Last night, Betsey Johnson took the hot seat at New York’s 92Y as part of Fern Mallis’s ‘Fashion Icons’ discussion series. Entering the stage with a cartwheel and split, it was clear Johnson’s chat would be more animated than her predecessors’. Sitting down and stripping off a tutu, jacket, purse, and various other accessories only to nonchalantly toss them to the side, Mallis quickly warned the designer, “Ok Betsey you have to behave, sit back and we are going to talk.”
But Johnson didn’t heed the warning. She jumped around the stage with Beatnik-type energy, waving her arms so furiously that at one point a bead became dislodged from one of her many bracelets. It rolled across the stage, and Johnson ran to catch it. “When I was growing up there were no initials,” she explained to the audience, “Now I’ve been told that I have the ADD and the XYZ and whatever.”
Her energy seemed to inspire at least one audience member who stood up sans shirt and yelled, “I just want to let you know that topless shock syndrome is coming.” Johnson was all for the flashing. “Hey, far out!” she enthused, “aren’t you glad it’s legal?!” “Thank you so much!” the flasher responded. “Hey, it’s my kind of audience Fern,” she said to a horrified Mallis.
Johnson regaled with audience many meandering, entertaining stories from Manhattan’s glory days, but eventually conversation turned to the designer’s career, which is currently in flux.
This past spring, her brand declared bankruptcy after 35 years of business and was forced to liquidate all of its assets. Johnson, a true creative, still appears baffled by her company’s decline. “You know what they do, these equity people? They buy you, you owe the money and the interest on the loan. They give you money that you borrow: they don’t just give you money, you have to pay it back. So between all the consultants and all the wrong people and the upside-down backwards that were hired we had to pay $6 million a year on the stupid $56 million [loan],” she said of the brand’s difficulties.
Johnson now seems resigned to the downfall. “It was only my fans and people on the street that made me realize what I built for 35 years, and that what I had built was special, “ she said,.“I realized that it couldn’t last. It was a long time, 35 years—it outlasted any marriage I’d ever had.”
However, she’ll soon return to retail shelves with a new, less expensive brand that will sell at big-box stores like Macy’s. Though contrary to rumors, Johnson will not present at New York Fashion Week. “It won’t be the same,” she said of the new venture, “but I treasure what I had for many years.”