 2009 5:43 pm

Guest (miamia) from northport says::
just saw betsey in amagansett with her granddaughter layla. she is so adorable and looks like a loving grandma! i hope i look that good at 60!
May 25, 2009 3:28 pm

Guest (Catherine) from NYC says::
I worked in 2 betsey locations through college- one in NYC and one in Dallas. It was the greatest job, the only bad part was that pretty much my entire paycheck was poured back into buying her things. And I LOVE the BJ perfume-amazing! I bought amazing things like a sequined/painted flower black poodle skirt, cherry print dresses and a million bias-cut dresses and still wear Betsey dresses I bought in the Madison ave store in 8th Grade- seriously! She is truly a girl after any girls heart!
May 14, 2009 10:13 am

Guest (Betsey Johnson Georgetown) from Washington DC says::
The Betsey JOhnson Georgetown Store LOVES BETSEY JOHNSON!!! XOXO
May 13, 2009 5:19 pm

Guest (shopper) from southampton says::
I love Betsy Johnson- she is a fun designer- this article captures her essence- great stuff do more, more, more.
May 12, 2009 11:19 am

Guest (Barbara) from East Quogue says::
Well written. I enjoyed the article very much. The writer has such a comfortable style of writing. Wonderful!
May 11, 2009 7:59 pm

Guest (Karen) from East Quogue says::
Great article written by Diane Roncone. We want more!!!!
May 11, 2009 5:05 pm

Guest (Sparticus) from Bridgehampton says::
Have always been a Betsey fan i liked the story. It captures her spirit.
May 11, 2009 9:12 am

Guest (Joy) from Bridgehampton says::
I wasn't too familiar with Betsey Johnson, but what a wonderful and fun artical. Keep them coming Diane!
May 11, 2009 9:03 am

Guest (Claudia) from Southampton says::
What a great article on Betsey she's an inspiration for all of us with a flare for fashion!!!
May 11, 2009 8:52 am

Guest (Steph) from East End says::
Love this article! I love the pictures, too. It is not only informative, but it's a FUN artice - something you get pulled in to! Very intereting.
May 10, 2009 10:20 pm

Guest (chanel) from brooklyn says::
she is such an inspiration!
May 10, 2009 9:04 pm

Guest (flairgal) from europe says::
Oh, what a wonderful location! The whole atmosphere, and her in it, are so full of life!
May 10, 2009 5:45 am

Guest (Myron) from Oman. says::
I am a former resident of East Hampton, and I now live in Muscat, Oman. Change of venue, huh? I LOVED this story. Betsey is an old friend, and you perfectly captured her sensibility and spirit. Frankly, I don't know why you all don't do more of these stories, this is the best thing I have ever read on this site. Bravo!!!
May 10, 2009 4:58 am

Guest (C. Hunter) from Holtsville says::
A very interesting, fun, and happy story. The photos are terrific and made me smile.
May 10, 2009 1:36 am

Guest (clothes horse) from amagansett says::
What a wonderful story- the photos are so alive reflecting the unmistakable vivacious nature of Besty- so aptly captured by Diane Roncone in her interview. BRAVO Bestsy, BRAVO Diane.
May 9, 2009 8:14 am

Guest (Judy L.) from East Hampton says::
I met Betsey several times over the years and she's just so full of life. An inspiration to us all. Loved this article!
May 8, 2009 10:01 pm

Guest (laurie mindnich) from riverhead says::
How old is she???? She's completely adorable (as are her clothes) and looks amazing. Good for her!
May 8, 2009 6:33 pm

Guest (fashhionista) from peconic says::
What a wonderful lighthearted and informative story- you should have more of this for readers. Wonderful-
May 8, 2009 4:35 pm

 

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