The fashion world has always loved Betsey Johnson's whimsical personality and outrageous designs. But nobody would put money on her when she decided to start her own company. Could she really build a successful business around silver micro minis and pink tutus? Johnson thought so. It was the late 1970s, and punk rock was the rage. It was her big chance. So she scraped together some savings--including money she'd earned starring in a Bayer aspirin commercial--and, along with ex-model Chantal Bacon, started the Betsey Johnson clothing label.
With a mop-top of blond hair, a tattooed bosom, and a penchant for turning cartwheels, Johnson's not your typical retail magnate. Financial independence has allowed her to stay true to her design sensibility, which she tweaks to keep up with changing fashion trends. "She's always mined the same roots," says Stan Herman, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which bestowed a "timeless talent" award on Johnson in 1999. "Very few people have been able to raise their arms and hold the hands of the clock like Betsey."
Johnson has also managed to thrive in the notoriously fickle fashion industry while many independent design labels have sold out to large corporations. Johnson, who owns the majority of her business, has avoided the trend toward consolidation, focusing instead on slow, organic growth. Her strategy has been successful: The Betsey Johnson retail empire, which generated about $50 million in revenue last year, now includes 45 boutiques in the United States, Canada, and Britain. Johnson has also gained acceptance from mainstream retailers: Her lacy, embroidered dresses--a big hit with prom-goers--are sold by high-end department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.
Still a textbook workaholic at age 60, Johnson has no plans to retire, but she's finally ready to smell the roses. To that end, she spends one week a month working from Betseyville, her Mexican vacation home, where she spends two hours each afternoon sunbathing on the shores of the Pacific. Looking back, Johnson is happy that she never attracted big investors or became part of a huge company. "We're not brilliant, big-boy garmento movers and groovers," she says, "but we've had a wonderful, enjoyable, panicked, crazy, happy time over the past 25 years--all because we own it."--Nadine Heintz