When it comes to matters of happiness, career and style, Betsey Johnson’s advice on all three are essentially the same: “decide it, then do it.” The iconic fashion designer knows there’s a time and place to be superfluous (which is to say, often) but when it comes to success in all aspects of life, she is straight to the point.
“Courage,” says the 75-year-old goddess of bold, eccentric and unapologetically pink ladies fashion, is the key to style. “Just decide to go do it one day. Experiment, discover, enjoy.”
“Us women, we are smart enough to know how to work clothing,” Johnson told the Weekly at a recent appearance promoting her line at Macy’s South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. “[We do it] for our jobs, for our this, for our that. So whatever is missing, just experiment, and play around, and try and find it.”
“Hopefully you have fun while doing it! If it isn’t fun to you, that means you’re going down the wrong road, so go down another road,” she advises. “It’s just crucial to keep yourself alive.”
Anyone who has seen Betsey Johnson in her element would be hard-pressed to deny that she knows how to have fun. Her happy-go-lucky vibrant persona is just as apparent backstage as it is in front of an audience. The cartwheels she famously does down the catwalk of her fashion shows, a signature move she does still even mid-way into her seventies, have become just as much of a trademark for her as hot pink, bows, leopard print and lipstick kisses.
It’s this trial and error method to the madness of following the fun that has brought Johnson on a whirlwind ride of a career that has spanned more than 50 years. This small town girl from Wethersfield, Connecticut, cartwheeled her way into New York City in the 1960s after graduating from Upstate New York’s Syracuse University. Her unique style, inspired by a love of costuming and theatrics incubated during her early life as a dancer, drew her to a guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine and then as the designer for hot spot NYC boutique Paraphernalia, all by 1965.
She made a name for herself within the youthquake fashion movement of the time, which blended the lines between modern art and modern fashion. While not a “Factory Girl” per se, she was a regular at Andy Warhol’s infamous artist studio, the Factory, and was a friend of the famous pop artist. She married John Cale of the Velvet Underground, in a mini skirt in 1968. In 1978, she launched the Betsey Johnson label that shook the designer fashion world then and continues to this day.
“We really were [pioneer female business women in the fashion industry]!” Johnson remembers. “Chantal [Bacon] and I, my business partner and my dearest best friend, I did the eyes, she did the paper. And we were 35 years in business together and we’re still great friends.”
Now, looking back some 50 years later, Johnson offers some advice to anyone who might want to follow in her footsteps as a self-made businesswoman. “Find your niche, find why,” she advises. “Why you should do it, when you should do it, where you should do it.”
Johnson says it isn’t any harder or different today for a woman to start her own business or follow her dreams. “It wasn’t any harder or different when I went into business in 1978. It was the same in 1971, it was the same in 1965 with Paraphernalia.”
Also, she cautions aspiring entrepreneurs to pay attention to matters of finance. “It makes a difference where your money is coming from,” she says knowingly. “Unless you want a little tiny store and you want to make it yourself, and that’s great, but you have to look at the big picture. Why does anybody need my clothes, my anything?”
And then ask yourself the big question: “Do I want to live and die for it?” she says. “Do you want it to be the most important thing in your life? Then you may have a shot at success.”
Not the most important thing in your life forever, she’s quick to add, with the caveat that it needs to be your focus at the beginning, at least. “I mean you have to live and die for it. And that’s the key to success. It shows; it comes through.”
The viability of Johnson’s formulas for success spoke for themselves during her recent Orange County appearance. Hundreds of fans stood for hours in a large line that snaked through the Juniors Department on the second floor of the flagship Macy’s location, with some driving in from out of state to get a chance to meet the Queen of Hot Pink Hearts herself.
She came up the escalator with her entourage in tow, sporting a simple and chic black and white striped dress accented with boho fringe boots and, of course, a giant inflatable pink flamingo pool ring, like something straight out of a pool party at the Saguaro in Palm Springs.
“I’m a California Girl now!” Johnson exclaimed to the crowd. “I wish I moved here a hundred years ago. I live in a little pink house in Malibu.” She took her time getting to the white neo-Victorian chaise lounge that had been set up for the occasion, instead stopping to say hello to the small children and babies in the crowd. “It’s all about the youth!” she announced.
After working the crowd, Betsey stepped behind the rope and took a microphone. She playfully jumped and bounced with glee, all while still wearing the giant pink pool toy. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m only here because you’ve been here for me. I have such a great life!” and then, being the proud grandmother she is, she went on to introduce her family to the crowd.
Johnson offered yet another piece of advice for the women in the crowd: “I wanted to say get your damn mammograms!” she exclaimed. “I finished with my breast cancer gig in the year 2000. It’s mind over matter–I really believe that.”
After she relinquished the microphone, Johnson perched up on her fashionable all-white throne, and welcomed hundreds of enthusiastic fans to come join her on the couch for a photo op. One woman brought a gown of Betsey Johnson’s own design to show her.
“Killing me softly with my clothes!” Johnson joked upon seeing the dress. The woman informed her this dress was her wedding dress.
“Are you still together?” Johnson asked.
“We are, 10 years later,” the woman beamed. “And when we renew our vows, I’ll wear it then, too.”
“I don’t know about renewing any of my vows,” Johnson quipped. “I have three ex-husbands!”
Johnson appears rather smitten with her current beau: a younger man who she met somewhat serendipitously. She seemed keen to speak of him and mentioned him several times throughout the day, including during the in-store appearance as well backstage during our interview.
He came up during one portion of the interview, while Johnson was explaining the value of designing in one’s own life to get what you desire. “You have to want it and invent it,” she asserts. “And when you don’t want it and invent it–that’s when great stuff happens! That’s when I met my boyfriend–at lunch! At a counter! I gave up on boyfriends and husbands and all that!”
Throughout her career, Johnson has followed this paradoxical ethos, and it has launched her to international stardom. Want it, decide it, design it, draw it, build it, and don’t be afraid to crumple up the pattern and start again. That’s when great stuff happens, after all.
“I think it’s very simple,” she muses. “You wake up in the morning and you go, ‘Is it this? Or that? Or that?’ and you have to go ‘this.’ Always go ‘this.'”
When not running the OCWeekly.com and OC Weekly’s social media sites, Taylor “Hellcat” Hamby can be found partying like it’s 1899.