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Q&A: Betsey Johnson, Designer, Fashion Visionary, And Grandmother

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During a recent appearance to promote her eponymous collection of handbags, jewelry, swimwear, and apparel at Lord & Taylor in Scarsdale, perpetually youthful Betsey Johnson proved she’s the coolest septuagenarian around. 

Q: You’re originally from Connecticut, right? 

A: Yes, a suburb town—with a third of the income [of Westchester’s]. We were middle class. This is upper. My daughter’s husband is from [Westchester]. I used to have this neighbor, Isabella Rossellini, and then she went out [here], and then Steven Meisel. It’s the ultimate. 

Q: Do you still visit Brooklyn, where you went to art school?

A: Pratt was very different then. It was in gates; you couldn’t go out without your alarm box. It was 1960. I love Brooklyn—I started there, under the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ll tell you how funky it was: It was a five-room, $150-a-month, five-flight walk-up apartment. 

Q: Are you astounded by how far you’ve come?

A: I live on the Upper East Side, on Madison. I’m on the 10th floor; my daughter and her family are on the fifth. The priorities have changed. I want to travel…I want to spoil my two grandkids [Lola, 7, and Elle, 5]! I treat myself nicely. But it’s more about restaurants and airline tickets. I might be bicoastal soon. I’m so glad that we all decided on New York, but there’s a point where, if you don’t eat up and swim in the New York trip, why are you there?  

Q: How did you juggle running a huge company as a single mom?

A: Well…babysitters. Never a nanny. I loved my work, and what would have been difficult is if her father were around. There was never a time where I was like, ‘Oh, if only I didn’t have this kid.’ She would save me. 

Q: Are you content with being single?

A: Oh, I’ve had two marriages since. I have run into really great men and women through my travels, but nothing works if you’re looking. [At] 72 years old…if I could see somebody that I liked the vibe with, I’d sure be right there. 

Q: Do you feel like a feminist? 

A: The industry has never been discriminatory or sexist; it’s survival of the fittest. That’s what I liked about New York. You didn’t have to kiss ass or play games. You had to be talented, work hard like crazy, and have some good luck. It’s very simple. And you can know quickly if you’re good enough or not.

Q: Thoughts on the pop-art revival in fashion now?

A: Andy [Warhol], I used to hang out with him and the Velvets [’60s rock band The Velvet Underground] backstage at Max’s [Kansas City]. Every 20 years, if it’s something good, it’ll come back. In the ’80s, Stephen Sprouse brought that back, and now Marc [Jacobs] and Louis Vuitton. To me, it’s always the best. Except you can’t use any of his art without paying a fortune. 

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