In Scarsdale, Betsey Johnson Shares Words of Wisdom

The fashion designer talks candidly about youth, personal style, and major life changes.

Designer Betsey Johnson with her granddaughters
Anton Oparin / Shutterstock

Shop Talk

When legendary designer Betsey Johnson made a recent appearance at Lord & Taylor in Scarsdale, I had a rare chance to pick the style icon’s brain about the fashion industry, her late friend Andy Warhol, and staying forever in her 20s (at least aesthetic-wise) for our May issue. Dressed in punky-cool airport wear (“Do I look like I just got off a flight from LA?” she burst in, a ball of energy with bubbly in hand), wrists layered with funky arm swag, and a killer “Betsey bright” red lip, here’s what else Johnson—perched one-leg-up in L&T’s offices—waxed on.

Keeping Her Brand Current

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“I just do what I believe in and hopefully [new customers] get it, too. I’ve always experienced that…because I did find out that there is another girl like me. Back [when I was starting out], I just bought and made and did what I liked. When I do appearances, I see there is that one chunk of Bat Mitzvah, prom-dress girl, but the brand is really supported by, across the country, a real person of any age, especially the jewelry, the shoes, the bags—the categories where you don’t have to ‘fit.’”

Staying True to Her Style

“There is a customer out there that has been building and building over all the years. And now its like second generation. It’s interesting because I am the old kid on the block. But it still works because I’m so consistent. If I tried to change around or look like ‘today’s fashion’… You either get my style or you don’t. I think fashion is getting extremely serious. I went through so many ‘trend years’ in the ’60s and the ’80s, and it’s different now.”

High-Low Designer Collabs

“It all happened out of complete necessity—for a look to be there, but the price is better. Kind of like what I always wanted to do; I never wanted to be high-priced. I love that the brand is mass-market. Otherwise, I wouldn’t exist. Everybody, if you had to say it, would say, you have to make money. And most of the major, amazing, couture-y high-end lines, they all have their perfume, their underwear. I can’t think of any company that’s just expensive and doing great all on their own.” 

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Big Life-Transitions

“When I was in business, my partner and I, we just didn’t want to work that hard forever. So licensing started to happen. And that’s why at the end of the day we decided to sell. I was like, how much longer can we do this! I like my creative director seat at the moment. It’s all about being the face of the brand and popping around, and collaboration, but at the end of the day, everybody needs to do what they wanna do.”

Balancing Parenting and Business

“I would take [daughter Lulu] everywhere. By the time I had to go to Hong Kong, get an apartment, take my babysitter, I would come out owing money. But I always needed to have Lulu around, and I really used her for my real strong happiness. My business made me happy, but, you see, with a kid now, it’s just another world.  You can’t compare one to the other. Not that I stopped [working], but I managed, thank god.”

When It’s “Right” to Call It Quits

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“We had the baby, and thank god we didn’t get married. I had been married three other times and…I didn’t like what happened at the end of the day with all that paperwork. So the best thing was I knew we were gonna split. It made it hard that I was by myself, but I told Lulu when she was barely in diapers, ‘If mommy and daddy aren’t happy, mommy’s gonna go on her happy road, and daddy’s gonna go on his happy road.’”

Aging Gracefully

“Older women look great, but with older men it’s more grooming. I was in LA for a couple of days; I said to myself, ‘Oh my god, attractive men…” It’s a lot of the movie directors, the way they dress; as an older man, they are so beautifully groomed. A young kid can get away with anything. And older women know how to take care of themselves visually, but guys are sure interested now too. But it starts at the top…”

Earning Perspective

“Punk, the ’80s, brought back a certain kind of art thing, and, 20 years later, Andy’s work [is back]—very modern, cartoonlike, fluorescent, neon, silkscreen-y. You get older, and you’re old enough to see the roots, the history of it. Some kids may listen to somebody and it’s like, come on, that’s Elvis Presley! But they have no idea. You have to realize [an artist today] is talking to kids born in the ’80s or ’90s, so you can’t exactly mention Howdy Doody. But everyone will find that out, hopefully, if you live long enough.”

Her Health and Beauty Secrets

“I watch what I eat like crazy. I rather eat less and never exercise. I really wanna do that cartwheel split [for my runway finale], so I have to stay in some kind of shape, but…it feels better to just get [working out] over with. I’m happy with my body. And I haven’t been for a long time. Not that I wouldn’t want tits and a high ass! But I’m happy to not feel, ‘Oh, I can’t wear that,’ you know? I’m too in front of the camera for that. And I’ve had a little work done! I’m a real believer in, if you wanna change something, why not?”

Anton Oparin / Shutterstock

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