For her Spring/Summer 2016 collection, the beloved downtown designer delivered 42 eclectic looks that paid homage to New York nightclubs, from sequins and long gloves at Limelight in the ‘90s to prairie dresses and psychedelic stripes at Electric Circus in the ‘70s.
Titled “The Curious Case of Betsey Button” and dedicated to her childhood dance teacher, the 73-year-old designer’s show was also a personal trip down memory lane.
“Before a fashion show, I have to have a theme, I have to have a story, I have to have a reason,” Johnson said recently while filming the forthcoming PBS documentary, American Masters: The Women’s List. “I’m too terrified to ever show my clothes straight so I have to come up with a whole little party around them.”
This season’s story was narrated by Johnson backstage as she carried us with her from decade to decade, from Blondie to Edie—“not much sleep and too much speedie”—at Max’s Kansas City.
In her early twenties, Johnson contributed to Sedgwick’s Factory look while working at the New York boutique, Paraphernalia.
“I never studied it [fashion],” she told the Daily Beast in June, when she was awarded the Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I wanted to be a Rockette, and then I wanted to be an artist, and then a cheerleader. It’s very ‘wow’ the way it all happened. But, it just goes to prove that you just don’t go to school, learn your fashion, and it comes out right or what you wanted. There’s a lot of luck involved.”
Of the CFDA award, she said: “It’s like getting—in my old fashion way of thinking—a Good Housekeeping ‘stamp of approval.’ And this really give me the seal of approval from the CFDA and the respect from the establishment.”
Her show on Friday featured bustiers and corsets, petticoats, patterns, and rainbow colors. The last portion of the show saw a revival of the ‘60s in oversized white collars and mod colorblock stewardess dresses and caps.
Then models sauntered down the runway to ‘All that Jazz’ from Chicago in ballerina and jazz dance get-ups in a throwback to Johnson’s childhood.
As ever, Johnson’s show was theatrical and playful, brimming with the designer’s signature free spirit and joie-de-vivre. It had nothing to do with trends and everything to do with style.
When the designer ran down the runway, tipping her shimmery top hat before handing it over to a front-row fan and launching into her infamous show-ending cartwheel and split, it was hard not to speculate about the end of her career.
The mood backstage was both celebratory and bittersweet. The show’s nostalgia provoked effusive adulation from Johnson's emotional fans.
Orange is the New Black star Jackie Cruz approached Johnson with her hands in prayer. “I’m obsessed with you,” she told the designer, tearing up. “I used to wear your crushed velvet suits when I was six, seven, eight years old.”
The rest of the cast waited as Johnson posed for pictures with young girls and cooed at a miniature dog, a YouTube star named Tinkerbelle, who licked her finger for a good length of time.
Then Lea DeLaria, Emma Myles, and other current and former Orange is the New Black cast members surrounded Johnson.
“Betsy you make me feel so tall!” DeLaria shouted. “I’m so excited to be here. The narrative, the story, the whole thing was wonderful.”
Cruz went in for one more big squeeze, and even Johnson wiped away a tear.