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Celebrating a Lifetime of Tutus, Betsey Johnson Receives Medal of Honor
October 14th, 2009 @ 4:59 PM - New York
A mélange of statuary, portraiture, pumpkins, a mountain of cheese, mothers dressed in tutus and daughters dressed in tulle – the gossip girls of yesterday and today – converged at an eclectic black tie function for Betsey Johnson at the National Arts Club on Tuesday night, Oct. 13.
Johnson was given the Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement by the National Arts Club, who also unveiled a painted portrait of the designer that will hang in the company of other portraits like Joyce Carol Oates and Carolina Herrera.
“I think she’s a true American original, and you can’t say that of too many people,” said Marylou Luther, editor of the International Fashion Syndicate. “To me, she’s the first American designer to have fun with fashion, and she made it enjoyable.”
Though the club, founded in 1898 by New York Times literary and art critic Charles de Kay, has an official dress code prohibiting things like capri pants and spandex, that didn’t stop Johnson from breaking all the rules by wearing one of her trademark whimsical ensembles – shiny blue capri stretch pants, a short pink tutu, a pale blue t-shirt printed with a Warhol Marilyn Monroe image and her long bleach blonde bob. She bounded into the squished room of dinner tables and formal place settings with a giggle, pausing to preen and curtsy for photographers.
Johnson was at the forefront of sixties youthquake fashion, opening her first store, Betsey Bunki Nini, in New York in 1969. “She was the very first American designer to have her own store,” said Luther.
Johnson got her start in fashion as a guest editor at Mademoiselle, where Luther first met her. When Johnson began designing for Paraphernalia in the sixties, she was the ultimate downtown ‘it’ girl: Married to John Cale of The Velvet Underground, she ran with the Andy Warhol crowd and used Edie Sedgwick as her model. She was the poster child for her brand as an active participant in the rock and roll party lifestyle that her clothes were synonymous with.
“The most interesting decade in fashion for change – really big change – was the sixties,” said Luther. “It was the first time mothers started dressing like their daughters. Betsey was really at the forefront of that change.”
To showcase Johnson’s 40 years in fashion, a mini display was set up in the National Arts Club featuring a representative dress from the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s. Though it ranges from an innocent-looking red velvet and white collar number from the ‘60s to a punky sequined pink leopard print dress from the most recent decade, one thing all her clothes have in common is the emphasis on short and sassy.
“You might think of her as prom dresses and ruffles,” said Luther, “but there was always kind of a naughty overtone that made her even more interesting.”
Longtime business partner Chantal Bacon was also on hand to speak about working with Johnson, and Johnson’s daughter and collaborator Lulu also came to cheer her mother on. But the biggest homage to Johnson’s success was the abundance of women at the dinner dutifully outfitted in vintage Betsey Johnson.
Marylou Luther recalled the epic opening of her boutique in L.A. on Melrose, one of the first designers to set up shop there.
“I could not believe her fans!” said Luther. “They were around several blocks, waiting to get in to the store, and I thought, this is really amazing! I’ve been to the openings for stores like Sonia Rykiel, Claude Montana and even Yves Saint Laurent when he came to Los Angeles, and no one attracted as many people. I think her fans are possibly the most loyal in the world!”