Betsey Johnson, fashion's free spirit

Fashion's Betsey Johnson
Fashion's Betsey Johnson 08:01

The name BETSEY JOHNSON has always promised fashions that are anything but ordinary. Not surprising, considering that the real-life Betsey Johnson is a bit out of the ordinary, too. With Serena Altschul this morning we’ll pay her a visit: 

A Betsey Johnson fashion show can seem a bit like a three-ring circus, with as much action behind-the-scenes as there is on the runway. There are DJs, celebrities like Blondie singer Deborah Harry, and hand-drawn art by the designer herself. Oh, and lots and lots of hugs.

Every show concludes with Johnson’s signature move: A cartwheel on the runway.

It’s no small feat for the 74-year-old designer, who has hinted that her Spring 2016 collection show may be her last.

“Really, your last show?” asked Altschul.

“Well, yes. I’m a little over the formula, up and down the runway.  It’s not my last something!

Designer Betsey Johnson with correspondent Serena Altschul. CBS News

And Betsey Johnson has done something in the fashion world for more than 50 years. Since the 1960s, the maniacally free-spirited New York designer’s clothes have been the uniform for folks that didn’t want to look like everyone else.

Striking a pose. CBS News

Back then, the Velvet Underground rocked her clothes. Theses days, she dresses the likes of reality TV star Kelly Osbourne, who declared, “I wouldn’t be able to me without Betsey.”

In 2015 the Council of Fashion Designers of America recognized Johnson with a lifetime achievement award. But accolades have never meant much to Johnson. She just wanted to see her clothes worn.

“I never wanted to be on a pedestal,” Johnson said. “I wanted my clothes affordable, and fun.

“I only knew about what I wanted. So I was just hoping there were more girls on Earth that were kind of like me, so that they would relate.  ‘Cause the best thing as you look across the street, you see girls in your dress with your bag, and you go, ‘Oh, my God!’ And you don’t know her!”

Girls like Elizabeth DiLullo: “Oh my God, amazing,” she sad of Johnson. “She is, like, my inspiration with fashion and just life, and no matter how old you could get, you still could be youthful. You still could be fun.”

She was among the hundreds who turned out to meet the designer, promoting her children’s line of clothing at Lord & Taylor at the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania.

Models walk the runway wearing Betsey Johnson at Macy’s kickoff to New York Fashion Week, at Madison Square Garden on September 7, 2016 in New York City. Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

As a child herself, Johnson didn’t know she wanted to be a designer. She studied ballet and dance before graduating with honors from Syracuse University. “I never studied fashion design,” she said, adding the only thing she really knew how to do was sew.

She might not have “studied” fashion, but she was drawn to it. At 21, she won a contest to become guest editor for Mademoiselle Magazine in New York City, following the likes of Sylvia Plath and Candace Bergen.

“They picked 20 girls out of America, either 10 art talented, design talented, 10 literary.  I obviously got into the art side. So I won that. I got to New York.  Bla-bla-bla-bla-bla-bla. And after that, I just loved fashion.”

And she fell in love with New York City, where she was creating looks for models like Twiggy by day, and hanging out with the in-crowd at legendary nightclub Max’s Kansas City at night. Within 10 years, she had her own label.

Since the 1960s, the maniacally free-spirited New York designer’s clothes have been the uniform for folks that didn’t want to look like everyone else. CBS News

Altschul asked, “Do you think of yourself as a businesswoman?”

“Uh-huh. I learned right away -- which kids graduate from design school and they never learn -- you’re only as good as your last sale.”

Briefly married three times, she raised her daughter, Lulu, as a single working mother.

Lulu said, “When I was little and I would have friends come over for a playdate, before I’d open the door, I’d go, ‘Okay, don’t be scared. But it’s a little different than your average house.’ And it was either a loft that we could roller skate in. Or it was, you know, chartreuse green or the Betsey pink.  So I was definitely kind of embarrassed of my surroundings and environment.”

Lulu was there as her mother made a name for herself. And she was there when the unthinkable happened: One of the breast implants Johnson had gotten a decade earlier had malfunctioned.

“One day I wake up, my left boob is gone, literally. It deflated overnight. Leaked into my body. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute!’ Then I went right away, did this check and that check. And you know something’s up when you have your mammogram and your sonogram and they don’t let you go home.”

Her doctors detected breast cancer. Scared, Johnson told no one except Lulu. “I just didn’t want to deal with it every day.  I was having my radiation 8:00 a.m. every morning at Cornell. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t tell anyone but Lulu.”

She swore her daughter to secrecy, fearing her business would be ruined. 

But breast cancer didn’t ruin her business. It took the economic downturn of 2008 to do that. Devastated, Johnson declared bankruptcy.

She says if she hadn’t had Lulu, “I wouldn’t be alive.”

Her friend, the legendary shoe designer Steve Madden, stepped in to save the company. And Johnson stayed on as creative director. “It’s so fun to look back on something that you thought was so horrible and that thing of, ‘It’ll all work out in the end. If it isn’t worked out, it ain’t the end.’”

After a lifetime in fashion, Johnson has broadened her horizons. Today she is just as likely to be known for her dance moves on “Dancing With the Stars” as she is for her turns on the runway.

Recently this consummate New Yorker left the Big Apple to live with her daughter and grandkids in California. But whatever coast she’s on, she knows people across the country are wearing her creations. And for that, she counts her lucky stars.

New Yorker Betsey Johnson, now transplanted in California, with Serena Altschul. CBS News

“I’ve been lucky,” Betsey said. “I think it takes killer hard work, talent. But for me, everything I think, ‘Oh, that was lucky.’ Luck won the contest. That was luck. The cancer with the implant and the boobs, that was luck. I only had Lulu, and that was luck. And then she has two kids. That was luck. And to me, it’s just a lot of good luck, and the talent and the work. But the luck for me has been the most important.”

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