Icon embraces West Coast life, delights frenzied fans
By C.L. Gaber
She’s at an age where a 50-year-old man is defined as a younger boyfriend. She lives in the hippest Malibu neighborhood in a star-studded “trailer park,” and hasn’t completely given up on the idea of someday becoming a Rockette.
Designer Betsey Johnson’s character is as colorful as her rock ‘n’ roll-inspired creations, from her whimsical “Howdy doody!” greeting to her signature cartwheel at the end of her fashion shows.
“I’m 75. I’m myself. I won’t apologize for any of it,” said Johnson, whose platinum ’do with shocking yellow highlights and red lipstick would likely be a “don’t” for many septuagenarians.
The fashion maven knows how to wow a crowd, which she did during a recent visit to Macy’s at Fashion Show Mall, where she met with fans and introduced her fall footwear collection.
She also spent time at the Neon Museum, a few wedding chapels and other spots around town to supervise photo shoots for her popular website, BetseyJohnson.com. “I did a thing with Macy’s. I did a thing with Zappos,” she said, “I showed up to talk accessories. It’s that time of year to add a little or a lot of sparkle.”
Johnson, who has sparkle in her DNA, said spending time in Vegas is part of her new West Coast lifestyle after decades on the New York fashion scene.
“Can you believe it?” she posed. “I left New York after 65 years. I couldn’t do it anymore. And it’s so easy to run a business online. That’s why after last winter, my entire family said, ‘We’re out of there.’ ”
She adores her new home in California.
“I live in a trailer park,” she said with a laugh. “In Malibu. It’s called Paradise Cove, and my daughter lives just above me in the hills.”
It’s hardly a hovel, however — it’s a chic mobile park community on the bluffs overlooking the pacific with lush grounds, a large clubhouse, tennis and basketball courts, plus the beach, where units sell for $2.5 million. Minnie Driver, Pamela Anderson and Mathew McConaughey also have houses in this bohemian haven.
“It’s not too shabby,” Johnson conceded. “The Vanderbilts are building there. Not that I like to name drop…”
No matter where she goes, Johnson is one of the most recognizable faces in fashion. “My fans range from four years old to my age,” she said. Many of her eponymous boutiques have closed, but Johnson’s collections still sell well at department stores and websites, including her own. That site also boasts cheeky features such as a holiday gift guide “for you and all your babes,” with recommendations that include her Dark Forces skull watch; a “Don’t Be Tarty” purse; the “Off the Hook” bag with a retro handset handle and “Betsey Bejewelled Earmuffs” for the fashion forwards seeking to avoid frostbite.
Johnson attributes her keen sense of style to constant observation.
“I’m always out there with my eyes open, watching and feeling what’s happening,” she said. “I look at everyone, especially the people on the street and then I tell my people what I’m into at the moment. I also ask my grandkids what they’re into and my daughter tells me what’s going on.”
When it comes to accessories, she said, “I make fun bags and beautiful bags. I mix it up and love that the bags are hysterically fun and conversation pieces.”
One of her bags that looks like a fashion chain’s coffee cup has been sold out for three years.
She comes with plenty of advice on how to dress for the holidays — and that doesn’t mean wearing all black, no matter how tempting.
“I’m guilty because all black works,” she said. “But when I do too much black, I feel like I’m disappearing and lazy. I really need color to make me feel good.
Born in Wethersfield, Connecticut, Johnson danced as a child, inspiring her love of costumes.
“I didn’t want to be a designer when I got older,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about the fashion business. I wanted to be a Rockette.”
She graduated from Syracuse University, where she spent a summer as a Mademoiselle magazine intern, and then won a guest editor contest there.
A year later, Johnson found herself as the in-house designer for a Manhattan boutique called Paraphernalia. It wasn’t long before she was on her own and part of Andy Warhol’s underground scene, where she spent time with Warhol, Edie Sedgwick and Lou Reid. By 1969, she opened her own New York Boutique called Betsey Bunky Nini. Sedgwick was her model.
“I was connected with Twiggy and that whole ’60s vibe with Warhol and the new look. I was on that page, which was quite inspiring,” she said.
She first came to Vegas when her daughter Lulu was 15 and wanted to come here to ride rollercoasters.
“Later, I had three stores in Vegas for years,” she said. “I love the craziness, the energy and the Twilight Zone of Vegas. There is no other place like it on earth. I find it very theatrical, crazy and bling bling.”
In a pinch, just wear red to punch up your look, Johnson advises — a trick that works any time of year.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel energy from red,” she said. “It’s so happy and up. Strong, bright red is my favorite color,” she said. “Have the courage to buy it and wear it.”
It even works with interiors, she said. She recently bought and redesigned a five-bedroom villa in La Baritta, a small fishing village and beach town along Mexico’s Riviera, to rent or use as a private escape. Decorated in kaleidoscopic colors and patterns, she refers to it as “the full Betsey experience.”
As for slowing down anytime soon?
“My boyfriend is half my age and gorgeous. I’m living in my dollhouse trailer in paradise and I’m just all about being me,” Johnson said. “I’m in a very happy place and that’s the most fashionable thing of all.”