Betsey Johnson on the Eve of a Cotton Lycra Revolution
When The Fashion Icon Had to Take Control of Her Career
By 1977 I had been freelancing for almost four years, and it just wasn’t doing the trick anymore. Even though I did have my name on some of the labels, it didn’t feel like the real thing. I was getting tired of designing what was essentially someone else’s vision.
One afternoon, while having a drink with my good friend, and favorite designer, Giorgio Sant’Angelo at Bill’s Bar in the Garment District I was going on and on about how I felt as if I wasn’t moving forward in my career. I was frustrated because I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and nobody seemed willing to hire me for that. He told me flat out,
Coming from Giorgio, this was a major statement. He was such a gentle man, and I never saw him get his feathers ruffled. But he seemed adamant about this, so he must have meant business. Or he could have just been fed up with my complaining.
My fave, Giorgio Sant’Angelo, who told me to “Just do it!”
For at least a year I had been looking for a company that would hire me and let me design my own line while they footed the bill. I knew such companies existed because, up to a point, that was the way things worked for me when I was at Alley Cat. Puritan, their parent company, owned a bunch of different labels, and each had its own designer.
I only left Alley Cat when the label folks got too controlling, because I hated that feeling of being stifled. I had been spoiled at Paraphernalia. There I worked day and night, but I could make anything I wanted, as long as it sold. Lucky for me, it did.
I knew I still could design a line that would sell. But I thought taking on the business side as well would be overwhelming. When Giorgio dared me to stand on my own, I flashed back to six months earlier, when I had gone to see Frank Andrews, my favorite psychic. He said to me, “Betsey, why don’t you just go to the beach and relax? You shouldn’t be trying to start anything new at this point in time. It’s simply not in the stars for you right now. Give yourself some time. Within six months I see you living in a new place and sporting a whole new look.”
As Frank’s words came back to me I realized the six-month waiting period was over. I should have taken his advice and just gone to the beach instead of beating myself up over my work situation. No wonder it hadn’t felt right before. Now, I looked around my loft, which I had just painted hot pink and acid green, and realized that in effect I was living in a new space. I’d also cut off my curly brown hair, dyed it black, and wore it spiky and messy, like Keith Richards. My whole look had changed. So if Frank had been right about my living space and my appearance, maybe he was right about the future of my career as well.
Giorgio’s real kick-in-the-pants advice, along with Frank’s prediction, got me thinking in a whole different way. I had never really had to pursue jobs before. They had all more or less landed in my lap. Now I was finally going to take the lead and roll the dice. The more the idea of starting my own business sank in, the more excited I got. My gears were turning as I considered how to put the pieces together into a master plan. I knew the first thing I would need was a partner in crime.
There was no way I was going to do this alone. I immediately thought of my friend Chantal Bacon.
We’d met a few years earlier when she was the rep for the brief life of my Betsey Johnson Kids line. She did a great job of selling the line, so I knew she had that part down. Currently she was repping Cathy Hardwick’s clothing line. As for the other business stuff, I wasn’t so sure, and I suspected that it might be a challenge for her. I didn’t get too hung up on that, though, because I liked the idea of winging it with a girlfriend whom I trusted, much more than hiring someone with business savvy who was no fun to be around. Also, having worked with me before, I knew she really got me and my designs.
Chantal and I clicked. We had lived kind of parallel lives on some levels. While I had experienced the swinging 1960s and the boutique world, Chantal was part of the early ’70s glam life, working as a model as well as on the King’s Road in London, at a boutique called Alkasura. It was pretty famous for catering to the likes of David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Marc Bolan, and anyone who was anyone in that ’70s scene. And just like me in the ’60s, she had to get out before she burnt out. Which is how she found herself in New York selling my line. So we pretty much had a lot of the same sensibilities.
If I could persuade her to jump in with me, she would be the Butch Cassidy to my Sundance Kid, or a Bonnie to my Clyde. I set up a meeting for the two of us at Café Un Deux Trois, a cheap but cute place on West 44th Street close to her apartment. I walked in not knowing whether Chantal was open to my kind of adventure. I knew she wasn’t completely happy working for Cathy Hardwick, but she needed the financial security.
I sat her down, had a sip of the house wine, and summoned all the confidence I could muster. “Look,” I said, “I want to make you an offer that I think will be really good for you.” I wasn’t into negotiating, I just went in with my best offer—the two of us in a complete and equal partnership. I didn’t want to think of it in any other terms. Not only did I not want a boss, I didn’t want to be a boss, either.
I launched into my plan, touching on my idea for “A Wardrobe in Stretch,” and about this new DuPont fabric I’d found called cotton Lycra. I explained to her that the clothes I wanted to make were the kind of stuff I wanted to wear, and there had to be lots of other girls out there who thought like I did and would want to wear it, too.
Then I took a deep breath and tried to gauge her first reactions. She had an absolute poker face, so I decided to just move
I wasn’t being judgmental. God knows I was playing the field and had my share of bad-news boyfriends, too, but I was trying to put that behavior behind me. I got very serious and told her she would have to settle down and leave all that stuff behind her if she wanted to accept my offer. I needed someone who was committed to the business first, because I was just that serious about starting a company with her.
I finished my spiel, and still she barely said a word. Chantal’s silence seemed never ending, and I found myself practicing my signature on the paper tablecloth. I was already thinking about our logo and wondering at this moment if it was doomed to be seen only by the busboy throwing it out when he cleared our table.
Finally she said, “Can I have two weeks to think about it?” I lifted my hot-pink marker from the tablecloth and stared at her. I was extremely surprised. I had thought she’d jump at the offer, but I agreed to give her the two weeks. I didn’t know anyone else I wanted to go into business with, and I couldn’t imagine failing right out of the gate—let alone disappointing Giorgio and my psychic, Frank. I had to stay positive.
During the time I was waiting for Chantal’s decision I kept myself busy by actually designing the collection. I had been experimenting with cotton Lycra and planned to create a series of basic shapes: leggings, skating skirts, long-sleeved tees, and a few pieces that could work on their own or in conjunction with the whole collection.
My key idea was that the entire line would be convertible. Meaning each piece worked perfectly with all the other pieces. It was all mix and matchy. And as I had promised, it would be an entire wardrobe in stretch. Cotton Lycra is a fabric that had been used only in athletic wear. I wanted to elevate this unconventional material into something more, something new, and, I hoped, something that people would want.
I had first discovered the fabric at a factory in New Jersey when I was sourcing something much less interesting for a freelance gig. It was basically stretch cotton shot with Lycra, which gave it a four-way or circular stretch, as opposed to two-way stretch, which was all we had to work with up until then. The closest thing I had previously seen would have been the football jersey material I worked with at Paraphernalia. Using cotton Lycra for real fashion would be at the very least a novelty, not to mention supercheap to produce.We dressed head to toe in black—me with my punky chopped-up Keith Richards hair, and Chantal with her wild flaming red mane.
When the two-week waiting period finally ended, I walked nervously to Un Deux Trois to meet Chantal. I had my designs in a portfolio tucked uncomfortably under one arm. I arrived first and, being the superstitious person I am, sat at the same table where I had made her the offer. I had already decided that I wouldn’t order anything until I heard Chantal’s answer. If it was no, I would just leave, devastated, and have to rethink the entire situation. Her turning me down was a very real possibility.
She arrived ten minutes late and sat down. Neither of us said anything. There weren’t even any awkward hellos, and I could tell she was as nervous as I was. When the waiter came to the table, Chantal—without saying a word to me—ordered a bottle of champagne and flashed me an all-telling smile. I exhaled for the first time in 14 days.
As soon as that cork was popped and we toasted, I pulled out the portfolio that I had been busting to share with her. She immediately understood the designs. She loved the idea of an entire collection based on cotton Lycra and was totally on board with the concept of activewear as fashion. She even said the words any designer would want to hear: “If I saw this in a store, I would buy it.”
Chantal asked for one of my markers, and we both sketched out notes, questions, and drawings that would become the seeds of our business plan. First up, our biggest expense would be a workspace and a showroom. I would also need a pattern maker. I knew how to cut and sew, but pattern making is a very specific skill. I can do it but I’m not great at it, and we needed someone with a real talent to draft for us.
We started listing production personnel we’d need to hire right off. And then, of course, we would have to stage a fashion show. Because, as Giorgio had told me, once I made that decision, it would have to be full speed ahead. No backing down. I’d need to rent a venue months in advance and hire models.
The list of expenses was starting to add up pretty quickly. I figured if we could somehow come up with 200 thousand dollars we could pull it off. And I’m not just talking about the show, but actually starting the company.
As I finished the champagne, my first naïve idea was that we would go to a bank with our plan and simply apply for a loan. Isn’t that the way you start a business? So a few days later Chantal and I dressed in what we thought were very conservative outfits. That was my second naïve business idea. Conservative for us meant anything that didn’t have sequins or satin on it. We dressed head to toe in black—me with my punky chopped-up Keith Richards hair, and Chantal with her wild flaming red mane.
I set up a meeting with a banker from the Benjamin Franklin Bank, whom I had worked with when I was with Alley Cat. He always told me how impressed he was with how I handled the finances for the label. I decided to cash in on the relationship. This is how we ended up at Penn Station boarding a train for North Philly.
From Betsey by Betsey Johnson, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Betsey Johnson.