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Betsey Johnson brand files for bankruptcy, stores close doors

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Sparkle, corset, leopard, hot pink, fishnet and multicolor-fur aficionados have shed a collective tear over the closing of the eccentric designer Betsey Johnson’s retail stores.

Johnson, known for her mix of girly and sexy, always provided entertaining runway shows full of hot pink, psychedelic patterns, glitter and pin-up elements like corsets and lace, that usually ended in a cartwheel or the splits by the unconventional designer herself. Whimsical outfits with girly overtones created a distinct and unique flair that garnered a special niche group of carefree wild-child women.

The eccentric Betsey Johnson breaks into the splits after her Fall 2012 Ready-To-Wear fashion show (Image courtesy of Styleite.com).

According to the Betsey Johnson website, the designer began as an aspiring dancer and her love of costumes “laid the foundation for Betsey’s creativity and inspiration.” Johnson got her first fashion break in 1964 when she won Mademoiselle magazine’s “Guest Editor Contest.” This was followed the next year by her appointment as the top designer for Paraphernalia, a label that included some of the top London designers.

In the 1960s, Johnson was considered a part of both the youthquake fashion movement and Andy Warhol’s underground scene, according to Johnson’s website. The youthquake was a fashion, cultural and musical movement that embodied fun and free-spirited youthfulness. Some of the movement’s most notable leaders were Warhol, Jean Shrimpton, Lou Reed and Edie Sedgwick. In 1969, Johnson opened a boutique called Betsey Bunky Nini in New York, with Sedgwick as the boutique’s lead model.

Johnson is no stranger to awards from the fashion world. CNN.com reported that in 1972, she won the Coty “Winnie” Award for outstanding designs. At the 1999 Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards, Johnson won the Timeless Talent Award, which was created for the designer to acknowledge her accomplishments in the fashion field. Johnson was also inducted into the Fashion Walk of Fame in 2002, which recognized her contributions to American fashion.

Designer Betsey Johnson works on a dress form in her design studio in 1991 on an episode of “House of Style” MTV television show (Image courtesy of Style.MTV.com).

Financial troubles for the designer surfaced to the public in 2007 when Castanea Partners, a private equity firm located in Boston, took over the company. Further financial woes were confirmed in 2010, when Steve Madden, Ltd. bought the brand’s intellectual property rights.  According to a Wall Street Journal article, the company declared bankruptcy on April 26,, 2012, which resulted in the closure of 63 freestanding Betsey Johnson stores; Steve Madden, Ltd. will most likely keep four or five flagship stores in New York City and a few in other cities.

The designer’s website emphasizes that “Betsey Johnson LLC and Steve Madden, Ltd are two separated and distinct unaffiliated legal entities and Steve Madden, Ltd. bears no responsibility for the liabilities of Betsey Johnson LLC.”

This Betsey Johnson model struts wild creations and clashing patterns for the Fall 2011 Ready-to-Wear Show (Image courtesy of Style.com).

The website also states that the license provided by Steve Madden, Ltd. to Betsey Johnson LLC was terminated, and that Steve Madden, Ltd. is now managing the betseyjohnson.com website through one of its subsidiaries. Steve Madden, Ltd. is currently working on improving the website and expects to be able to take orders for the Betsey Johnson brand in fall 2012.

A quick skimming through the Betsey Johnson Facebook fan page shows the polarized views of consumers on the designer’s products.

A funky look filled with cherries and a corset from Johnson’s Fall 2009 Ready-to-Wear show (Image courtesy of Style.com).

One of the complaints is the lack of variety in sizes, or more specifically the lack of larger sizes for women. One fan wrote, “I have loved your fun quirky stuff for a long time. But I’ve always wished they came in larger sizes, maybe even some in plus sizes. Granted not all your things would be suitable for plus sizes, but…I’m sure you could figure out a way to make them figure flattering as well.”

Another poster stated that Johnson needs to realize that not everyone is the same shape.  The poster said that she has lost respect for Johnson’s philosophy on design because of her inability to design for girls with varying body types.

But it’s not only Johnson’s critics who post on her Facebook fan page. The designer also receives posts of encouragement and love from her bedazzled leopard-print fashionistas.

With its neon fur and patterned shift dress, this mod-inspired outfit was presented at Johnson’s Fall 2012 Ready-to-Wear show (Image courtesy of Style.com).

One fan wrote, “You have been my inspiration since I was a little girl. It has led me to graduate fashion school and rock one of your absolutely amazing dresses up on stage to accept my diploma. I couldn’t have imagined wearing anything else. Thank you for being a part of my life.”

Another fan enthusiastically thanked the designer for inspiring her to live her life in color, and pleaded with the designer to never change her youthful statement clothing.

Although she polarizes her audience, Johnson does have a unique design aesthetic that has captured the world’s attention for over forty years. Fans of the free-spirited designer should not fear, as 70-year-old Johnson does not show any sign of slowing down. She will still stay on as the brand’s creative director and continue to sell her lower-priced fashion line at department stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom.

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