Betsey Johnson has never been one to blend in.
At 72, her hair is a messy tangle of platinum blond—often with streaks of vibrant colors—and her face is heavily painted with makeup. She jumps, high-kicks and cartwheels her way through life as her vivacious personality echoes the energetic designs she’s come to be known for.
Her clothing is young without being overly feminine, oscillating somewhere between her punk-rock past and the girly teens that buy the clothing and accessories she oversees as creative director of Betsey Johnson. Most importantly: It’s highly obtainable, both on and off the red carpet.
And after 50 years in the fashion industry, she’s finally getting substantial recognition from her peers—a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).
Monday night’s ceremony brought recognition to some of the industry’s best designers: Marc Jacobs, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (The Row), Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne (Public School), Thom Browne, Alexander Wang, Paul Andrew, among many others.
“It’s like getting—in my old fashion way of thinking—a Good Housekeeping ‘stamp of approval,’” Johnson told The Daily Beast in an interview before Monday night’s event. “And this really give me the seal of approval from the CFDA and the respect from the establishment.”
Past recipients include Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, and Diane von Fürstenberg. It’s a roster that has kept a select few of high-fashion favorites continually rotating awards and recognition. Their designs are highbrow trends typically reserved for the world’s elite.
“The fashion industry is not that kind to people like Betsey,” Kim Hastreiter, the co-founder of Paper magazine, told The Washington Post of designers who stick to their own imagination. “Her clothes were never really expensive; they were always really in the junior market. Her personality was probably not the kind of personality that high-fashion types could relate to.”
So when we spoke on Monday morning, she was a little frazzled from the many errands it took to prepare for the night’s event—hair, makeup, nails, and writing her speech, which she says has been the hardest part.
“I always get bent out of shape over these things,” she said. “But it’s my only chance to say thank you to everybody and still be very specific … I really thank my fans big time tonight because I’ve found my girlfriends, my ‘like selves.’”
These mini-minions love to wear her glittered tutus as ball gowns, leather mixed with lace and a mash-up of wild, printed fabrics—the antithesis of the “working woman” wardrobe, a look Johnson despises along with Crocs and being “sloppy for sloppy sake,” as she described.
So it was no surprise when Johnson turned up to Monday night’s red-carpet gala in a vintage black-and-white striped jumpsuit from the 1980s. Layered with lots of Swarovski crystals—the night’s sponsor—and finished off with white high-top sneakers, she was a refreshing dose of rebellion against the couture dresses and high-priced suits of fellow attendees.
Comfort and chaos rules everything in her world.
“Somebody like Betsey can balance that,” Patricia Mears, the deputy director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, told The Daily Beast. “Something that’s a little edgy, a little pushing the trends, but also something that is both very girly and very youthful … She is a testament to individuality [and] that is the greatest thing one can say about Betsey, who is in the midst of this great city and has never been lost in the crowd.”
It all began when Johnson, a graduate of Syracuse University, entered a contest to be the guest editor of the highly popular fashion and literary magazine, Mademoiselle, sometime in the 1960s.
But designing was never a long-term goal on her radar.
“I never studied it [fashion],” she said. “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.”
She partied with Andy Warhol and his Factory crew. She designed for Manhattan’s premier Mod-boutique, Paraphernalia, before opening her own store, Betsey Bunky Nini, on the Upper East Side. Edie Sedgwick was her house model.
By the 1970s, Johnson was deeply engrained in the rock-and-roll counter culture. She took over the punk rock label Alley Cat and reportedly sold $5 million in volume for her first collection, twice the amount of the label’s previous season.
It was time to go solo. Johnson, along with model Chantal Bacon, launched the Betsey Johnson label in 1978.
In the decades that followed the brand expanded from its original girly punk frocks to include handbags, shoes, jewelry, fragrances, and active wear. They opened 63 stores worldwide and sold the designs at most major department stores.
But in 2012, the luck seemed to momentarily burn out.
Johnson filed for bankruptcy. All the stores closed, including her flagship in SoHo, as Steve Madden stepped in to acquired the brand.
Signed on as creative director, Johnson set out to refuel the flame that has burned for so many years, designing with the same freedom she’s kept intrinsic to her brand.
“We’ve always done what we believe in and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” she said. “Over the years, my work has been my life and luckily it has grown up with me and I with it.”
She’s survived cancer, filmed a reality show with her only daughter, Lulu, for the Style Network, and competed in Dancing with the Stars.
And her next big adventure includes moving to the West Coast with her daughter, son-in-law, and two grandkids.
“I would never have done it on my own,” Johnson says of following her daughter’s family to Malibu, where she plans to be bi-coastal. “It’s just perfect because I would like to mix it up a bit. I just love the switch and I hope that I can spend as much time with my family as I do working.”
Only time will tell if the relaxed nature and sun-filled days of California will give her new inspiration, but she’s “still full speed ahead,” she assures. “I’ll just be in a bathing suit,” continuing to forge her own path in a very homogenized industry.