A few minutes with Betsey Johnson is like being pulled into a party.
The edgy, pint-sized fashion designer greets visitors with a hug and then takes a sip of champagne.
“Our parties always start with the bubbles,” said Johnson, 73. “We dance around. We have fun. Hopefully a few people will come.”
Oh, more than a few.
A line wrapped around one level of the Dillard’s department store at the Mall of Georgia in Buford, where Johnson, 73, dressed in a black and white horizontal-stripped dress and light taupe booties, greeted die-hard fans by tossing red, pink and white rose petals in the air. She had a sparkly cup by her side as she sat down.
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The music was booming and earlier “host-er”, writer, producer and North Springs Charter High School graduate Micah Jesse, whipped the crowd into a party-like frenzy as he danced the Cupid Shuffle with several women.
As soon Lori Painter of Johns Creek heard that her fashion idol would be in town, she rushed to Dillards focused on being first in line. Fans had to spend $50 on full-price Betsey Johnson merchandise for a brief one-on-one and a pink tote bag.
Painter spent $1,000 that day. She returned Saturday along with her 10-year-old daughter, Georgia, and plucked down another $500.
“She’s the reason I started designing clothes,” said Painter. “I’ve been a fan of hers since I was Georgia’s age. We just love Betsey.”
Johnson came on the fashion since in the 1960s. Her fashions really took off, however, in the 1970s when she embraced the punk rock style. She opened a boutique in New York’s Soho neighborhood, and later dozens of stores worldwide, including two in metro Atlanta that later closed.
“Betsey Johnson is my favorite person in the world!,” said Kyle Ann Bowers, who waited anxiously in line clutching a Betsy Johnson puppy-shaped bag and with her husband, Jason, in tow.
Johnson, in person, is everything her clothes are: whimsical, bold and over the top. Her uses vibrant colors and prints and plaids - lots of them. She has designed everything from dresses and swimsuits to handbags that resemble tacos, pretzels and animals. She’s expanded into 14 categories now, including bedding, jewelry, stationery and tissue boxes.
Her longevity in a fickle industry is admirable.
“That’s why I’m still around,” she said. “When I had the stores, the strength of my work then was that I wasn’t on trend. I was either too early or too late. Every time I did plaid people would say, ‘No one’s doing plaid’ and I would say there’s nothing like plaid. What’s my favorite? A red MacGregor plaid. Poka dots you can’t beat, Stripes, you can’t beat…I’m very happy that I’ve had up to 50 years year of working in the garment center with my name in the labels.”
Johnson, though, is known for her personality and look nearly as much as her clothes. She’s known to do splits and cartwheels on the runway. She sports bright straw-blonde extensions. Today, they’re blonde, black and rust orange. There’s a collection of hilarious Betsey Johnson memes.
Trying to get Johnson, who splits her time between New York and California, where she just bought property in Malibu, to sit still is like trying to corral a whirlwind.
Before the event, two beautiful, leggy models, who will be part of the day’s event, come in the room where she is huddled with her team . She marvels at their shoes, well, their Betsey Johnson shoes with miniature pink pom-poms on them.
“Oh, those shoes look cute! They’re a nice height.”
“That’s a great back on that suit! I don’t remember the back from before. Ahhh, cute. Ohhhh, cute!”
She plops on a red-sequined hat that an adoring fan gave her as a gift and poses for photos with them.
This may be Johnson’s first trip to the metro Atlanta market. (“Did I have a retail store in Atlanta?” She did, at Perimeter Mall and Phipps Plaza, both of which later closed.)
She’s not so sure if she’s been here before and it’s easy to see why. She’s constantly on the move. In a few hours she will hop on a plane and fly to London, where she will have a 14-hour session to change her extensions with Andrew, her hairstylist of more than a quarter center.
She draws inspiration from her granddaughter and her mind is never far from fashion.
“I’m just into it. It’s an ongoing process. I’m always looking, thinking and imagining,” said Johnson, who is known for doing cartwheels or splits on the runway. “I get the real the fun part,. The crazy ideas. I get to work with all of my design teams who are great across the board. It’s always on your mind. It’s just like that Willie Nelson song, you’re ” Always on My Mind”.
Her attention drifts to a member of her team as she adds several pieces of jewelry to the models.
“Oh, that’s great. Just load her up. two or three or four or five.”
“Do you have stockings on or or those just your legs?”
“So, I’ve just love it,” she said. “The song and dance. The whole nine yards. I love the doing and the making, I love that it’s show business.”
Not everyone is a Betsey Johnson fan and she’s OK with that.
She designing for the person who likes “my stuff and is happy with it.”
It’s hard to tie her down for trends for spring and summer. “My color is every color, except for brown. I like colors that make you happy. Pink. Yellow. Red.” She still has the sequined pants she’s had for about a decade.
“Dress for yourself. Dress for fun.”