Fashion, Love And Motherhood Abound In Betsey Johnson's Self-Titled Memoir The designer who has been pushing fashion boundaries for decades reveals more about the woman behind the brand — the whimsy and fun, but also difficult times, from relationships to health challenges.
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Betsey Johnson Talks Fashion, Love And Motherhood In Self-Titled Memoir

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Betsey Johnson Talks Fashion, Love And Motherhood In Self-Titled Memoir

Betsey Johnson Talks Fashion, Love And Motherhood In Self-Titled Memoir

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we just heard about how fashion might change in the future. But now we're going to turn our attention to someone who's been pushing fashion boundaries for decades. Designer Betsey Johnson is known for her very personal, very whimsical style - the bright colors, the animal prints, the cartwheels into a split at the end of her fashion shows. She dressed of-the-moment celebrities like Twiggy. And, of course, there's pink - lots of pink.

BETSEY JOHNSON: Lots of pink.

MARTIN: In her new memoir...

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Lots of pink. In her new memoir, entitled "Betsey," we learn more about the woman behind the brand. Yes, there's whimsy and fun, but she's also upfront about the less-than-fun times, from difficult romantic relationships to health challenges to business failures. Here to tell us more about it is designer Betsey Johnson, with us now...

JOHNSON: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: ...From her home in Malibu.

JOHNSON: Can I borrow that paragraph? Yeah.

MARTIN: Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: That was a very wonderful introduction. Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. I was going to ask you what self-isolation looks like for a woman who's known for doing cartwheels down the runway. I mean, how is it...

JOHNSON: Oh, I'm very...

MARTIN: ...Going?

JOHNSON: I'm very private. Yeah. It's like I have one work life, where I'm on and cart-wheeling and splitting and fashion showing and all that garbage. And then my other side is very quiet and private. I don't shop. I don't cook. I don't entertain. (Laughter) I'm a real bore.

MARTIN: So in the memoir, you write a lot about your upbringing. I have to say that it was a bit of a surprise. I mean, you describe it as this very kind of Norman Rockwell - you know, born in Connecticut. You were a cheerleader, and, you know, joined a sorority. Because for somebody who's so fashion-forward, it just seems...

JOHNSON: Oh...

MARTIN: ...So funny to me...

JOHNSON: I...

MARTIN: ...That you...

JOHNSON: You know...

MARTIN: ...Seemed like it was so regular.

JOHNSON: Seventy-seven years later, you know, we can talk fashion-forward. Way back then, I didn't know a thing about fashion and never cared to study it. And luckily, I had my dancing school and my costumes and my recitals and my - that was my passion.

MARTIN: It does seem, though, like you felt like you always kind of had your own aesthetic. Like, where do you think that came from?

JOHNSON: Well, I don't know. I had my own dancing school in high school - about 50 kids. I taught every Saturday and Sunday. My best friend was the piano player. I had to figure out - we both had to figure out, you know, the dollar for - per lesson, keep the books - very, very small town in the '50s - late '40s, '50s.

But I learned something from having a little business on the main street in Terryville, Conn., who had no dancing school teacher. So that was - I was an immediate hit in that category. But I just thought, whatever you do, you should investigate, what do you bring to your job? What do you bring to the industry? What do you bring to the donut shop? Do you have a new recipe for doughnuts? Do your doughnuts stand out? Do they mean anything? Or do they have plenty of doughnuts without you?

And I thought I was not that different from my girlfriends. A lot of girls - they just didn't make their own clothes. They didn't - they weren't exposed to all that dancing school fabrication and junk that I was. But I just thought, you know, if I'm going to do anything, I should find out, is there a reason for me? Or are the slots already filled up?

MARTIN: I get the sense that you're - about the fashion industry that you're a bit critical of the way things are now. I mean, for example, you write that it's hard to make it in fashion unless you have the blessing of Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue magazine.

JOHNSON: Oh, that's how I felt. That's why we went our own little Idaho pink way - because I knew that - I mean, eventually the big stores bought me. They had to see small stores prove me out.

But, you know, I never looked like a fashion designer. I never acted like one. I never went to a luncheon. Chantal and I to this day - my partner and I - laugh because we never did a fashion thing over lunch. We just never did those kinds of things. And we found out very quickly from having one tiny, little store in Soho that that was our way to go - to build our own little world of my stuff.

MARTIN: OK. Before we let you go, like, what's your favorite outfit that you ever designed?

JOHNSON: Oh, my God. Probably my Julie Christie dress - it was very English, very white collar and cuff. It reminded me of England in those days. And it's been a formula with me to do that sexy little flirty shirt dress that was sexy and little and flirty instead of go-to-work, button-down collar shirt dress.

MARTIN: That's fashion designer Betsey Johnson. Her new memoir, "Betsey," is out now.

Betsey Johnson, thanks so much for talking with us.

JOHNSON: Oh, thank you. And everybody, just be happy, be well and keep going full speed ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FASHION")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Fashion - looking good and feeling fine. Looking good and feeling fine. Fashion - step into the room like it's a catwalk. Singing to the tune just to keep them talking. Fashion - walk...

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