November 30, -0001

The Gram With The Glam


Her Wild and Whimsical Fashions Made Her Famous, But Behind Betsey Johnson’s Party Girl Persona Is A Devoted Mother and Grandmother

By Erika Thormahlen


In Betsey Johnson’s world, more is always more. Her iconic style—a clashing mix of prints that vary from stripes with cabbage roses to her signature pairing of hot pink and lime green—defines an original punkesque joie de vivre that has transcended trends for over 40 years. For Betsey, everything’s better with tulle…and grandchildren. We sat down with the always-youthful 68-year-old in her newest visual confection, the Eloise Suite at the Plaza Hotel, joined by her daughter and confidante Lulu, and cute-as-buttons granddaughters, Layla (4) and Ella (2). With champagne flowing and “The Little Mermaid” playing on low, the conversation bubbled over with Betsey’s biggest passions: family, fashion and grand times.

So, what kind of grandma is Betsey Johnson?

Betsey: I’m
a fun, generous grandma. It always skips a generation. It’s not like
being the mommy. With grandkids, the grandmother is the pushover.

Lulu: But you always were the pushover, even as a mother!

Betsey: I still am the pushover!

Lulu: At
8 o’clock I’m trying to get the kids to bed and Betsey will come home
with cookies from Dean & Deluca. There’s a constant influx of
goodies and gifts—which she has every right to do.

Layla is 4 years old and Ella is 2. At this age, who is more like her grandmother?

Lulu: I
think people think that Layla is a lot like my mom because she puts on
leopard leggings and likes spandex, but Ella is really the one who loves
being center stage.

Betsey: Ella is showbiz me. Layla is the real me. She’s very selective and private. We both need our own time and space.

Betsey, what are your favorite things to do with your granddaughters?

Betsey: I
take Layla out to dinner a lot for chicken nuggets. We walk Lucy [her
Maltese] around the block. I often go down in the morning and have
coffee with the family…and more chicken nuggets.

Lulu: Yes, Layla is now reliving my childhood, which was basically going out to dinner with Betsey every night.

Betsey: I
took Lulu everywhere. She was born while I was freelancing and had nine
jobs. I would pull her out of school: “Ok, I’ve gotta work in India.
Come on, I’ve gotta work in Hong Kong. Come on, I’ve gotta be on the
runway, on the runway, on the runway.”

Lulu, it sounds like your childhood was fairly unconventional. Were there any traditional aspects, like PB&J sandwiches?

Lulu: Any
kind of normal childhood upbringing was really with my grandparents. I
spent a lot of time with them in Connecticut in the summer, and whenever
my mom had to travel and I couldn’t go. I did like that kind of
balance. With Betsey I did not have any real rules or structure. Never
got grounded. Never had to be in bed by a certain time.

But
you did start working for Betsey’s flagship SoHo boutique while you
were still in high school, and later in the showroom in PR and
merchandising. Betsey, was it important for you to have your daughter
join the company at such an early age?

Betsey: There’s
nothing like having family in business because they’re deathly honest
and protective. Lulu would say, “This is right and this is wrong.”
Chantal Bacon, my business partner, and I would say, “We’re old!” But
luckily Lulu was the pure, true-blue customer.

Lulu: Because
of the comfort level we have, I could be like, “That is the most
disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” or “Oh, my god, I love it, all my
girlfriends want to wear it.”

Lulu, you officially left the company eight years ago. How come?

Lulu: Deep
down, I always wanted to get married, have a family, have kids and be a
mom. But, I feel like I’m still at the company. I consider myself an
unpaid consultant! It’s funny: Now my mom and I are living in the same
building, and we’re very close. We are best friends, and I am the only
one she feels she can talk to about everything.

Betsey,
is it safe to say you leaned on Lulu during your battle with breast
cancer? Tell us about that day in 1999 when you were diagnosed.

Betsey: I
found out the hour before my company Christmas party. Lulu kept my
secret for six months before I told the fashion industry. I thought my
business would be over because they thought I was going to die of
cancer. Ten years ago it did still have a stigma. Now, it’s not like
that. I wouldn’t act the same. If I got it now, I would talk about it.

How did you discover the lump?

Betsey: I
had B-cup implants for 10 years. I don’t know why I had implants and I
also didn’t keep track of having them—now girls change them at the drop
of a hat! I discovered it because I woke up in the morning and there was
no left boob!

Lulu: No,
you had a massage! You got up from the massage and one of your implants
had burst because of the lump. That’s what was on the cover of the NY
Post when the word came out: “Johnson Saved By Implant!”

Betsey: The worst picture of me ever! So I had both of them taken out.

Since
the success of your recovery after radiation and a lumpectomy, how have
you turned your voice in the fashion industry toward breast cancer
awareness?

Betsey: Every
one of our licensing companies does breast cancer products. The
products this year are a tote, hat, gloves and charm bracelet. And the
donation money is split between the National Breast Cancer Coalition
Fund and the Iris Cantor Women’s Health Center of Cornell.

After all this time, what about your work is most challenging to you?

Betsey: I
didn’t learn how to build a team and learn how to delegate. It has
always been easier and more fun for me to go full speed ahead on my own,
but now it’s overwhelming. Being a grandma now and seeing the kiddos
and the family is the only other thing of importance to come along. I
never really had anything but my business and Lulu that worked out for
me.

As sexy and flirtatious as your designs are, there is always an element of childlike exuberance. Where does that come from?

Betsey: It comes from secretly being 23!

Were there many fashion face-offs as mother/daughter, or did you always share a similar sense of style?

Betsey: As a child Lulu wouldn’t walk on the same side of the street with me sometimes. I was embarrassing.

Lulu: Basically, I always would tone everything down. Take
away half the bows, half the ruffles. I was more of a minimalist. My
mom was the creator, but I was better at merchandising, editing and
styling. She would come up with the ideas and I would put the pieces of
the puzzle together.

Has a love of fashion carried on to Layla and Ella?

Lulu: I’m
not going to name any names, but Layla’s favorite children’s wear lines
resemble what Betsey does. Layla only wants to wear stretchy, black,
cotton, lycra, leopard, shiny, silvery, pink glitter, flowers! I was
raised in rock n’ roll clothing, so of course I want my children to wear
a little white collar with puff sleeves. But I’m letting them be who
they are.

Betsey, does this mean we can expect you to design a line of children’s clothes soon?

Betsey: I
did! Many times! The day Lulu was born, I opened a clothing line—Betsey
Johnson Kids. It’s just hard because it’s a whole new sales force, a
whole new manufacturing setup, a whole new showroom; it’s a whole new,
whole new! It’s hard. Oh, I’d love to do everything…

Does “everything” mean interior design as well?

Betsey: Designing
a room is like doing clothes: You’ve got a room with a dress like you
have a girl with a dress. Color is an emotion, and I know the power of
paint—for $10 you go buy pink paint and you’re happier, it’s proven by
prisoners! I love stripes and flowers together so it was my two favorite
iconic prints.

It’s tough to imagine that a family like yours, with a flair for the eccentric and girly, wasn’t raised on Eloise.

Betsey: I
didn’t know Eloise growing up because I lived in a small, wonderful
little town in the farmland of Connecticut, so there was no Eloise book.
But I love it now, and Lulu loves it and the kids love it. The Plaza
has always been a favorite—I love the old glamour.

Lulu: Before
Betsey had any connection to the Plaza and the Eloise suite, my mother
brought Layla there for tea and shopping. I was just thinking that if I
had an Eloise book as a child it would have been Eloise hanging out at
the Chelsea Hotel!

Speaking
of the Chelsea Hotel, Betsey, you have always been a fixture of
Manhattan’s fashion and music scene. Are you still in love with New York
City as much as you were in the ‘60’s?

Betsey: For
me, it’s the only place in the world I could imagine living. That, and
in any backyard with my grandkids and the family. I was in Tribeca and
SoHo in ‘65 with the big rats when it was all lofts. That kind of thing
is just not interesting to me anymore, whereas uptown is really
interesting to me.

Wow, you’ve become an uptown girl?

Betsey: Yeah, and Lulu was always an uptown girl.

Lulu: I loved moving uptown; it was like discovering a whole new world.

So, Betsey, what are your favorite above-14th Street-pleasures these days?

Betsey: The
big uptown experience for me is to eat out—La Grenouille is my
favorite. To me, my biggest success is that I can give myself the luxury
I need to balance out my work. Because I grew up very middle class, I
love being able to take myself to anywhere I want in the world.

With all that recreational dining, we have to ask: at At 68 years old, how do you stay in such great shape?

Betsey: I do nothing! Nothing!

Lulu: No, let’s
be real. I hate when thin people in interviews are like, “Oh, I don’t do
a thing.” In the morning she eats yogurt with blueberries. Then every
night she eats fish with vegetables and bread with olive oil.

Betsey: And champagne and wine!

So, Betsey is not an exerciser?

Lulu: I think
being in a room and having someone tell her what to do and how fast to
go is against her grain. But she has dance in her blood. She was either
going to become a dancer or a designer. She does the cartwheel at the
end of her fashion shows! For me, Soul Cycle’s Stacey Griffith has
changed my life! I lost 20 pounds, my last baby weight, in like two to
three months. I have begged my mother to come since January and she is
finally coming tomorrow morning.

Betsey: And I hate bicycles! But I’m doing it for Lulu.

How did the cartwheels start? And will they ever stop?

Betsey: After
a show about 10-12 years ago, when I went out to the runway to take a
bow I was so excited I just threw a cartwheel. Thereafter I promised
myself I would always do a cartwheel to know that I am still alive and
healthy. If I’m on the runway, I’m doin’ a cartwheel!


SUITE AND SASSY

Betsey
Johnson recently turned her iconic design energy toward creating a
suite at The Plaz
a Hotel for a very special city kid—six-year-old
Eloise, heroine of the beloved book series for children and famous
occupant of The Plaza’s “tippy top floor.”
Never
was there a more perfect match between a literary character and her
real-life interior designer: fearless and feminine like Eloise, Johnson
outfitted the 18th floor two-room suite in a bold palette of pink and
black, incorporating a pink signature Plaza chandelier, zebra-print
carpet, a king-sized bed with a pink headboard sparkling with
“trinkles”—even Eloise’s name displayed in neon lights! And the magic
isn’t just on the 18th floor: downstairs, guests are invited to shop and
play to their hearts’ content at the four-room, playhouse-inspired
Eloise shop, or pop into The Plaza’s famous Palm Court for an Eloise
Tea!

Photography by Thaddeus Harden.

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