Sunday, August 23, 2020

Weekend Review: Betsey!

Betsey: a memoir / Betsey Johnson with Mark Vitulano
NY: Viking, c2020
288 p.
And now for a fashion bio of a different sort! This memoir by Betsey Johnson is refreshingly cheerful and straightforward. No vicious catfights or excessive drug use or terrible destruction here. Just a women who made her own version of a fashion career in America.

Of course, when you are telling your own story rather than having a journalist tell it, you are able to gloss over some of the darker stuff, so perhaps there was some in her life. But it's not in this book. That's not to say that Betsey Johnson didn't have some issues -- her worst trait seems to be her terrible taste in men. She is open about her relationships, most of which were pretty bad, one so much so that she refuses to name him, just calling him Husband #3. But that personal information is just a small part of this book; the focus is really on Betsey Johnson the brand. 

I've always liked the wacky style of Betsey Johnson, and one of my most favourite thrift store finds is a Betsey Johnson computer bag, complete with garish rose print and gold zip and tag. It is so her. So I was interested in reading about how she got to be an American success. 

I was actually surprised by some of the biographical information; I don't always know much about designers as people, I'm more interested in their fashion. But Betsey Johnson started as a "good girl",  from a stable family and with boundless energy that led her to dancing early on -- and teaching dancing too, from the age of 14! She was also a cheerleader in high school and in college, definitely not something that the fashion students in her college days understood or appreciated. 

But she was in the right place when she needed to be. She got an intern position at a New York magazine via an essay contest, and made connections there, while sewing up clothes for herself that coworkers began asking for. Her quirky style caught on and she landed in Paraphernelia, with a trendy boutique in a larger store that highlighted individual designers at a time when this was a new concept. She was very successful at making her name there so later went out on her own with a business partner -- ending up with a large franchise and a lot of success, financial and creative. 

But then 30 years somehow passed, and they decided to sell their company and like all takeovers, the money people came in and ruined a good business. Her name was licensed all over the place (hence my thrift store bag) and then she left the company altogether. But the story throughout is fascinating, absolutely not self-pitying at all, gives a great view of female entrepreneurs and how hard it was to get going as two women starting a business, and also paints a portrait of Betsey Johnson the person. 

She feels very extroverted and outer focused to me; maybe because it is so different to my own personality, even reading this was a bit tiring! At some points I wondered about the self-reflection she might have done to understand her terrible relationships and some of her business decisions -- very personal information like that is not included in this narrative. But other personal information, like her fight with breast cancer, is shared, mostly to highlight the work she's done with cancer charities and how important knowledge is for women in this area. 

I enjoyed this light read about a designer I like; even with the lightness there is mention of the sexism she faced over the years, and the disdain of "real" fashion people when she won the Coty Award early on in her career -- since she hadn't gone to fashion school and didn't operate from 7th Avenue, she wasn't considered a "real" designer by many people who had done those things -- again, sexism was a part of that. But she just keeps going and makes a life for herself despite the haters. I found this story much more wholesome than the last few fashion world exposés I've just read and it was a great one to finish off this series of titles with. 


  1. I truly enjoyed this memoir, but, then again, I was always a Betsy fan, starting when she was featured in Seventeen Magazine (yes, I’m that old). In the pre-Interent days, I couldn’t follow her like one would do now and my dream was to own a Betsy item, something that was far beyond my price range (and my location range). By the time I visited a Betsey Johnson store in Chicago, her clothes were not a fit for my mom-of-three-kids-living-in-a-small-town lifestyle. It didn’t stop me from adoring her highly imaginative designs, though.
    Thanks for reviewing this book and I hope anyone with an interest in fashion, truth, beauty, and humanity and the color pink will read it as well.

    1. heidi! me too!!! my story is just like yours....finally I thrifted a Betsy Johnson dress at a thrift store 2 weeks ago!

    2. What a wonderful story. I love Betsey's exuberance & joyful designs.

  2. SO glad you are reviewing these books! i just bought the Galliano memoir....My latest challenge is to read a memoir of each of the designer greats! where you the one who posted the review of the recent book with the picture of kate moss on the cover?--but it's not about kate moss? if this is you, then you inspired me to to get going on my challenge! Betsy Johnson is my love...i could never wear her because it never fit into my prosaic lifestyle, but i just thrifted a Betsy Johnson dress at a thrift store 2 weeks ago! xo eva

    1. How lovely - I would love to find one of her dresses 😍 That's a very interesting reading challenge you are undertaking. I recently reviewed a book about 90s fashion without Kate Moss on the cover but she's only part of the story :)


Share your comments, ideas or suggestions here -- I am always interested in hearing from readers. It's nice to have a conversation!