News & Runway

Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis: Betsey Johnson

Last night Betsey Johnson sat down with Fern Mallis at the 92Y in New York City to talk about her career — and naturally, things began with a cartwheel. Betsey then proceeded to undress on stage, tossing her bag, jacket, tutu and more on the floor before jumping up and down exclaiming that she just turned 70. Here are some other highlights from the, ahem, lively interview.

On her hair: "It costs $20,000 a year to look this cheap and trashy!"

On her family: They were WASPY, loving, sweet and very stereotypical 1950s. Her mom was the guidance counselor in the school Betsey attended. "My sister and brother are my two closest and dearest friends."

On her childhood: Betsey credits her dance teacher for giving her spirit and life. She was a cheerleader, but never felt particularly attractive or popular. After high school she went to Pratt, but left after a year: "We didn't sleep, we were in constant panic." Being a cheerleader also didn't fly at Pratt so Betsey went to Syracuse instead and she graduated Magna Cum Laude.

On her early career: After college, Betsey became a guest editor at Mademoiselle before designing clothes. Her designs eventually caught the eye of Andy Warhol. "I met Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick because they wanted silver clothes […] To this day Lou Reed says I cut a good crotch." The 60s and 70s were great for Betsey, but when asked about the 80s she says, "The working woman wardrobe wasn't for me, but if it wasn't for it I would have never had time to have a kid."

On her inspiration: Seeing the B-52s at CBGB's was a big inspiration for the designer.

On men: "I married and divorced my second husband in three months. I had very bad taste in men."

At the CFDA Awards: Betsey met Saint Laurent. "He actually knew who I was […] people got what I was about and enjoyed it."

On breast cancer: For a long time, Fern Mallis and Betsey's daughter were the only people who knew about Betsey being diagnosed with breast cancer. Now she is working to be as vocal as possible to raise awareness for the cause and, knock on wood, she is cancer-free.

On her brand's financial problems: "I always loved Steve [Madden]; he saved us. I think he likes that I've got ten years on him. He's great. He's a wiz kid. I call him Stevie Wonder." When she closed the doors to all of her stores, she served champagne and cupcakes. She didn't want to make it a depressing affair despite how difficult it was to go by her stores and see her personal furniture, everything, being sold. Under Steve, Betsey is the creative director for all of her brands, but she said that "the clothes will never ever be the same as when we had our retail stores. It's a very different version now." The clothes are going to be priced between $99 to $299.

On reality TV: Betsey is starring in a reality show with her daughter, who is reality TV obsessed, on the Style Network starting in April. "I think it's a comedy!"

On other designers she admires: "I'm so bad because I need to vote for CFDA," says Betsey, but she doesn't like to shop or follow fashion or other designers.