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Photograph by Adam Weiss

Heavens to Betsey!

Betsey Johnson revisits her finest archive pieces in her first collaboration with New York boutique Opening Ceremony.

“Kin, it’s Betsey!” drawls the unmistakably Noo Yawk accent down the phone to me, “I’m sorry I can’t meet you today, I’ve got a root canal!”

You’re unlikely to find reclusive designers like Nicolas Ghesquire or Raf Simons confessing their dental routines to journalists, but Betsey Johnson has always been unique. An oversize personality in the world of fashion for over 40 years now, Johnson has always done things on her own terms. She grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut, aspiring to be a Broadway dancer, but nonetheless ended up first in the Swinging London of Mary Quant and Biba and then in the quintessential New York hipster scene at The Chelsea Hotel, surrounded by Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin and The Velvet Underground. (She was briefly married to John Cale) When Johnson shows off a waffle textured knit dress with a gigantic zip slicing the front from the Betsey Johnson Archive Curated By Opening Ceremony, prefacing by saying, “This was my signature. I have a picture of Edie Sedgwick in this dress!” you get a sense of her having lived through extraordinary times.

The recipient of the CFDA Timeless Talent Award in 1999, she celebrated the 30th anniversary of her label last year with a career spanning parade of looks which won over the critics and reinvigorated her passion not only for designing but also her vintage collection, which is where the collaboration with the cool boutique, Opening Ceremony comes in.
When I finally get to meet her in her punk princess headquarters on Seventh Ave, I’m greeted by a enviably toned and tanned figure. The trademark shock of red hair is long gone, replaced by blonde locks but she remains practically fizzing with energy. Browsing the collection with its snakeskin print minis, peplum jumpsuits and fuzzy coats; it all looks shockingly modern and will no doubt introduce a whole new generation of cool Downtown/ Uptown girls and successors to Edie Sedgwick to the edgy, punky charms of Betsey Johnson.

Dazed Digital: How did the collaboration come about?
Betsey Johnson: We’ve been changing our company to grow and to bring things to the next level. When Our VP of Merchandising, Rebecca came in, we were stuck in that prom dress phase. Rebecca saw that our strength was NOT to come off as new kid on the block and she threw the collection out and brought a vintage rack of our clothes in. She made us realize our great past of stuff. She revived me from the grave!
We had an inkling of it when we did our 30th anniversary show, the Beatnik show. I couldn’t figure out what my angle was over the 30 years. So Rebecca introduced me to the essence of Betsey Johnson. In tough times, girls want my true blue unique and that’s where the timing of the Opening Ceremony is perfect. It’s so primitive and pure and totally me.

DD: So you’ve been buying back your archive?
Betsey Johnson: I have the classics and I know my work inside out but sometimes I did very funny stuff where the cut was just very right.

DD: I’m surprised there’s not much of your signature pink
Betsey Johnson: It’s so funny. My favourite pieces were those black, dark punk Eighties times. I wanted to show my stretch story. Then I wanted to do my most iconic prints like the cherries for the comic-book girl. The snakeskin print was something else! That was a classic. They look very timeless and Opening Ceremony wouldn’t let me change anything by a second. I mean how can you improve on some of these dresses! (laughs) There was always this harder side to me but it was hard to see it through the prints and ruffles.

DD: The clothes look built to move, so your dance background must have informed that
Betsey Johnson: Basically I’m about two shapes – the ballerina and the ball-buster! (Laughs) All the original clothes were made in a closing down dancewear factory so everything really moved.  And I’m still really inspired by my dance teacher – she was beyond.

DD: You started off being surrounded by Warhol, The Velvet Undergound and Janis Joplin, an incredible time for ideas and creativity. Do you still see any of the same punk energy today?
Betsey Johnson: For me I have to make it up to exist because that era doesn’t anymore. For me punk was the new rock and roll. I always like to believe that there’s always a Mudd Club going on somewhere! (laughs) I think the great thing about now is that there’s just so much! This hurricane we call the Depression is closing things left and right. On one hand you have a million looks at different prices. It seems like Uptown moved Downtown and now the Downtown is bringing a lot uptown. So to me, there’s no trend because there’s just so much out there. It’s so global, so immediate and so fast. But my favourite vibes are always around. There’s not just the one scene that defines now.

DD: What do you make of this new generation of popstars wearing Betsey Johnson?
Betsey Johnson: Look who I’m wearing! (shows the Amy Winehouse shirt she’s wearing) To me, she brought back the Janis Joplin, Tina Turner. I wish her happiness and all the best really. But yeah with Katy Perry and Rihanna, they just come in and buy the stuff! And they look great in it!

DD: You’ve been through several recessions. How are you responding to the current one?
Betsey Johnson: Well we’re responding by bringing our prices down and really making sure you get a big bang for your little buck! We’re trying to be more unique and special. It’s very scary. You have to think about what girls really want from you.

DD: What’s been your proudest achievement so far?
Betsey Johnson: LULU! My daughter! And my second best thing are my two grandkids.

DD: Your runway shows are famous for being great fun and of course, your signature cartwheel at the end. Where does the energy come from?
Betsey Johnson: For me I wanted to be a Rockette! I wanted to be a Broadway dancer! I also wanted to be an artist. So for me being a designer is an amazing turnout. It combines my artwork, cutting and sewing and it also gives me a performance. For me, it’s gotta be like a dance recital!

DD: What keeps you designing now?
Betsey Johnson: I wanna go more into a consulting phase. I wanna do the fun part. There’s this great quote from Bette Davis. She said, “Retirement? I’ll never retire as long as I have my legs and my make-up kit!” And that’s how I feel! But I love the ever-changing days, that my dearest friend (Chantal Bacon) is my partner and that I’m in my world. And I love my world more than any other world. I’m in it, I can’t help myself! I love the fun times, the idea times and the collaboration times. I’ll always be in it. Even the down times, because it makes you nervous.