Wild hair, don’t care. That’s the feel I get whenever I see Betsey Johnson on the cover of any magazine with her unmistakable blonde tresses perfectly punked out. Hair aside, my impression of this fashion icon leads me to believe that everything Betsey brings to the table is a little bit unconventional. Don’t get me wrong. I mean that in a totally respected and admirable way. Betsey Johnson is unapologetically herself, and has been putting the fun in fashion for longer than I’ve been alive…just barely.
Legends are born in many ways. For Betsey Johnson, winning a guest-editor spot (based on her talents) for Mademoiselle magazine in 1963 was the first accolade in a blossoming pursuit to follow her passion. The winners were whisked away to London, England, which most likely inspired these modern awesome red plaid 60s-inspired booties recently released under her label.
Prior to that, Betsey gained the praise of her professors for her out-of-the-box technique of fabric-making during her college days at Syracuse University. Whereas most students obediently follow the direction of their teachers, Betsey was determined to do things her way. The results of her experimentation were impressive and lasting enough for her professors to honor her with the George Arents Award ten years after her graduation and redecorate two dorm rooms at the university in her designs and labeled each room “The Betsey Johnson Room.”
What was the feel at the time Betsey’s talents were emerging?
Let’s take a trip back to the late 1960s when punk rock style was being born. Stripped down. Hard-edged. No bullshit. And it was right up Betsey’s alley. Mademoiselle got the ball rolling for Betsey as she was experimenting at home with making her own clothing. She would wear hand-made items to work at the magazine that caught the eye of fellow workers.
One day, the magazine ran an article featuring a Betsey original. After that, the orders started pouring in. Including an order from actress Kim Novak, one of Betsey’s own idols. When Betsey sent the order, she included a note that ended with XOX Betsey, the same personal message you see on the price tag today of any Betsey retail item.
Betsey achieved her own label and line in 1978, two years after legendary rockers The Ramones emerged on the Punk Rock scene making garage styled music from Queens, New York, signaling that punk music and style was officially in full swing in New York City. Betsey found a niche in the style putting out designs were full of color-popping patterns and unique fabrics that were as original and edgy as the designer herself.
Betsey always knew what she wanted from her styles and designs and was bold enough in business to make sure her desires were met.
Real success is being totally indulgent about your own trip. You put your blinders on about the garbage and go full speed ahead.Betsey Johnson
As I read this self-penned memoir, I found myself (quite often) brought to tears by her strength, tenacity, talent, gumption, and raw honesty. Not to mention her humility. Even though her clothes were flying off the shelves in the early years of her career, she admits that she felt imposter syndrome that she was actually a designer. As the pages turned, I found myself rooting for her to succeed. And, I found myself, once again, inspired by the hard work, self-discipline, and extreme focus it takes to achieve your dreams.
I personally have owned and have for sale my own collection of Betsey Johnson fashions in my online thrift store.
Betsey Johnson celebrates her 79th year of life on August 10 this year. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BESTEY!
In nearly 60 years since she first made her way to the offices of Mademoiselle, Betsey has made a lasting impression in the world, including her 2002 induction into the Fashion Walk of Fame. In 2017 she teamed up with The Learning Channel to give 100 underserved and academically high-achieving New York City students head-to-toe Prom fashion makeovers, an act no doubt that came directly from the designer’s heart.
After reading her memoir, my love and admiration for this iconic designer has grown. What’s not to love about someone who stays true to themselves, grounded, humble, and giving on their way to achieving their dreams. It’s women like Betsey who share their story from the very beginning of their journey that gives anyone with a vision and a dream hope.
To that, I say XOX.