2:37 pm Jan. 17, 2013
Not bad for someone who just turned 70, as she pointed out with a groan after Mallis, who hosts the 92Y series “Fashion Icons With Fern Mallis,” read her birthdate out loud and demanded that she announce her age.
“I don’t know where the time went. I don’t know how it happened!” Johnson exclaimed, seeming genuinely surprised.
Johnson, teeny-tiny (and totally ripped, as I found out later as I got a closer glimpse of her), was dressed in a hot pink tutu over calculatedly-tattered black jeans, a black “rocker” T-shirt, and pink high-top sneakers—her own, naturally, as she pointed out later in the talk. It wasn’t long before the tutu came off and she pulled her blonde mop-top up into a half ponytail, most closely resembling, in the best way possible, Janice the Muppet.
“I’m afraid to see what’s gonna come off next,” Mallis joked, the room erupting with laughter.
“This is as good as it gets,” Johnson shot back, smiling.
Johnson and Mallis are long-time friends—Mallis is widely credited with founding New York Fashion Week—but really the cutesy banter was minimal. Mallis, by now a bit of an expert at this gig, seemed keen to pack as much information into the hour-long talk as possible, something of a challenge since, as Mallis warned in her intro, Johnson spent much of the evening “doing Betsey.” That’s essentially engaging in cheerleader-esque antics—before she was a designer, Johnson actually spent years as a cheerleader in high school and college.
“I thought Donna [Karan] was tough to keep on track,” Mallis said after yet another instance of Johnson leaping up to physically illustrate a story.
Johnson was most engaging when she talked about her experience of the downtown scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“I think maybe Andy said six words to me out of all the years [I knew him]: “You look great! Hi! Betsey?”
Johnson and Warhol initially met through their shared love of silver clothing—Johnson was making them and “Andy and Edie”—Sedgwick, of course—loved them. Johnson befriended the Velvet Underground in the same way. They were fans of Johnson’s velvet fabrics and studs, and they asked her to make their clothes.
“Lou Reed, to this day, said I cut a really good crotch,” Johnson boasted, sending the audience into uproarious laughter.
Out of three marriages in her life, the one Johnson doesn’t regret, she said, was to Velvet Underground member John Cale in 1968. She’s even going to see him play at BAM this weekend.
“With his pink hair, I’m so proud of him! He was my only husband that I really think was a great choice for me,” Johnson said, giddily.
Johnson is starring in a reality show that’s set to debut on the Style Network this spring about her and her daughter Lulu. Johnson said she believes in layers, whether it be of dresses or people.
“I always believed, like my dancing costumes and like me, that there are a lot of people packed in one person, and they should express [that] if they want.”
There was only one down moment during the talk—when Johnson, who filed for bankruptcy resulting in the closing of all of her stores last year, responded to Mallis’ question about whether she would be presenting a show this coming Fashion Week. She offered a meek “I don’t think so.”
Still, Johnson rallied when asked to relay a few sharp words of advice to the designers in the audience.
“Kick ass!” she said, pausing briefly before adding, “just keep on kicking. You have luck, and you kind of have to be talented, but it’s more [about] keep on kicking!”
All photos by An Rong Xu for 92Y.
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