Betsey Johnson, BETSEY: A MEMOIR

Betsey Johnson, BETSEY: A MEMOIR

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Betsey Johnson who’s the world-renowned fashion designer and author of Betsey: A Memoir. A designer at the forefront of fashion for the past forty years, Betsey is the recipient of the Council of Fashion Designers of America Timeless Talent Award, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement in Fashion, and she even has a plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame. She currently lives in Malibu.

Betsey Johnson: Good morning, Zibs.

Zibby: Good morning.

Betsey: Zibby, that’s a trippy, great name.

Zibby: Thanks.

Betsey: I wonder where that came from.

Zibby: It’s from Elizabeth, a nickname from when I was a little baby.

Betsey: I should’ve been Betsey from Elizabeth, kind of big departure, but I was never an Elizabeth. I was always a Betsey, I guess. I know from my mom.

Zibby: I was supposed to be a Betsey too.

Betsey: Really?

Zibby: My dad had said he never met a Betsey who wasn’t happy. They were going to nickname me Betsey, but then I guess I didn’t look like a Betsey. So here we are, Betsey and Zibby.

Betsey: Happy people, I hope. That’s the beginning and the end of it, especially now waking up and seeing something really great about the day and praying we get through this thing. It’s a real challenge to stay happy and self-entertained and be able to live without being next to your nearest and dearest. It’s a big challenge, but I know we’re going to get through it. We have to. We’ve lost too many people along the way. We just have to stay home and wait it out. Whatever, oh well. Play dress up, learn how to cook, embroider. My daughter took up needlepointing again. I just moved in a new a trailer park, which is a very Malibu thing. It’s a great trailer park of all kinds of income levels and people levels, but just really a friendly little private-Idaho place out here in Malibu. At least I feel good in my surroundings and with the people I’m with, but have to walk down the side of the street with them on opposite sides. It’s weird. I hope my book is a bit of — people are reading more, they say, which is a good thing. I hope my book is a little interesting — I’ll say if you’ve been a customer, I felt if every one of my really good customers buys the book, that would be great because I ain’t no writer and I was very terrified doing this, but it’s come out okay, I think.

Zibby: I really enjoyed your book. I found your book so interesting on so many levels, particularly the part about your being a woman entrepreneur and also a mother, and all of your relationships with men, and how you got through so many challenges. If there’s anybody who can get through a challenging time such as now, it’s you. From your book, you can tell. You just have the stamina and the ability to get through really anything.

Betsey: You know what I know I did? It’s kind of embarrassing. The blinders on the horses in Central Park were always a big thing to me because I thought, how can these horses deal with the energy and craziness of New York City streets? That’s why they had blinders on. They were shut off, except for the lane they were in or whatever. They could only see forward. I just thought, that’s a really good way to go if you want to get somewhere. You have to focus. I hate to say, but you have to shut a lot out. You just can’t deal with it at all. You have to shut a lot out so you can focus on what you got to do or what you want to do at that moment. It’s very simple. I didn’t dream up anything new. You just have to kind of shut the music down and have faith and go forward. That’s, I think, the zone we’re living in now. Hopefully, globally, we can get it all together real soon. I don’t know when. Where are you living? Where are you from?

Zibby: I’m based in New York.

Betsey: Oh, you’re in New York. God, I never thought I’d leave that city. I was there fifty-five years and loved every second of it. All of a sudden after going bankrupt and la, da, da, da, da, and joining the corporate world and realizing I can work from anywhere if I could learn how to use this damn cell phone, computer, email — I can’t do any of that stuff. We have no choice but to be optimistic and focus on the good stuff. That’s what I wanted my book to be. I didn’t want it to be below the belt and the downside of my life. My life’s no different than any other girl’s life. No, I’m not different from anyone because I lasted in the business for so many years. I felt I was always the odd man out. I always believed, if I like this, there’s going to be somebody else that likes this too because I’m not that weird. I still wear some of my old stuff. I think I’m pretty timeless. I did find there were lots more girls like me.

That’s why I thought my entire story might be interesting, not just the fashion piece. That’s just one little piece. I consider the family piece, the single mothering piece, the getting through the illnesses piece — that was harder than the fashion business piece. Fashion and cutting and sewing and the clothing thing was always a fun category I loved because of my dancing school and my dancing costumes. All of a sudden, my dear friend Mark, the writer who put all my talking together, he just kept bugging me how I have to do a book. I have to do a book. I said, “No, I can’t write, Mark. I can’t do a book.” He really made me do it a couple years ago. I’m real happy with the way it looks. I was allowed to put some drawings in there and some little doodles. A book with just words is really terrifying to me. I’m not a reader of “book” books. I think I want to start now, if someone would recommend a really great book. Anyway, I’m just so relieved that it’s out and people seem to like it. It’s a light read and a quick read and at the end of the day, I hope, an inspiring read. I did it. You can do it too, that kind of gig.

Zibby: One thing that I was struck by over and over in your book was your ability to ask for what you wanted, either to a boss who was intimidating to you, or to a spouse at the end of a relationship, to your daughter. You just have that ability to self-advocate like that. Is that something taught, or it’s just something you had inside you all along? What do you think?

Betsey: No, it’s something I had to do. I never felt that I was in the power position, successful in terms of getting my way, but I had to have my way. I just had to have my way. Really weird, but it’s my way or the highway. I think I made it work because it was my hard work; the three things, hard work, talent, and luck. I had a lot of luck, just out-of-the-blue luck. I would have nothing to do with the fashion industry or any of it if I didn’t see that I was getting happier and happier, and more and more my way. The only reason I went into business was because I couldn’t stand to work anymore for companies who would let it be my way for a certain amount of time and then sure enough, just like my husband, sure enough about two and a half years later, it wasn’t my way anymore. After learning and doing my things for about fifteen years, I decided, I got to be on my own. I can’t swim upstream forever. It’s just more of a fight than it is a pleasure.

Scraped up some money, found my dear friend to be a great business partner. We did it with our blinders on, pink blinders. We just did it. We did it our way without any kind of knowledge of the fashion business or industry or how you do it. It seemed very simple to us. You have an overhead. You have to pay your rent at the end of the month. You have to keep your lights on. If we knew how tough it was, we never would’ve done it. Luckily, it worked. There were lots more girls that would come out of the sidewalk cracks. I don’t know how I found my girls. A lot of my girls were girls that ten years later said, “Betsey, I still have that old paraphernalia dress. Why don’t you make something like that again?” Then thirty years later, they’d be, “Hey, why don’t you make something like that again?” That’s kind of what it’s been. It’s been reinventing what I always was doing, which was basically a little ballerina dress or a T-shirt-y dress. I found my point of view that basically came from my dancing costumes. There’s no way I don’t reek of color and sparkle and ruffles. I was born a Leo.

Zibby: I’m a Leo too, by the way.

Betsey: You are?

Zibby: I am.

Betsey: Oh, wowie. You know it. You understand it and feel it then. We do not always have to be the shining star in the universe. That’s for sure. I think we’ve got pressure on us to be very Leo. I’m one of those insecure Leos. Would you know we had more Leo girls in our company than any other sign? I’m not into signs that much at all, but it’s interesting how there were just a lot, a lot, a lot of Leos around. We all were great, great friends and built a family business together and still are in touch. Every time I go back to New York, we get together, about fifteen, twenty of us. We’re still great friends. That’s the best thing to have built, a company where people met their very best friends, where they were very, very happy to work within the company. My girls were very much desired by other companies. There was a certain spirit my girls had. Every one of them, as they left, as they had to leave, as they had to move on when we closed, they were sought after, which makes me feel really good about their first introduction to the outside world, the business world. We always hired young, groovy girls from the street. We never had a businessman in there, or a businesswoman. We just treated it very logically. It works that way. You don’t have to be — well, now you have to be more brilliant, I guess. I would never want to go into the industry now. It was a very, very cornball, homemade, down on the farm kind of world back then. Now it’s just so, so different. I do not like the computer or those machines, so I would be sunk.

Zibby: I don’t know. I think you would find a way to shine no matter when you were born. I really do. I think you’re born with that.

Betsey: We would. We will. We have. This is a push, what we’re going through now. I can’t imagine two more months without getting closer to my grandkids. That’s what really pisses me off about this. It’s such a cutoff. Out of it comes an appreciation of your granddaughters. It’s like, remember the days we used to hug and kiss? Other good stuff is even happening out of that junk. I always try and find that little tiny reason that this is happening because of something. You know, the planet’s cleaned up fifty percent. From the satellites outside, they only see the pollution around the Earth has been cut down by fifty percent. Of course, nobody’s driving. Nobody can get anywhere. In terms of the air pollution, it’s been a good thing. Everyone has to just take care. Hopefully, good things will happen to them. We just stay at home. That’s a good idea. That’s the best we can do right now. It’s hard to get into that groove, but think of all the stuff you can do at home that you’ve never had the time to do before. Me, I might learn to cook, but I don’t think so. I want to get my sewing machine out again. It’s packed somewhere in this unpacking mess I have to deal with. It’s keeping me busy to move into my new little trailer park house.

Zibby: See, out of this can come a whole line of Betsey Johnson clothing that you never would’ve created. There you go.

Betsey: I know. I know. I’m thinking what I’ll do next — because we have to keep busy. There’s no way that we don’t need to be busy. I’ve always been happily busy. My daughter’s needlepointing again. My granddaughters are doing paper-mache and all this old-fashioned, old-world, artsy, craftsy stuff. We set up a Zoom with every single person in my family from all over the world: Betsey, my namesake, Betsey from Bangladesh; most of my relatives from the East Coast; me, the West Coast. It was better than — how can you get the whole family together for Christmas anymore? That used to happen when we were little, but it did happen on the computer, the cell phone, on Zoom anyway, whatever that is. That was a good thing.

Zibby: Betsey, I know we’re almost out of time. Do you have any advice to either aspiring entrepreneurs or designers or authors or just somebody trying to get through the day? Any advice after your life of experiences?

Betsey: Oh, I don’t know. I just think wake up — I think this happens when you get older. I wake up and go, yes, I’m glad I woke up today. Ain’t life grand? It’s more just believe in yourself and believe in your contribution. Find out where the missing link is and be that missing link. I remember back then I thought, what’s missing? Maybe the trick is to do what’s missing. What was missing for me were clothes that I liked when I went to the little cornball department stores and stuff. That’s how I ended up making my own clothes, because something was missing. That’s what I decided to jump into. You have to work really, really hard, but you have to keep your happy vision about it. You have to stay optimistic about it and believe you can do it. Just keep batting away at it or throw in the towel and move on to something else, especially with boyfriends. Throw in the towel on the early side rather than the late side and move on.

Zibby: Thank you so much for sharing your time with me today and for your book which I truly enjoyed.

Betsey: Thank you, Zibby. You’ve been great. Thank you so much. Have a good one.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Betsey: Stay well.

Zibby: Thanks. You too. buh-bye.

Betsey: Bye.

Betsey Johnson, BETSEY: A MEMOIR