sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

May 16, 2012

Hope and Change Meets Style and Fashion Pick-Me-Up: Betsey Johnson Has Filed for Bankruptcy

Filed under: fashion — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 11:47 am

Is it supposed to the end of an era kind of event?  Betsey Johnson stores are closing their doors:

US fashion design house Betsey Johnson LLC has filed for bankruptcy, which will see most of the designer’s 63 boutiques close over the next few weeks.

The company, which oversees the freestanding Betsey Johnson stores, womenswear and e-commerce, is also expected to lay off 350 of staff.

Ms Johnson will remain creative director of the brand, however, and will continue to design for her more moderately priced Betsey Johnson sportswear and accessories labels, which are sold in Macy’s.

Betsey Johnson

She did the young-at-heart shtick, turning herself into a walking billboard for her own creations and still had to file for Chapter 11. What will she wear now?

Although I have a few Betsey Johnson items in my closet, I can’t say I was ever a big fan.  I don’t think she’s a couturier in the league with, say, Marc Jacobs or Alexander McQueen.  Her street-wear does not have the impeccable cut and versatility of DKNY.  Vivienne Westwood has a greater capacity for self-reinvention.  But Betsey Johnson was among the first to successfully transform counterculture street style into lux product.  She was in the right place at the right time and she made the most of it:

[Betsey Johnson] rose to fame through partying with Twiggy and Lou Reed in Andy Warhol’s underground scene during the Sixties.

The Connecticut-born designer worked as an intern for Mademoiselle magazine before opening Betsey Bunky Nini, her first boutique on New York’s Upper East Side, in 1969. Edie Sedgwick was her house model.

She took over the creative reigns of the Seventies rock-‘n’-roll label Alley Cat soon after, which proved a perfect fit. Her debut collection made the company $5million.

She started her own fashion line in 1978 but it performed poorly, so much so that she was not able to stage a fashion show during her first year. In 2002, she was inducted into the prestigious Fashion Walk Of Fame.

Betsey Johnson

Edie Sedgwick modeling for Betsey Johnson’s mod offerings.  Did she get paid in heroin?

Her designs are fun and rock-n-roll, but also kind of gimmicky and the cut is not particularly innovative.  The famed New Yorker had a mod stage, but is probably best known for “modern vintage” or imitations of retro.  That aesthetic doesn’t just made Goodwill, where young women can buy a dress for maybe 1/20 to 1/10 of what Betsy charges at her boutique, her competitor, it made Goodwill her superior.  (I have to note that vintage boutiques in New York charge about 3 times as much as in the San Francisco Bay Area.  That’s just boutiques, not thrift stores, and specifically in New York.)

I stopped by the Betsy Johnson Union Square store a few times.  It’s an inviting place with a wonderland vibe.  The walls are painted bubblegum pink, the floor is done in black and white checkered tiles and flower curtains hang on the dressing rooms.  I imagine they played good music.  But from the perspective of someone who loves vintage and loves a good bargain even more, a girl has to be a total chump to buy something there.

Other retailers, like the dreaded Hot Topic, had a similar idea, taking street style, maybe adding a special twist, and selling it back to the kids.  To be sure, Betsy’s garments are undeniably better quality, and unlike Hot Topic, Betsy Johnson has the street cred, given how she’d met every hanger on at the Factory.  Still it’s hard to blame the consumer for choosing authentic vintage.  Considering that the youth of today is jobless, the price tug matters more than it did back when I was in my 20s when I didn’t buy a thing at her store.  No wonder Betsey Johnson didn’t survive the Great Recession.

Betsey Johnson through the years

Betsey Johnson in the 70s and the 80s: All of it is cute and out there, all unmistakably Betsey.  I could see myself wearing the garment from 1981 back in my wasted youth.  MAYBE…  If I could get it for under $30

Given her business model, Betsey Johnson’s success looks like a fit of entrepreneurial genius.  In near a half a century she built an empire of 62 boutiques selling high end underground apparel and was inducted into the Fashion Walk Of Fame.  Fifteen minutes and then some!  I don’t know much about the woman, but I suspect that like all successful counterculture figures, she has a killer Warholean business sense.  Something to appreciate considering the bohemian socialist tendencies.



  1. I might have worn 1979, also if under $30. I’m so short that the skirt length wouldn’t have been too risky.

    Comment by nooneofanyimport — May 16, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

    • It’s cute one, although I could never wear it. I could never do anything other than the uberfem look. I think Yelena is turning out the same.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — May 17, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

      • Uberfem is good. Way back in the day, when I actually enjoyed making fashion statements, I was kinda schizo, sometimes going feminine and flowery, and sometimes the “power” look Cake sings about: I want girl with a short skirt and a looooooooooong jacket” ha

        Comment by nooneofanyimport — May 17, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

        • Ha-ha. I had some *interesting* fashion statements in my early 20s. I pretty much have to wear skirts, otherwise I look in the mirror and don’t recognize that person. I bought a lot of pants after I had Yelena, but I just hate to wear them.

          Comment by edge of the sandbox — May 21, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

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