On September 11, at the conclusion of her Spring/Summer 2016 runway show, “The Curious Case of Betsey Button,” 73-year-old Betsey Johnson bounced into a cartwheel and split, her signature sign-off.
By Maureen Mancini Amaturo
On September 11, at the conclusion of her Spring/Summer 2016 runway show, “The Curious Case of Betsey Button,” 73-year-old Betsey Johnson bounced into a cartwheel and split, her signature sign-off. The winner of the 2015 CFDA Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award has been standing the fashion world on its head for a half-century.
Her Fashion Week retrospective, staged at The Arc at Moynihan Station, featured 27 models and 54 looks. As always, backstage was loaded with her signature touches: mini pink cupcakes, pink and red Starburst, and lots of pink roses. The most personal are the posters she draws to thank her makeup and hair stylists, cast, crew, family, and friends. There was also a display of her new 50-Years-In-Fashion Collection of handbags, jewelry, accessories, etc., coming out this fall (have a look at betseyjohnson.com).
In keeping with the show’s theme, her designs hit the runway beginning with more recent collections, then traveling backwards by decade and concluding with a collection of dance costumes she recreated representing her childhood. (Growing up in Wethersfield, Conn., Johnson’s dream was to become a Rockette!)
The recent collections were bang, boom color; sparkle, glitz, glam; fluffy, puffy, fun, and funky. Uber-confident.
Then came the 90s: exuberant floral and fruit prints, corsets, body-hugging shapes, full bouncy skirts. Back to the 80s: edgy, in-your-face sexy. Punk and powerful. “Timid, shy was not the case,” offered the designer. (The fact that Blondie’s Debbie Harry was in the front row only made it better.)
Ian Dury’s “Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll,” David Bowie’s “Suffragette City,” the high-voltage 70s, her Alley Cat label days. “That was my breakout decade,” she says. “In the 70s I gained my clout.”
Her 60s’ collection tapped the British invasion, where Johnson began her career. After winning a magazine contest, she traveled to London. “What I saw there, it was all about the collars and cuffs.” The inspiration was clear in her first designs for New York City boutique Paraphernalia. Her edgy, witty, unexpected fashion voice placed her alongside Mary Quant and Andy Warhol as pioneers of the “Youthquake” movement. Fun fact: all show garments were original, even those from 1965 — still fabulous after 50 years, just like her career.
Lastly, her dance costumes, each an identical replica of childhood ones that influenced her design aesthetic. “I took my little costumes and remade them for big girls. And you can see every aspect of my inspiration when you see these costumes: the puffed sleeves, the tutus …I mean, it’s all there.”
The most poignant element of the show were the rhyming narrations Johnson voiced from backstage – biographical poems summing up her social scenes, creative influences, trends, and the happenings of each decade.
The finale: Johnson emerged in a silvery top hat with an armful of roses to the tune of Ethel Merman’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” She presented the roses to honored guest Ann Pimm, now 94, who was her dance teacher from age 4 to high school. Then, Johnson cartwheeled into a split. This time, she remained a moment, soaking in the cheers, the flashes, the applause, before she jumped back up. All 27 models danced out dressed in black tutus and black tank tops with “Nifty Fifty” in silver on the front. On the back, to honor the day, the American flag, “9/11 & FDNY NYC.” (Johnson loves the FDNY.) The models carried giant, silver “50” balloons and Johnson bounced along with them.
With her trademark yellow hair, red lips, and light-the-planet smile, this godmother of girl-power remains an eternal kid inside. Though Betsey Johnson has been rockin’ the fashion world since the 60s, her energy, antics, and sheer joy in her work could be mistaken for a newbie’s. Still the rule-breaker. Still the nicest bad girl. Still fashion’s lightening bolt. Still crazy after all these years.