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Betsey Johnson, Fashion Fairy Godmother, on Moving Forward

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Betsey Johnson, the legendary 71-year-old fashion designer, speaks about the past, present and future. Image via Getty.
Betsey Johnson, the legendary 71-year-old fashion designer, speaks about the past, present and future. Image via Getty.

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When iconic fashion designer Betsey Johnson filed for bankruptcy in 2012, the move was a sign of an unfortunate reality. The designer faced an uphill battle, owing some $4.1 million in debt. But it was clear that she wasn't ready to let go just yet.

In the two years since her company went under, Johnson has tried to make her fashion touch lucrative again. She created an affordable line for department stores like Macy's and Nordstrom and, two months ago, she designed a stationery collection for home goods store Michael's two months ago.

And with a new collaboration in the works, the 71-year-old designer told Racked how thrilled she was at the opportunity to start again.

"Yes, grandma is still kickin' it!" Johnson laughed. "I'm glad that the people I'm working with now are hip and aware of the strength of the present... I know that it's gotta sell."

Image via Getty

With contagious enthusiasm and passion, Johnson spoke about her many years in fashion, calling her vision a mix of "rock and roll and romantic feminism." Referring to her iconic style as "punk yet pretty," she said she still loves to infuse her classic touches of whimsical pinks and florals. But she noted she's evolving.

"You have to stick to who you are, but you also have to know how to reinvent yourself," she said. "Ask Ralph, Donna, or Tommy. You have to keep it alive. The hardest thing is to make the ideas work with a big financial bottom line," she said. "I try to inspire people to have courage, have fun and do your own thing."

The iconic fashion designer's career began in the 1960s as an editor at Mademoiselle magazine. Johnson started her line in 1978, beginning with clothing before expanding to shoes, handbags, sunglasses, fragrances and more. She had over 65 stores nationwide in 2011, with some $150 million in annual sales.

Betsey in her studio back in 1966. Image via Getty.

Riding on her brand's popularity, the Betsey Johnson company was sold in 2007 to Castanea Partners, a private equity firm in Boston. But after sales failed to rise and the company was balancing a whopping $48 million loan, footwear giant Steve Madden bought the brand in 2010.

When bankruptcy became the only viable option, Johnson had to close 63 store locations and fire some 350 employees. She said she tried her hardest to sustain the blows during that time, but even a designer with the highest of spirits—one who's famous for her end-of-fashion-show cartwheel—has to know when to call it quits.

"I kept batting at it but [then] I had to close the brick-and-mortar businesses with the overhead rent." she said. "Especially in New York, you have to learn how to get it right quickly. I tried and you try but it's a matter of how long you can hold on for. If nothing is working, you have to know when to throw the towel in and do something else."

Johnson initially didn't take all the blame for her company's demise, telling the New York Times a few months after declaring chapter 11 that "it all began when stores started knocking off my $250 prom dresses for $49." But parent company Steve Madden was a bit more frank, explaining "they had delusions of building a huge company and going public so they borrowed a lot of money, they had too many stores, and their rents were too high."

Betsey performing her famous cartwheel at NYFW this February. Image via Getty.

Recognizing the strength of turning a business into e-commerce and the need to keep up with fast fashion, Johnson told Racked closing storefronts was an inevitable move, and that her company was now more focused on online sales.

"I'm computer illiterate but e-commerce have proven to be what keeps businesses kicking," she added. "Now, I'm a huge believer in the online gig, that's totally where it's at. I know that's running the world."

Despite the struggles, the designer is not bitter. "Change is bound to happen. But no matter how the industry changes, you learn right off the bat, you're only as good as your last sale," she said. "That's always been a big reality for me, whether other people were paying my salary, or if my company couldn't pay the bills. You have to try and be creative and fresh, but it still has to sell. Right now I [focus] on doing what I believe in but applying that through the corporate sector."

Johnson said her grandkids are what keep her motivated and she is proud of her recent work: while they are not the epic $350 glittery tulle skirts she was once so good at selling, she's still able to put her girly effect on some of her more recent lines. Addressing the ways of the industry, Johnson said she's okay to have her images mass-produced: she signs off on the creative side and is happy to take more of a backseat roll and have the Madden team deal with the business aspect.

"I just hope the brand can keep going. I'll keep working as long as I'm happy, and I am very happy to work. I don't know where it needs to go, if it even needs to go anywhere, but I know that it needs to be fresh and it needs to say Betsey," she said.
· If You're Confused About Whether Betsey Johnson Is Coming or Going, Here Are Some Answers [Racked]
· A Lifelong Betsey Johnson Fan Says Farewell [Racked]