“I look better now than I have in my entire life,” declares the superstar of our Ageless Closet, Betsey Johnson. With her staple Lanvin sneaks, her 20-year-old Mickey-Minnie baseball tee, her only winter coat (an orange “Oompa Loompa” jacket), and flips flops in tow for last-minute getaways, the devoted grandma cartwheels through fashion seasons with the freedom of her greatest thrill: “airline tickets.” Serving as her own muse, Betsey told us, “It’s either my way or the highway. What good am I if I’m not me?” The former dancer continues to exert her phenomenal creative genius at 71; and, since Steven Madden bought her company in '10, the quintessential Mudd Club girl is “battling away within the big corporate structure” for the first time. Indeed, Betsey keeps bringing her sparkly-tulle-tutu-Marilyn-Monroe-Mitzi-Gaynor palette to her beloved “girlfriends,” -- i.e., her fans whom she never refuses “a hug, a kiss, a smile, or a selfie.” Fueled by the youth and sleepovers with her grandkids, Betsey, in “the best footwear going, hotel-room slippers,” declares, “I never want to retire.”
Though she got her worst grade in fabric design at Syracuse University, Betsey graduated magna cum laude and, like Ralph Lauren’s Mary Randolph Carter, was accepted into the Mademoiselle Magazine's Guest Editor program. They sent her to London’s Swinging 60s, where, rotating between motorcycle threads and feminine petticoats, Betsey got acquainted with the Beatles, the Stones, and everything in between. “I decided I wanted to be Mary Quant or Biba,” Betsey says, but she would become a legend all her own. After attending a dinner party thrown by Betsy Blackwell, Betsey sent the Mademoiselle Editor-in-Chief a thank-you note covered in shoes that she’d drawn with a black Sharpie. A “shoe freak,” Blackwell gave Betsey an illustrating job in the art department. Soon, Paul Young was selling her designs in his mythological Youth-Quake boutique, Paraphernalia. Ahhh, for those days of making it because you are just purely talented. Edie Sedgwick, who Betsey loved for her black tights and baggy tee uniform, was her well-paid fit model; and everyone — from the Easy Rider hookers to Geraldine Chaplin — was wearing her dresses and mini skirts.
“To me, the last time fashion and art changed was the 60s," explains Betsey. “I know there was punk, but the 60s had the true miracle people.” Andy Warhol was “The Artist,” and, just as Warhol used his wigs for personal expression, Betsey uses her hair extensions: “In terms of communicating who I am, my most creative zone is from the neck up.” When Betsey went with the pop practitioner, the Velvet Underground, and the Factory gang to the Hamptons in the 60s, they were snubbed. But Betsey doesn’t give a shit about what the top of the caste system thinks — getting kicked out of her own wedding for wearing a velvet Victorian pantsuit, only to return in, as Betsey puts it, “a mini skirt up to my crotch.” Her Maverick MO has her cherishing her only belt, a vintage studded “New York” one, stockpiling custom-made capris, buying from the Lanvin children's department, and staying away as much as she can from the social media stampede: “Expressing yourself is going fast. People connect to life through screens, but if we can't express our selves with how we cook, how we decorate, and what we wear, then there's no place left.” Having survived three divorces and breast cancer, Betsey has built a place for herself unlike any other on the wise words: “You have to have at least 50 percent struggle; it makes the celebration that much more. You’ve got to have down to know up.”
Elisa + Lily