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Betsey Johnson

Betsey Johnson (1942 –     ) American  

Betsey Johnson.

As a child, Betsey Johnson spent her time in dance classes. Her early love of dance and its tulle-enhanced costumes directly influenced her adult design sense. She eventually left Connecticut and moved to New York where she studied at Pratt Institute and graduated from Syracuse University. In 1964, Johnson got a fortuitous break when she won a Mademoiselle guest editor contest, resulting in an internship at the fashion magazine.

Cotton suit for Paraphernalia, 1967-69.

After working as an assistant in the art department at Mademoiselle she was hired as one of the designers for the popular Paraphernalia boutique in 1965. The boutique was modeled after the London store Biba, creating up-to-date and revolutionary fashions for the youth market. While designing for Paraphernalia, Johnson continued to develop her style combining her childhood love of those feminine ballet costumes and the newer influences of rock and roll and current street fashion.

Prairie dress for Alley Cat, 1970.

Her A-line minis, groovy pantsuits, and drop-waist knit dresses were very popular. Her long vintage-inspired prairie dresses in small floral prints were reminiscent of the calicos described in the Little House on the Prairie book series. Paraphernalia was popular with the fashion and rock and roll crowd such as models Penelope Tree and Twiggy, members of the Velvet Underground, and actress Julie Christie. In fact, style icon and Warhol star Edie Sedgwick was Johnson’s fit model. 

Sweater for Alley Cat, 1970-1974.

Johnson left Paraphernalia and in 1968, she opened a boutique with two Paraphernalia co-workers called Betsey, Bunky, Nini. In 1970, she was hired as a designer for Alley Cat, a junior sportswear company until 1974. During her time at Alley Cat, Johnson became their head designer and had creative control, designing everything for the price conscious line aimed at teenagers and young adults. Her rock and roll and rockabilly influenced clothing were a success, sometimes incorporating hippie-like maxi skirts, vibrant knitwear, and petticoats.

Quilted corduroy jacket for Alley Cat, 1971.

Her designs were made accessible to another market, home sewers, when she collaborated on a line of Betsey Johnson for Alley Cat patterns with Butterick Patterns. Her designs were first produced under the Betsey Johnson of Alley Cat label and later as Betsey Johnson. She produced over fifty patterns with Butterick.

Black Tag Collection, Fall 2011.

She worked for Alley Cat until 1974 and in 1978 started her own company, Betsey Johnson, LLC with business partner Chantal Bacon. With her own company, her designs started to embrace the ballerina aesthetic. Now Johnson is known for her tulle-enhanced feminine styles and the generous use of the color pink. This was not always a pale ballerina pink but frequently a shocking hot pink shade usually combined with other bold colors and black. She no longer used prairie prints, instead her floral prints became large-scaled with roses in vibrant colors. They were printed on cotton-Lycra jersey to create form-fitting and sometimes overly frilly dresses.

Embellished hot pink shoes.

Shoes and accessories were designed to complement her clothes. Like other designers, Johnson also held licenses for items such as lingerie, handbags, eyewear, hosiery, and fragrances.

This use of the colors, pink, black, and white were also evident in the interior design of her retail stores and in her homes. Her elegant and colorful homes share the same color palette and have been featured in magazines such as Vogue, Elle and others.
 

Spring collection, 2009.

As a breast cancer survivor, Johnson has been involved in securing funding for several breast cancer organizations such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition and the CFDA Fashion Targets Breast Cancer Initiative. For years she has also hosted a yearly event in her boutiques and has created limited edition items whose proceeds fund breast cancer-related charities.

Runway, Fall 2011.

Over the years, Johnson has been known for a particular look and persona, with her shocking yellow, orange, red or white-blond colored wigs that immediately announce her presence. Her mega-watt smile and natural exuberance lead her to perform her signature cartwheel down the runway as an ending to her shows even though she is now in her late sixties.

Taffeta dress, Spring RTW 2011.

Her runway shows incorporate loud rock music, inventive lighting, her colorful clothes, and rock and roll styling, all with energy to match the designer’s own.

Betsey Johnson dresses in shades of pink.

Film Connection: Betsey designed the wardrobe that Edie Sedgwick wore in her last film, Ciao! Manhattan (1972).

Butterick 6529.

Home Sewing Connection: In 1971, Johnson was included in the Butterick Young Designers collection along with designers Mary Quant, Jean Muir, and Willi Smith.

Bedroom designed for Eloise, Plaza Hotel 2010.

Her style, innovations, and lasting influence on fashion:

  • In 2008, Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement in Fashion Award.
  • While at Paraphernalia she designed a “Do-It-Yourself” transparent vinyl dress kit packaged with stickers that could be placed in strategic locations on the dress.
  • Johnson was once married to Velvet Underground member John Cale, who wore her designs on stage when performing.

    Betsey and daughter Lulu, 2009.

  •  Johnson’s daughter Lulu starting working at the company after graduating high school and is now a creative director.

Images: Twirlvintageco; DearGoldenVintage; Yannis Vlamos – GoRunway.com.

Sources: betseyjohnson.com; Fashion: The Century of the Designer, 1900-1999 (1999) Charlotte Seeling; “Betsey Johnson for Alley Cat” (2009) Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising museum blog.

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On , Sarah Jane said: | janemumbles.blogspot.com

I now want a super floofy Betsey Johnson dress/skirt. They look like tons of fun. And so flouncy.

On , Tiffany W said:

I have been in love with Betsey Johnson’s designs for some time. Although her clothing is over my budget, I can’t help but wander thru her store and dream of the dresses I would own. They are feminine yet contain lots of spunk! That is how I would describe myself. I love the 1940s and 1950s era of the classic woman style of clothing but I also want to display a sense of gumption.

On , Lavender said: | threadsquare.wordpress.com

This post made me so happy!!! Period.

On , Joanne said:

I remember sewing the pattern shown in this post. I used a multi blue floral stretch lace for the scooped neck version of the top. I also window shopped at her store :)

On , darlene meek said:

In the 60’s I worked at a store named Outside Inn. I bought a dress you designed, it was lime green with purple peasce signs on it. Years later i saw it in a magazine for the museum of modern art. Do you remember this dress? My husband remembers this dress I wore in High school and he loved, loved it can you post it? thanks Darlene flower child in those days!

On , Pamela Roberts Levitt said: | pamelarobertsphotography.com

In the earlies 70’s ( maybe late 60’s) I wore my fave top “alley Cat” by Bestey Johnson. Black long sleeve open in the front with “Baby Ribbon “ties. That top was my trade mark top. Drove the guys wild! I wore it to all the famous concerts. I found it…I still have it in excellent condition. And it still is my favorite top!! My girlfriend said I would never let her wear it..she loved it too…no kidding that’s why it is still in excellent condition. I love this top still. I never saw anything like it since…and it is STILL in style!

On , Elise said: | eliseyloo.blogspot.com

This post tore at my heartstrings a little bit because of her boutiques closing but added to my respect of this great designer. I love her so much! I am very intrigued by her Butterick designs… I wonder if I can get my hands on some!!

One little thing- Betsey Johnson does not wear a wig. Those are extensions! Twice a year she goes through a 12 hour session with her hairstylist who flies in from London. Fabulous!

Thanks for this neat-o post !

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