BY MIKE CHAIKEN
Designer Betsey Johnson has long been the epitome of cool fashion.
Johnson’s unique approach to fashion has made her a wardrobe mainstay for celebrities and musicians — and consumers who want that celebrity and rock and roll vibe.
With her encore flips and splits down the fashion runways of New York Fashion Week, Johnson, 78, has become as colorful a character as her clothing. But, despite her New York fashion credentials, Johnson’s upbringing was a little more humble.
When she was born, her family lived in Connecticut — first, Wethersfield and then Windsor. Finally, just in time for high school, Johnson and her family settled in cozy Terryville.
This future fashion icon with the sometimes day-glow hair, sometimes brassy blonde, was a dancer, high school cheerleader and prom queen in the gateway to Litchfield County.
Terryville also is a key element in Johnson’s memoir “Betsey,” which was co-written with Mark Vitulano. The book was released on April 3 by Viking Press.
Terryville, first of all, is where Johnson’s parents lived. And the book explains that many of the steps Johnson took in her education and career were contingent on her continued proximity to Terryville. Her college selections and her jobs often were influenced by her ability to visit her parents in Connecticut. One of her first stops when she learned she was going to be a mother was to drive out to Terryville and tell her parents face to face the good news. And when it came time for Johnson to set up her own label, she traveled back to Terryville to ask her dad for some financial help setting him up as a silent partner in her nascent business.
“Betsey” is a breezy read. The tone of the narrative is that of a friend chatting to another friend. The memoir details her successes matter-of-factly, avoiding any opportunities for self-aggrandizement, and it never dwells on any setbacks.
For young women looking to enter fashion or any business venture, Johnson’s memoir illustrates the importance of taking advantages of opportunities when they present themselves. She also demonstrates the importance of being true to your vision, especially if you are looking for long-term success. However, she doesn’t shy away from noting that being a woman in this world of the 1960s and 1970s had its challenges.
The book is upbeat. And Johnson avoids bashing figures from her past. For instance, she is willing to discuss her failed romances (such as her marriage with rocker John Cale of the Velvet Underground). She also doesn’t flinch from acknowledging her lovers were flawed individuals. On the other hand, she willingly notes that she was no angel either.
“Betsey” also is intriguing because it describes moments in American pop culture and fashion histories that are unlikely to happen again.
Johnson grew up in a pre-#MeToo universe where women were expected to be subservient and focused on hearth and home. Imagine a judge refusing to preside over your city hall wedding because you wore slacks instead of a skirt.
Johnson arrived in the decaying New York City of the 1960s at the time of Andy Warhol, social and political upheaval and a burgeoning drug culture. This wasn’t the New York of millionaires; it was the New York of cheap walkups and young artists taking advantage of cheap rents in rundown parts of the city.
Johnson’s fashion career also began before the rise of chain stores, internet commerce and the fear that the Chinese would bootleg cheap copies of your work before you were able to get it to market.
“Betsey” is friendly, engaging and upbeat, just like the persona Johnson presents to the world. But it’s also inspiring and insightful. The story is Johnson’s but it’s a story that demonstrates to anyone with ambition that perseverance and authenticity are key if you long for success on your own terms.
The book also illustrates success in fashion can bloom successfully in a small New England town such as Terryville.