From flashy rocker chicks to frilly femmes to funky Japanese Lolita girls, Betsey Johnson has not only cornered the market on the wilder side of women's fashion, she's defined it. But when she was forced to close her ubiquitous hot pink boutiques across the country, many wondered if the colorful clothier had done her last cartwheel down the runway (something she's been doing for decades). The legendary 71-year-old's answer to the legions of leopard, skull, bow, rose, lips-loving ladies who love her? “No Way!”
While Johnson and her partners, Steve Madden, Inc. , have been focusing on their huge wholesale to retail business – including her Betseyville bags, shoes and accessories available in department stores across the county, clothing and sleepwear in higher end shops and even a brand new stationary line currently at Michaels crafts stores – she is still doing her runway spectaculars in New York, and this season, Los Angeles too.
Tonight, Betsey's brings the show she presented in New York, always a Fashion Week staple, to the
Nokia Theatre L.A. Live Event Deck for L.A. Fashion Week. We spoke to her by phone as she prepped for the show. ]
“I love L.A. Fashion week, but most of the time it's too hard to do two shows,” she says, while also letting it spill that there's a TV element – it will be filmed for a certain reality competition involving models – that allowed her the finances and resources to do so. “It's a lot of work.”
Tonight's show has kept the designer working non-stop, she says, as she was given very little time to put it together. Though it's essentially a re-run of her NYFW show, she still had to cast new L.A.-based models, adapt it to a new stage and venue, and adjust some things for West Coast sensibilities. Betsey being Betsey, she will find time to have some fun while in Sunny So Cal too. Though she couldn't live here, Betsey says she loves certain things about L.A. when she visits, such as “laying by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel,” and “having lunch at the Ivy.”
There was a time she would visit L.A. more often, to keep an eye on her signature stores. The Melrose flagship, she says, was particularly special to her. “It was everything me,” she says wistfully. “My art was everywhere, my colors, my ideas, my special pieces, everything.”
She says she was devastated when she had to close her stores but that it became too difficult to keep them going once Madden was involved. “It was hard, but my wonderful fans and friends got me through it,” she says. “Looking back it was the right decision.”
The partnership with Steve Madden, she says, has had its challenges, but she's been happy with it. “I work with great merchandisers and companies. Everything is based on bottom line and volume so I try to do the very best I can and keep my spirit in the brand as much as I can,” she explains. “It's gotta be commercial. It has to sell. That's why it was hard with the stores. It wasn't selling enough and there were others involved. The different licenses I do, they [Madden] get that they have to keep that piece of me alive. The new stationary is great example of that.”[
Johnson's business adjustments, as well as her personal relationship with her daughter Lulu, were explored in the short-lived reality TV show xox Betsey Johnson on the Style network, but when the network ended last year, so did the show. She says it wasn't exactly the best representation, and that “the best stuff was left on the cutting room floor.” There are no plans to film more episodes.
As with everything she does these days, Johnson is constantly having to think about mass appeal, even though she's nearly synonymous with edgy eccentricity and bold, standout-from-the-crowd type looks. Betsey girls are sexy girls, girlie girls and punky girls too. They wear neon and stilettos and pile on jewelry with bold panache. Like Betsey herself, age isn't usually a factor, though her main fan base continues to be young girls.
“People look best when they're wearing what they want, what they feel comfortable in no matter what size or age. It's how you feel about your body,” says the 71-year-old (with the body of 30 year old). “I don't eat that much. I work so much. But I wasn't always like this. Where do you think all those tu-tus came from? I had thunder thighs and big hips. So my clothes were like ballet costumes, tight on top and bigger on the bottom. Therein lies the popularity of my prom dresses. “
Even as she appeals to a crowd, pop and rock stars continue to wear and be inspired by her, including Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Rihanna (who inspired a new shape in the latest collection: caftans).
“My products have to be wonderfully commercial but there should be a place for the other stuff that's…over the top. But some of the things I do are very unrealistic to try and make happen in the real world,” she muses. “That's why I love show time. I want to make that happen on the runway. I don't do a runway show to sell clothes. I do runway show to sell my spirit, my statements, be alive and push the envelope. That's the only time I have complete control of what I do from beginning to end. “
Betsey Johnson's runway show is tonight, 8 p.m. at the Nokia Theatre, as part of Style Fashion Week. More info at stylefashionweek.com.