Who: Known for her over-the-top dresses in floral and leopard prints, the queen of stylish excess is loved equally by prom queens, rock chicks, and bohos.
Backstory: Johnson was born and raised in Connecticut (although you'd never guess it looking at her) and earned her first break as a 22-year-old student at Syracuse when she won Mademoiselle's "Guest Editor Contest." The magazine's art department hired her after graduation and she spent the next year working as an assistant by day and knitting sweaters by night. Johnson's talent led Mademoiselle editors to recommend her for a design job at the hot clothing boutique Paraphernalia; she spent several years there creating edgy '60s fashions like vinyl mini-skirts, and hanging out with the likes of Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol, and Lou Reed. In 1969, Johnson opened a shop of her own on the Upper East Side, Betsey Bunky Nini. She spent the next few years living/working in San Francisco, serving as creative director for the Alley Cat fashion label, and acting as a freelance designer for a slew of different companies, creating everything from children's clothing to maternity wear to patterns for Butterick.
In 1978, she launched the Betsey Johnson label with partner Chantal Bacon. They soon opened a store on Thompson Street and turned out eclectic party clothes throughout the '80s. Johnson dabbled in high-end couture during the '90s, rolling out more expensive lines like Luxe and Ultra for the benefit of her celebrity customers. But Johnson's bread and butter has always been her mid-priced dresses (ranging from $150 to about $300), which are now available in dozens of worldwide markets along with countless new Betsey Johnson-branded products.
Of note: While fashion trends have come and gone, Johnson has managed to remain current by morphing with the times. When rockers in the '70s craved deconstructed punk styles, Johnson delivered; when the grunge movement reared its ugly head, Johnson provided the floral granny dresses that were all the rage. The company founded by the outrageous and excitable Johnson nearly three decades ago today generates more than $200 million a year thanks to eyewear, luggage, swimwear, lingerie, jewelry, shoes, fragrances, bedding and bath accessory lines. And there are more than 50 Betsey Johnson boutiques around the world, with new stores opening in places like Dubai and Tokyo.
The expansion wasn't enough to keep the company solvent amid the recession of 2008-9, unfortunately. In September 2010, Johnson's company defaulted on a $48 million loan to Steve Madden and the shoe mogul now has the right to take over the company if the loan is not repaid before 2012. For the time being, however, Johnson continues to have creative control of the company.
The look: Not your typical grandmother, Johnson's rarely spotted without her bundles of bright blonde hair extensions and sky high platforms. She still dresses as wild as she ever did, favoring neon-colored dresses that show off her super-tanned and tattooed skin.
Medical file: Johnson once had breast cancer, but is now in remission.
Personal: A 1967 marriage to John Cale of The Velvet Underground lasted less than four years; a subsequent relationship with a sculptor produced a daughter, Lulu, in 1975. Lulu, who works with her mom, recently had a daughter of her own, Layla—and it's Betsey's granddaughter who's been appearing with the designer at her shows when she takes a bow and performs her customary cartwheel.
Habitat: Johnson lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side. (Her daughter and granddaughter live in the same building.) Johnson also has a house in East Hampton and two properties in Mexico, Betseyville and Villa Betsey. Betseyville has since been turned into an estate for rent to the public (it costs $7,500 per week) while Villa Betsey serves as her private residence.
Date of Birth: 08/10/1942
Place of Birth: Wethersfield, CT
Undergrad: Syracuse University
Residence(s): New York, NY (Upper East Side); East Hampton, NY; Mexico
Filed Under: Fashion
[Photos via Getty Images]