Betsey Johnson will turn 70 on August 10 and by anyone’s measure, her fashion business has had an incredible run. Generations of young girls squealed with delight buying their Betsey Johnson dresses to wear to those special events. The dresses never failed to turn heads. Johnson’s creations were frilly, bright, dripping with ribbons, bows, sparkles, and pizazz. Johnson loved to dance and many of her dresses resembled costumes, confections that made a young girl feel like the Sugar Plum Fairy. As one young woman, now in her 20s, recalls:
“They were my first ‘grown up’ dresses. The sales help with the pink hair and piercings looked really intimidating to a 13 year old, but they were really nice and loved helping us find the perfect dress. I got all of my Bar Mitzvah dresses at Betsey Johnson. My mom was always afraid I’d end up looking like a saloon floozy, but there was always a dress that was just right for me.”
Betsey Johnson’s company has filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection and most of her stores will be closing, including her store on Madison Avenue and the one in Soho where it all started. While the economy continues to impact higher end design firms, many fashion empires falter when the genius behind the label leaves. And Johnson was a genius. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Syracuse University, she interned at Mademoiselle magazine, won their guest editor contest, and a year later was the in-house designer for the trendy New York boutique Paraphernalia. In 1969, she opened Betsey Bunky Nini a boutique on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Edie Sedgwick was her in house model. She launched her own label in 1978 and after some fits and starts, went on to open more than 65 stores around the world.
In June, 2009, Johnson told New York Magazine she was looking forward to retiring, leaving her fashion house in the hands of others. Even though she planned to stay on as a consultant, without her day-to-day involvement and vision to keep the clothes youthful and fresh, the excitement began to fade.
In August, 2009, Betsey threw herself a birthday party, visiting many of her stores to greet her fans. (Read our story). Moms who wore Betsey’s clothes in the 70s came with their daughters, many decked out in their favorite Betsey Johnson dresses. She truly has been dressing young girls and women for more than 40 years. What an accomplishment!
While the stand alone stores are closing, Betsey Johnson dresses and accessories will continue to be sold in stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom. Longtime aficionados hope that a new creative talent still may surface to restore luster to this treasured label. Other shoppers will satisfy their Betsey fix by shopping vintage, scoring a dress, skirt, shirt, or pair of shoes from years ago when she was truly at the top of her game.