Amanda Lopez x Betsey Johnson 3515A 1 77c36

Betsey Johnson on Nonconformity, Getting Through Hard Times, and Staying Creative

by Marie Lodi

At the tender age of 80, Betsey Johnson has lived a life many of us can only dream of. She’s built a legendary career out of kitsch, eschewing the minimalist motifs favored by some of her fashion industry colleagues for funky prints, an unabashed celebration of extreme girlishness, and the tendency to close her runway shows with her signature cartwheel and splits. Still, one has to wonder if Johnson was ever tempted to submit to the status quo. “I never feel pressure to conform,” Johnson says. “I am proud of who I am, and what my designs represent: Free spirit!” Joie de vivre has always been apparent in Johnson’s designs, from the silver lamé looks she designed in the 1960s (“Edie Sedgwick was always such a big fan of them!”) to the frilly tulle dresses that any “Betsey girl” from the ‘90s and aughts (and now) would be lucky to wear to prom. 

It’s no argument that Johnson’s innate sense of playfulness and wonder is maximalist fashion at its core. Though flamboyant dressing is not a new concept by any means, it has been more embraced in recent years, thanks to an auspicious convergence of post-lockdown dressing, trend cycling, and the Y2K revival. But Betsey Johnson and her colorful designs have always been in vogue. Johnson believes that the current focus on flamboyant fashion is due to a hunger for optimism. “Kitschy fashion makes people feel good and joyful,” she says. “The world can be a rough place, and wearing bright, over-the-top colors just brings you excitement to take on the day. Color is an emotional thing, and people need uplifting right now. That’s why color is so important!”

Amanda Lopez x Betsey Johnson 3651 6f8cbPhoto by Amanda LopezNot everything has been cartwheels and rainbows in Betsey Johnson’s life. Her company declared bankruptcy in 2012, shuttering 60-plus stores around the country. (Steve Madden now owns the Betsey Johnson brand, where she still serves as creative director.) Johnson is also a breast cancer survivor. But she’s always kept on. “When you hit a low point, whether in life or your career, pushing through it is really all about staying positive, and for me, remembering how lucky I am to be able to do what I love every single day, even when it gets tough. I always surround myself with people and things that I love that bring me true happiness and joy – and that is how I persevere!”

Amanda Lopez x Betsey Joshnson 3520A 9f9eePhoto by Amanda LopezThese days, Johnson finds joy in the little things, like her favorite red lipstick (Nars Powermatte Lip Pigment in Don’t Stop), listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, who her boyfriend introduced her to (“I love it! I’ve never been into jazz, but something about it feels right for right now”), lounging at her home in Mexico, and spending time with loved ones on her new pink-and-white fishing boat, which is called “The Betsey Boat,” naturally. Johnson says she feels the most inspired when she’s surrounded by those she loves, and vice versa, but if she ever feels stuck creatively, she knows to just look around and wait. “Eventually, you see something, because you aren’t looking for it. That is where the magic happens and it sparks a whole new idea,” she says. “When your eyes and heart are wide open, the inspiration always comes back.” –Marie Lodi

Top Photo by Amanda Lopez

This article originally appeared in the Winter 22/23 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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