Betsey Johnson brings a playful, irreverent tone to her fashion shows.

Welcome to

It’s a pink, sugar-coated world where
girly girls rule and everyone’s
as nice as can be

IN THE FAIRY-TALE world of Betsey Johnson, every woman is a princess, grandmas kick up their heels doing cartwheels in can-can skirts, and every business transaction is as pleasant as an afternoon social.

Although she's the architect of her own pretty-in-pink-with-sugar-on-it clothing world, she possesses a refreshingly childlike "I can't believe this is happening to me" sense of wonder in viewing her work and life, even after more than 40 years in the business.

Betsey Johnson

Grand opening celebration with an opportunity to meet the designer:

Where: Betsey Johnson boutique, Ala Moana Center

Time: 6 to 8 p.m. today

Admission: Free

Call: 524-1800

A whirlwind surrounds Johnson at her home in the Hamptons, where she and her daughter Lulu are being interviewed on a Friday evening for a Mother's Day feature in Hamptons Style magazine, but she's as pleasant as one can be with the interview running late, a photographer still trying to set up his shot at 6 p.m., and a Honolulu reporter hanging on the phone line for another interview.

Johnson is talking a mile a minute, in words punctuated by exclamations to explain the whole scenario, ending with "I'm really sorry, but can I call you back in an hour!?" and I let her go, thinking, "She's really nice!"

But what would you expect from a woman whose hang tags bear her signature plus a string of XOX's?

The girlfriend who's been a heroine to girly women since the late 1960s is a girlfriend on the phone, and no doubt in person when she comes out to meet and greet fans celebrating the grand opening of her Ala Moana Center boutique from 6 to 8 p.m. today.

"What you see is what you get with me. I'm just a nice Connecticut girl," she says later about having grown up in Wethersfield, a Hartford suburb.

"I love my customers and fans and like them to feel comfortable, and it's easy for me. I've built a kind of image where people see me on the street and go, 'Yo, Betsey!' and we have friendly kinds of meet-ups.

"I'm in a business where I'm always working with people, and I want us to have a nice day together. I don't think a person can last in this business being gruff and tough and stepping on people to get everywhere."

If there's any secret to consistently making women happy, Johnson swears she doesn't know it. She isn't the sort to design for focus groups or to match trends. In fact, she seems to go out of the way to avoid the norm, eschewing professional models in favor of using club kids, transvestites and strippers in her fashion shows. Her garments have a timeless quality reflecting neither street nor runway nor fashion magazine, but a totally Betsey state of mind.

"It comes down to, I love making clothes for girls like me, and I just pray there are girls out there who get it and like it, too. It's that simple.

"When I find someone who understands, it makes me feel normal, and it's no different than going home and cooking a good meal and being praised for it and being happy because you've made someone else happy."

Rock stars and drama queens are drawn to Betsey Johnson's frothy, fun and colorful designs.

THERE'S never been a master plan for any of this. Johnson started simply enough, doing just what she wanted to do during the youth quake of the '60s, when she was immersed in New York's Warhol scene. She married musician John Cale; Edie Sedgwick was one of her first fit models.

Johnson started designing for the boutique Paraphernalia before teaming with other designers to open Betsey Bunky Nini, then moving on in 1978 to create a label in her own name with model pal Chantal Bacon, who's still with the company today. Johnson has been known for her youthful and sexy, form-fitting and detail-oriented garments ever since, discovered by each wave of teens who retain their love of Betsey well into adulthood.

Although Johnson's empire of pink-and-black boutiques stretching from coast to coast gives the company the appearance of an industry giant, she describes it as "just a privately owned little company" that might have been running in place forever if not for the rise of fashion television.

"There's so much fashion television now, and people enjoy seeing our shows. TV has really kept me alive," she said.

In the past it was hard to get the word out without much of an advertising budget, but even that worked in Johnson's favor. Teens and young women would chance upon a Betsey Johnson boutique organically, in their travels, inspiring the kind of underground cult loyalty that can't be bought.

She is grateful that her fashion shows and appearances led manufacturers to seek her out, and she's stunned by the attention being lavished upon her only within the last year and a half, resulting in several licensing deals and the appearance of Betsey Johnson shoes, handbags and lingerie.

"We have a hard enough time making our dresses and sportswear. I couldn't imagine producing shoes, lingerie and all the other stuff girls wear."

That doesn't mean she's passive when it comes to licensed merchandise. "I'm involved with the entire design process because I have to be; otherwise it doesn't come out (right)."

Even so, the idea that her name is a brand still seems surreal to the designer. The whole concept of a person as a brand is anathema to her value system, having grown up in the rebellious, anti-corporate '60s.

"I guess I'm a brand," she said. "People believe in me, I do have a following and a look, and if there needs to be a package, well I'm a pink package. But I never thought that way. I never saved my clothes. I just played it day by day. I never thought about what it would add up to, and now, 35 years. Whew."

Where other successful individuals often seem to have an air of self-satisfied confidence about them, Johnson remains more grounded, admitting to feeling "unfashiony" in the company of other designers, such as Michael Kors, when she was a guest judge on Bravo's fashion-design reality competition "Project Runway." She said she never watched the show because she felt uncomfortable with the whole setup. She just doesn't see herself as a design star.

"To me you're only as good as your last sale. It's all a game. You're working so far ahead of season that you never know, you never know. So I just make fun, affordable clothes for all my girlfriends out there -- prom dresses, T-shirts, work clothes, club clothes -- that are widely accessible.

"I'm not into the celebrity thing, although I know a lot of stars who shop my boutiques. But I don't do high fashion. I'm not like Ralph (Lauren) or Donna (Karan). I never went to that pedestal."

HAVING GONE THROUGH normal periods of designer angst of "not feeling right anymore," she doesn't discount the role of luck in preparing her for the ups and downs of a fickle industry.

A bleak period followed her early success, when the hippie chicks she started dressing exercised their right to be equal to men in the workplace by trading their beads and fringe for a more a serious image.

"They wanted grown-up dresses, and I thought, well, this is a good time to have (daughter) Lulu," Johnson said. "And I freelanced for other corporations. I did everything -- menswear, jeans, sportswear.

"Then, after 10 years of that, punk happened with the Sex Pistols, Blondie, the Ramones. Rock 'n' roll was reinvented, and I went, 'Whoa! It's my speed again,' so that's when I decided to go on my own."

Now Lulu's getting married in May, and after a year away returned to her mom's company two months ago to help with licensing projects. With any luck, the next Betsey Johnson line might be baby clothes.

"I'm looking forward to being a grandma," Johnson says. But even if little Betsey or little Lulu doesn't materialize, Johnson is keeping busy. Her energy is focused on decorating a four-room hotel she bought in Mexico. Dubbed Betseyville, the hotel will be featured in the April issue of In Style Home magazine, and is slated to open next year.

"I'll probably lose money on it," Johnson says, "but it's just too cute!"

Betsey Johnson

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