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Johnson, Betsey

designed fabrics design johnson’s

B. August 10, 1942

Birthplace: Wethersfield, Connecticut

Awards: Mademoiselle Merit Award, 1970
         Coty American Fashion Critics’ “Winnie,” 1971
         American Printed Fabrics Council Tommy Award, 1971, 1990

As a girl, Betsey Johnson dreamed of becoming a dancer and began sewing dance costumes to pay for her lessons. She attended Syracuse University where she graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1964, with a major in illustration and a minor in drama. During her final year of college Johnson won a contest to become Mademoiselle magazine’s guest fabric editor. In this position, Johnson reviewed hundreds of fabrics and took the samples home to sew her own clothes. Coworkers admired Johnson’s unique creations and began ordering from her.

In 1965 Johnson was introduced to Paul Young, a British retailer opening Paraphernalia boutiques in the United States. The store catered to the flower-power fashions of the 1960s, carrying designs by Mary Quant and Emmanuelle Khan. Johnson was hired as head designer, and she launched her first collection. In 1969 Johnson left Paraphernalia to open a boutique, Betsey, Bunky, & Nini, with two of her friends. Johnson’s affordable, whimsical collections established her as the leader of the youth-oriented anti-Seventh Avenue movement of the late 1960s. Her signature style included t-shirt dresses, ballerina skirts, and clear vinyl “kit” dresses with paste-on stars, fish, and numbers which let wearers design their own look.

Johnson worked for numerous companies in the 1970s which expanded her design abilities. From 1970 to 1974 she designed award-winning fabrics and junior sportswear for Alley Cat; in 1971 and 1975 she designed for Butterick Patterns; and in 1974 and 1975 she designed for Gant. The birth of her daughter, in 1975 inspired Johnson to design maternity and children’s wear. From 1974 to 1975 she designed for Jeannette Maternities, and from 1974 to 1977 she designed a line of children’s clothes for Shutterbug. Johnson also founded three different companies in the 1970s: Star Ferry by Betsey Johnson and Michael Miles (1975–1977), Tric-Trac (1974–1976), and B.J. Vines (1978).

Finally, in July 1979, Betsey Johnson, Inc., was formed to produce sportswear, body wear, and dresses in vinyls and stretch fabrics which appealed to the new punk movement. Her business thrived in the 1980s, and she was offered numerous lucrative licensing agreements, all of which she rejected. Johnson was not interested in relinquishing control of any aspect of the design process. In 1996 the “Madwoman of Seventh Avenue,” who was known for offering extreme street styles and had rejected the Seventh Avenue establishment, launched Ultra, a designer-priced collection. The Ultra line, which also includes a fragrance, is co-designed by Johnson’s daughter Lulu, whose conservative style brings refinement to the line and balances Johnson’s inherent whimsy.

Johnson, Charles(1948–) - Chronology, Begins Serious Writings, Draws Cartoons [next] [back] Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye

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