Costume Jewel: Betsey Johnson

A punk princess who built an fashion empire on floral and leopard prints—together.

By Carlin Flora, published on March 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Betsey Johnson

Profession: Fashion Designer

Claim to Eccentricity: She's a punk princess who built an empire on floral and leopard prints—together.

Betsey Johnson, a woman who never stopped playing dress-up, greeted PT with a wide smile, her lips painted hot pink to match her office walls, wearing a tight T-shirt posing the question, "How do you call your loverboy?" Johnson, who's stuck firmly to her aesthetic (vintage-inspired, colorful, girly, yet bold) during the 28 years she's helmed her own label, now has 44 stores and a slew of licensing deals. After a charmed Connecticut childhood and a stint cheerleading at Syracuse University, she fell in with an avant-garde crowd in New York City. Despite her peppy showmanship—after each of her fashion shows, she cartwheels down the runway—she retains a rock 'n' roll spirit of unconventionality.

The Andy Warhol era that you were a part of is so romanticized—do you look back on it as an inspiring time?

That will always be a peak genius, crazoid time zone. But it's depressing to think that things will never be as good as back then. I don't think that. I'm in the grandma zone now, and that's the best to me.

Do you think your current social scene influences your creativity?

I work more in isolation. I always have. I don't dinner party, I don't cook, I don't do a social number at all. Your clothes aren't for wallflowers... You have no idea how many personalities are lurking in every lady.

Do clothes bring out those different sides?

Clothes are very powerful. I really do believe people judge a book by its cover. And I like that clothes really make you feel something. Everybody has their own private Idaho of what makes them feel good.

Do you consider yourself eccentric?

No, I'm whitewashed normal. I'm a straight arrow. Growing up I was taught: No smoking, no lipstick, no dyeing your hair, and no sex before you're married! It was same old, same old, small town Connecticut. Nothing screwed-up. I had to sweep the 5 and 10 store for stealing a roll of Life Savers.

Were you the wacky one in the family?

I was dramatic, artistic. I was so happy. Everybody in my family was happy because everybody did their stuff. My true passion was dancing—the costumes and the makeup and the pretend of it all. My mother was a taxi driver, basically. She drove my sister to piano lessons, me to dance lessons, and my brother to practice.

What sort of mother were you?

Hardworking. Lulu's father and I split a month after she was born. The single mom thing wasn't so devastating; I was much happier on my own with Lulu. She lived a kid's life in New York, on the sewing table. We were inseparably close. I think she slept in my bed until she was 14!

Is there a downside to such closeness?

Well, there's a downside to everything if you really want to see it. The downside was that she didn't have a daddy. The bad side for me was that I didn't have that other person around.

Three and a half husbands later, I'm happy, I'm productive. Thank God I did not marry Lulu's father—that's why I call him a "half." I just can't believe I'm living to see Lulu happily married and with a daughter.

What went wrong in your marriages?

I tend not to see guys for who they really are. Love is blind. I wish I went to a shrink many, many years before I finally did—when I was 52, to get me through my last husband. But everybody I've been with, I was madly in love with, and absolutely committed to for the rest of my life. I could have regrets, but where does that get you? My work has been my glue. It gave me independence. The best part is coming to work every day, doing what you gotta get done, either smoothly, or panickedly, or pressuredly, but happily.

You seem like an optimist.

On an optimism scale from 1 to 10, I'm about an 8. And if I get depressed, I really like to get depressed and get it over with! Really indulge in it. But with my life and my responsibilities, I never had much time to indulge it.

Do you value uniqueness above all?

I always wanted to do things my way. To do what you really believe in, what you really care about, I guess that is a little different.