Cover image for Betsey. : a memoir
Title:
Betsey. : a memoir
ISBN:
9780525561415
Physical Description:
272 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm.
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Summary:
A memoir by the internationally famous fashion designer and style icon Betsey Johnson. Mention the name "Betsey Johnson" and almost every woman from the age of 15 to 75 can rapturously recall a favorite dress or outfit; whether worn for a prom, a wedding, or just to stand out from the crowd in a colorful way. They may also know her as a renegade single mom who palled around with Edie Sedgwick, Twiggy, and The Velvet Underground, or even as a celebrity contestant on Dancing with the Stars. Betsey is also famous for her iconic pink stores (she had 65 shops across the US) and for her habit of doing cartwheels and splits down the runway at the close of her fashion shows. Throughout her decades-long career, she's taken pride in producing fun but rule-breaking clothing at an accessible price point. What they might not know is that she built an empire from scratch, and brought stretch clothing to the masses in the 80s and 90s. Betsey will take the reader behind the tutu and delve deeply into what it took to go from a white picket fence childhood in Connecticut to becoming an internationally known force in a tough, competitive business. The book will feature Betsey's candid memories of the fashion and downtown scene in the 60s and how she started her own business from the ground up after designing successfully for multiple other companies. She will discuss that business's ups and downs and reinventions (including bankruptcy), and her thoughts on body image, love, divorce, men, motherhood, and her bout with breast cancer. Betsey is richly illustrated with many of her landmark clothes, fashion sketches, and personal photos--making the book the perfect memento and gift for every girl (of any age) for whom Betsey is, as a recent New York Times profile noted, "a role model still.' --
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Summary

Summary

A memoir by the internationally famous fashion designer and style icon

Mention the name "Betsey Johnson" and almost every woman from the age of 15 to 75 can rapturously recall a favorite dress or outfit; whether worn for a prom, a wedding, or just to stand out from the crowd in a colorful way. They may also know her as a renegade single mom who palled around with Edie Sedgwick, Twiggy, and The Velvet Underground, or even as a celebrity contestant on Dancing with the Stars . Betsey is also famous for her iconic pink stores (she had 65 shops across the US) and for her habit of doing cartwheels and splits down the runway at the close of her fashion shows. Throughout her decades-long career, she's taken pride in producing fun but rule-breaking clothing at an accessible price point. What they might not know is that she built an empire from scratch, and brought stretch clothing to the masses in the 80s and 90s.

Betsey will take the reader behind the tutu and delve deeply into what it took to go from a white picket fence childhood in Connecticut to becoming an internationally known force in a tough, competitive business. The book will feature Betsey's candid memories of the fashion and downtown scene in the 60s and how she started her own business from the ground up after designing successfully for multiple other companies. She will discuss that business's ups and downs and reinventions (including bankruptcy), and her thoughts on body image, love, divorce, men, motherhood, and her bout with breast cancer. Betsey will be richly illustrated with many of her landmark clothes, fashion sketches, and personal photos--making the book the perfect memento and gift for every girl (of any age) for whom Betsey is, as a recent New York Times profile noted, "a role model still."


Author Notes

Betsey Johnson has been rocking the fashion industry with her unique and original designs since the 1960s. Known for her celebration of the exuberant, the embellished, and the over-the-top, her commitment to remain true to her one-of-a-kind vision has kept her at the forefront of fashion for over forty years. She is the recipient of the Council of Fashion Designers of America Timeless Talent Award (created just for her by the CFDA) and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement in Fashion and was honored with a plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame. Mark Vitulano is a freelance writer living in New York City. He worked for Betsey Johnson thirty years ago answering the telephones at her NYC showroom. He kept his ears and eyes open. The two have been friends ever since.


Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Fashion designer Johnson talks about clothes, romance, and owning a business in a breezy memoir co-written with former employee Vitulano, who captures Johnson's spirited voice. Born in Connecticut in 1942, Johnson was a school-hating, boy-crazy kid with a "bubbly, oddball personality." She attended Pratt Institute and Syracuse University, and moved to New York in the 1960s to work at Mademoiselle magazine. She got her start in fashion making sweaters in her apartment and selling them to co-workers before starting her own label and "living on tuna fish." In this celebration of female entrepreneurship, Johnson writes about creating one's own opportunities and blazing forward despite the odds. She discusses producing affordable clothing on a massive scale; inventively using the cotton-Lycra blend in streetwear; and selling her brand in 2010 to Steve Madden, whom she credits with saving her business. Along the way, she writes of being a single mother to daughter Lulu and being treated for breast cancer, and tells wild stories about her three brief marriages: to John Cale of the Velvet Underground; a burger flipper and drug addict named Joe; and a wealthy control freak (identity withheld) who bugged her apartment. "I've had great boyfriends but I chose to marry the bad ones," she admits. Filled with nostalgic photos, this upbeat memoir captures the spirit and irreverence of Johnson's colorful personality and clothing. (Apr.)


Kirkus Review

An iconic fashion designer tells the story of how she left behind a Rockwell-ian New England youth to become an eccentric fashion superstar.Johnson grew up in a picture-perfect Connecticut family during the 1940s and '50s. The second of three children, she learned early on to rely on her "bubbly, oddball personality to make my way in the world." Her first dream was to become a dancer with the Rockettes in New York City, but by the time she was in college, she gravitated toward art. An admirer of Mademoiselle layouts, she entered the magazine's fashion guest editing contest and won; a senior editor then hired her in the art department. To make ends meet, Johnson began making simple, striking clothes that quickly became popular among other women, including actress Kim Novak. She then began designing clothes full-time for Paraphernalia, a clothing boutique that became home to other 1960s avant-garde fashion designers such as Daniel Hechter and Paco Rabanne. Her unique creations caught the eyes of celebrities like Julie Christie and the Velvet Underground, a band for whom she became the chief clothing designer. After marrying and then divorcing guitarist John Cale, she opened a "designer collective" clothing store with Paraphernalia colleagues and also did freelance work, which eventually won her the Coty Fashion Critics' Award in 1971. Not long afterward, she became a single mother and embraced an edgier aesthetic, which included clothing lines done in Lycra, a fabric then used only for athletic wear. By the 1980s, Johnson was the owner of a successful chain of stores, until her company was bought out by designer Steve Madden in 2010. This candid book by a pioneering female entrepreneur and American original, illustrated with photos and quirky doodles, also offers details about motherhood, marriages to drug addicts and control freaks, and the obstacles one faces when battling breast cancer. Entertaining reading for fashionistas and Johnson fans alike. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Booklist Review

Iconic fashion designer Johnson recalls a tumultuous life in this gossipy, spirited, and amply illustrated memoir. Johnson grew up in a Connecticut suburb in the 1940s, and went on to study at the Pratt Institute and Syracuse University, where she reveled in cheerleading for the football team. After college, she worked at Mademoiselle magazine, making money in her spare time by crafting clothes for her coworkers. As a designer, she reached a peak in the sixties, when her colorful, playful, "easy-peasy" dresses were snapped up by the likes of actress Julie Christie and model Twiggy. In addition to providing provocative insight into the ups and downs of life in the fashion industry, Johnson cheerfully details a complicated private life, including three unfortunate marriages and a beloved daughter. On a more serious note, she also details her experience with breast cancer. Anyone fascinated by New York in the sixties and seventies or by fashion in general will relish this one.


Library Journal Review

Fashion designer Betsey Johnson is many things, but reserved she is not, as readers will discover in this unabashed memoir. Johnson dishes on her childhood and college years, up-and-down career in fashion, breast cancer diagnosis, and especially her "three and a half husbands" (including her 1960s wedding to John Cale wearing only a jacket, after a City Hall judge refused to marry a woman in pants). She succeeded by ignoring trends and following instincts about what "girls" like her would want to wear, from space-age Sixties dresses to petticoats and everything Lycra. Despite a lack of formal business training, she worked incredibly hard and happened upon opportunities. Less a design retrospective than a personal history, the book is illustrated with more family snapshots than runway photos. Its tone is chatty and unapologetic rather than reflective or inspirational--from Mademoiselle magazine to Warhol and the Velvet Underground to Dancing with the Stars, Johnson shrugs, smiles, and dashes off to her next adventure, always wearing something fabulous. VERDICT A breezy treat for fans wanting more about the woman behind the whimsical clothes. [See Prepub Alert, 9/30/2019.]--Lindsay King, Yale Univ. Libs, New Haven, CT


Excerpts

Excerpts

To go back to the very beginning, I was born on August 10, 1942, in Wethersfield, Connecticut, a small suburb of Hartford. That date put both my sun and moon in the sign of Leo. Now, I don't take astrology too seriously. I don't make daily decisions based on charts or planets or any of that. But there's no denying that from the time I was little, my Leo personality was in full bloom.   From what I've heard, the sun in Leo means you go out into the world and you shine. And that behavior was always instinctual to me. I was full of energy and enthusiasm and had my own special kind of appeal that wasn't at all determined by my looks. I was never the kind of pretty that would make every head turn when I walked into a room. That's for sure.   Instead, I relied on my bubbly, oddball personality to make my way in the world. I distinctly remember one instance of that from when I was a child. I was home after school. My sister and brother were at opposite ends of the living room, both studiously doing their homework. I walked into the room and out again and back again-the whole time walking on my hands, my feet in the air swaying as I tried to keep my balance. I kept this up for more than thirty minutes until my mother finally toppled me over and said, "Betsey Lee! Stop that!" I looked up at her from the floor confused and said, "I can't. It's not perfect yet." That was my peculiar drive in a nutshell.   As bubbly as I may have been, I was also what my mother called a "worrywart," which I thought sounded so ugly. But she was right: I would literally lie in bed at night and fret. It wasn't just the typical monster-under-the-bed situation. I was just an insecure, scared little girl.   I remember I had this irrational fear of dying, which came seemingly from nowhere. My mother would ask me what I was so worried about, and I didn't know how to answer. What made it all the worse was that I didn't even know how to talk about it. The fear was very real to me. I couldn't accept that I was actually going to die in the end-whatever and whenever the end might be. I used to tell my mom: I better not die before Christmas, which was my favorite time of year. My mother, in her own way trying to reassure me, would say, "We are all going to die . . . someday," I didn't feel any better. Her response just fueled my anxiety.   If I was to play armchair psychiatrist, I would have to say that World War II had something to do with my dread. The war was in full swing when I was born. I do remember hearing war reports on the radio as a child and seeing scary pictures in the newspaper that I didn't quite understand.   The war didn't directly threaten our safe little corner of Connecticut. But I guess the specter of some kind of Nazi bogeyman permeated the collective consciousness in a way that even little children couldn't escape it. My father would tell us stories of his role during the conflict. He was what was known as a "blackout man," responsible for going around the neighborhood and making sure everyone had their blackout shades down after sunset. I found it creepy that my dad-who was sweet, kind, and so full of life-had to make sure everyone in town was sealed into darkness every night.   I could also attribute my anxiety to the moon-in-Leo part of my nature. And by that I mean, when my Leo moon would kick in, oh crumb! It would come along with a pail of water to pour all over my sunny side up. From very early on I understood that I had a choice: did I want to choose the light or the dark? I wanted the happiness and sunshine. I usually found it easy enough to shake off the dark and get back into the light.   Wethersfield was at that time a very small, tight-knit community-the type of place that had neighborhood vegetable gardens and where everyone knew everyone else. Women would get together once a week for sewing bees. My mother actually hated sewing but she joined in to be sociable . . . and to learn to sew clothes for her children. It was cheaper for her to make our clothes than to go out to a department store to buy them.   Every year she'd make matching back-to-school dresses for me and my sister. They were always plaid and had little puff sleeves and sashes and bows. She later also sewed all of my dancing costumes, and I started to help. I had no idea that this would become my life's work. Back then it was just a means to an end. I don't remember deriving any great pleasure from cutting and sewing other than the joy of spending time alone with my mom.   I don't know whether my family would have been considered working class or lower middle class. Whatever we were, I just know we weren't fancy. We lived in the classic little house with the white picket fence. Very quaint, very country. Looking back, I see my childhood as very comforting and traditional, a series of endless, sunny summers followed by winters that looked like Christmas cards or a Norman Rockwell painting. We were apple pie to the max.   I had the most wonderful, loving family you can imagine. There was Mom and Dad, and I've already mentioned my brother and sister. By way of a more formal introduction, they are Sally, who was the oldest of the kids, and Bobby, the youngest. Each of us two years apart. When I was really little, we had two kittens, which I named Pete and Re-Pete. In fact we always had animals around. I remember there was a collie named Lassie (not the most original name), a horse named Scout, and later on another cat who would only eat Cheerios that she would take one at a time from a bowl with her paw.   Sally was the best sister I could ever wish for. She was just so perfect, always doing good things. She was the president of her class, she ran the local pool, she volunteered for the Red Cross. Everything she did I wanted to do, too. I guess you could say I idolized her.   Even while my true nature was already pointing me toward a different path, part of me wanted to follow in Sally's footsteps. I sometimes felt that I couldn't keep up with her, and there were definitely periods of animosity and competition. I'd sometimes get so upset with her, which was usually just my own frustration at not being as good as her. I fantasized about sneaking over to her bed while she was sleeping and biting her fingernails off. They were her pride and joy. My high energy level always had me feeling nervous or anxious, so I naturally bit my own nails down to nubs, which left me with aching fingers. I hid my hands a lot.   As for Bobby, he was the typical happy, sweet brother. He was the fastest guy on the basketball team. Basketball wasn't the only sport he was good at. He also had a sharp eye when it came to darts. One time he landed one right into my leg all the way from across the room!   To say that we were an active bunch would be an understatement. Between Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, dance classes, and baseball practice, we kept Mom and Dad pretty busy carting us around. But they never begrudged us our after-school activities. Quite the opposite-they totally encouraged and supported them.   Mom's name was Lena and Dad's was John, but for some reason everyone called him Chick. They were an idyllic couple. I have never seen two people more in love. I never once remember them having a fight, or if they did, it was never in front of us kids. They had met and married when they were both very young, Mom was petite, wiry, and pretty in a very fifties way, especially when she was all dressed to go out. It didn't happen very often, which made it all the more special to see her that way. Dad, who was a tall, blond handsome devil, fell in love with her and her vivacious personality.   Dad had gone to Pratt Institute back when it was mostly a technical college. He was trained as an electrical engineer but ended up working at the Taylor & Fenn metal foundry. He made metal patterns for the decorative details you see on things like Winchester rifles and potbellied stoves.   Once when we kids were really young, as a special treat he took us to the factory to show us what he did all day. When I think back on that trip, I can still see those big metal pattern pieces hanging from the ceiling of his workshop, and they remind me of pattern pieces that have hung from the ceilings in my own workrooms over the years.   My mom's job was running the household. And it was a full-time job. But in spite of that, she was also den mother for my brother's Boy Scout troop, mine and my sister's Brownie units, and, just for good measure, head of the PTA. Mom was always on the go, just a bundle of nervous energy. I always pictured her as a human vacuum cleaner that was never unplugged. If I inherited one quality from each of my parents, it would have to be my father's unflinching work ethic and my mother's boundless energy.   When I was about six years old, Dad switched jobs and moved the family ten miles away to Windsor, which was another small Connecticut town. Windsor was less county than Wethersfield, and it was a bit more upscale. No victory gardens there. But we did have tobacco fields. There were no more sewing circles, either, which was just fine with Mom.   The house we moved into was more modern than our previous one-very 1950s. I can still vividly picture the kitchen wallpaper. It was salmon colored with a white lattice design and ivy running through it. And of course, we had the plaid den complete with Ethan Allen furniture a black-and-white TV set, which was a big deal. Not everyone had me.   It was very important to Mom and Dad that the whole family have breakfast together every morning, and at six each evening, come hell or high water, no matter how much stuff we kids had going on, we'd sit down to have dinner-that is, except Mom. She buzzed around serving the rest of us. It was light-years away from how things are nowadays.   When we kids were older and didn't need her to watch over us when we got home from school anymore, Mom took a job as a guidance counselor at our school. Can you imagine? If you got into trouble you had to go see my mother. Of course, that was never an issue for me, Sally, and Bobby. For the most part we were good kids.   I can remember getting into trouble only a couple of times. Once, when I was about five or six years old, around the time I'd have been learning how to read, I was out in the backyard with my best friend, Vicky. She had perpetually skinned knees and came from a few blocks over where the picket fences weren't quite as white as ours. She also had an older brother who you might say was a bad influence on her.   One day, Vicky dramatically wrote a word on a piece of paper. I couldn't read it, so she told me to sound it out, like we did in school. I looked at the letters and read them aloud one by one. F-U-C-K. She said, "Now put them all together," and I said "fuck." She laughed, and I didn't know why, so I said it again. I had never heard the word before and certainly didn't know what it meant. The word felt so strange in my mouth when I repeated it. Pretty soon Vicky and I were skipping around the yard saying and singing the word over and over. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! We must have been quite a sight, two little girls in patent leather shoes, bobby socks, crinolines, and pigtails, cussing like a couple of sailors.   Unfortunately for me, my father had witnessed the whole scene from inside the house. He came running out, yelling for Vicky to go home. He dragged me inside and promptly washed my mouth out with soap. If you have never had your mouth washed out with soap, believe me, it is not pleasant. But I understood.   I never got an explanation from Dad as to what that word meant and why I should never say it. I was just told that it was bad. Which of course only made me want to say it all the more, but for the rest of my childhood I didn't.   Another incident with Vicky happened about a year later. This time we were in Woolworth's, and she dared me to steal something. It didn't matter what it was, she told me. It was just about stealing or, more accurately, getting away with it. We walked around the store for a while trying to look inconspicuous. My heart was racing while I looked for something to swipe, eventually ending up in the candy section. I surveyed the huge selection of goodies-candy cigarettes, candy necklaces, bubble gum, Charleston Chews, and chocolate bars-before I finally decided on a pack of cherry-flavored Life Savers. I figured they were small and easy to hide, and besides, they were my favorites. I looked around one more time to check that no one was watching and when I was sure I was safe I slipped them quickly into the waistband of my skirt. We nervously made our way toward the front of the store and just as we were about to step outside, I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a gruff voice saying, "Come with me, miss." I froze and my blood ran cold. My first thought was, I am going to jail. My second was, My parents are going to kill me for this.   They let Vicky go home because she hadn't done anything wrong, even though I burst into tears and said that she had made me do it. They hauled me to an office upstairs, called my parents, and told them to come down to the store. The worst part of the whole incident was the shame I felt waiting for them in that scary locked office. Excerpted from Betsey: A Memoir by Betsey Johnson, Mark Vitulano All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.