Friday, April 22, 2016

Punk Fashion: Betsey Johnson and Natasha [1980]

Betsey Johnson by Sherri Beachfront / FFanzeen fanzine, 1980
Natasha by Julia Masi / FFanzeen fanzine, 1980
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet unless indicated

These fashion articles were was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #5, dated August / September 1980, in the centerfold pages 18-19.

The piece on Betsey Johnson was written by the singer of the band Get Wet, who should have been much bigger than they were, and came thisclose. I had the pleasure to see them perform many times, which was always a joy, be it at the Ritz, s.n.a.f.u., Max’s Kansas City, or any of the other clubs they’d be playing. Sherri exclusively wore Johnson’s togs, especially when she was on stage. I even had the honor to interview Sherri and her then partner, Zecca, at their flat in the West Village around this time.

The one on Natasha was written by Julia Masi, a fashion maven in her own right, who was the Managing Editor of FFanzeen at the time. Natasha’s store was right on St. Mark’s Place, and her staff included the stand-up comic and author Dave Street. The first time I met Natasha was when I interviewed the band Bleu Ocean for the very first issue of FFanzeen in 1977, after they played at the opening of the ill-fated Elgin Theatre; she was hanging around their loft.

The major differences between these two now-fashion icons is that Johnson’s work was very frou-frou, with tons of frills, puffs and lace, and Natasha’s was definitely designed to be more gritty and geared toward band- (and fan-) wear, such as leather, lycra, and spandex.

What they have in common, however, is a love of music, which is represented in their particular styles. Both are focused on rock’n’roll, and had their lynchpin groups, with Johnson being adopted by the Velvet Underground, and Natasha by the New York Dolls. Their influence would speak volumes, especially with the underground scene of New York in the late 1970s and well into the 1980s. – Robert Barry Francos, 2016.

By Sherri Beachfront

Betsey Johnson
I am not a writer. I am a singer in a band called Get Wet. For those of you who have seen me (whether it be on stage or off), you have undoubtedly seen me wear the clothes made by fashion designer Betsey Johnson. I am a fan of Betsey’s, which brings me to why I am writing instead of singing today.

At a recent fashion show at the Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) [which I attended – RBF, 2016], Betsey Johnson’s fashions were shown, and received with much enthusiasm by fellow future designers, students and teachers alike, and more new Betsey fans gathered together once again to order some of her newest Summer and Fall looks. Her colors: pink and blue stripes, black and yellow stripes, and pink and black stripes, just to name a few. The designs range from stripped sweater dresses with matching knit helmet hats, to my favorite, a plastic see-through dress with black fake fur only in the most needed places.

Her fashions are hard to resist. They’re so outrageous, so creative and so much fun, just like Betsey Johnson.

Betsey grew up in Connecticut and came to New York City in the psychedelic and electric ‘60s. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll were very evident, with much of America’s youth at war in Viet Nam.

Where was Betsey? She was designing clothes for a store called Paraphernalia in The Village. Bursting with her first creative rushes, Betsey started making hip-hugger mini-skirts and t-shirt dresses. The girls of the ‘60s were dressing Mod in white go-go boots, wearing fake eye-lashes, slicker lipsticks (hurray, Twiggy!) and rock’n’roll was Max’s Kansas City. Betsey loved the Max’s scene, dressing up in her silver mini-skirt, gluing on those lashes, putting on that eye glitter, and don’t forget your silver tap shoes!

The Velvet Underground wasn’t only packing Max’s but also got Betsey packing her suitcases and traveling with the band, making their costumes. “Rock’n’roll is behind all my ideas,” Betsey told me. “If I dress to a certain record and then change the record, my clothes don’t look right. I have to change my clothes again just to fit the music.”

Betsey came back to New York and moved into the famed Chelsea Hotel (a hotel of many stories). She tried to get work, but no one would hire her, even though her ideas were wonderful and many of the better known companies were already copying her designs; they were afraid to hire a young designer coming out of the rock’n’roll, drug-influenced ‘60s.

Sherri wears Betsey (pic by RBF)
Betsey got fed up and she went out West to look for work. She found a place to live (next to San Quentin Prison – what an experience!) and heard of a designer job that was open in a company called Alley Cat.

A new and different Betsey Johnson look was created at Alley Cat. Sweet, sexy and flowery. The apple pie country girl with brains. How ‘70s! The natural look. Either you didn’t wear any make-up at all or you could barely see it. The ‘70s was the end of the Viet Nam war, back to earth health foods and finding the security of home again. Home for Betsey was New York, so she returned to the city to open a store called Betsey, Bunky and Nini, where Betsey brought her variety of country girl looks. Most of Betsey’s work in the ‘70s was as a freelance designer.

A new era began for Betsey Johnson as motherhood gave her a new inspiration: a baby girl named Lulu. With all this new involvement in her life, Betsey started designing kids’ clothes and called it Betsey Johnson’s Kids. It was the happiest work she recalled doing in the ‘70s. Betsey was still fighting to prove herself as a hard-working, serious designer and it was getting frustrating. In the fall of 1977, Betsey just quit!

And then the magic began with Betsey and Chantal, a friend of hers who was in the business as a model, decided to go into business together.

On August 10, 1978, Betsey Johnson was in business. Using day-glow neon spandex and red and black lycrex, Betsey was working for a timeless look. Tight corset tops and baggy pants that were tight at the ankles. Tight and loose shapes that could be worn together. Jerri Hall and Pat Cleveland were among the high-fashion models that strutted Betsey’s fashions from her SoHo loft, down the runway into Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Fiorucci, and even a television appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. Finally, Betsey’s clothes were really out there in the stores. Finally, the recognition and acceptance that she needed from the garment industry bosses.

The late ‘70s found Betsey Johnson at CBGBs, where a new era was taking shape: punk!

Betsey’s clothes for the ‘80s are strongly influenced by that CBGBs scene, and the now futuristic look that the ‘80s seem to give off. The ‘80s are reminiscent of the ‘60s in many ways. With the world conflict and war being contemplated every day in the news, rock’n’roll is exploding on the scene again. However, the ‘80s brings us its own discoveries, like the much awaited video-disc. The ‘80s will be visual and electric and Betsey Johnson is on the pulse of its energies.

Betsey is currently doing costumes for Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, dressed the girls who work at the amazing new club, the Ritz, and yours truly, Sherri Beachfront (I need an extra room just for my tutus).

Let’s bring out the colors for the ‘80s, be bright and let all the positive energies that you have emerge. We need them in the ‘80s, just like we need rock’n’roll; just like we need Betsey Johnson [Betsey Johnson’s store was at 150 Thompson Street, in SoHo – RBF].

By Julia Masi

Natasha speaks in a soft, sultry voice. The words flow quickly and she smiles often as she talks about the clothes she designs. “Some people say a lot of my things are futuristic,” but she prefers to describe them as “a vamp look.”

Her own looks, which in another time will be considered the epitome of elegance, are quite striking. Naturally, Natasha wears her own designs exclusively. Her long brown hair is tinted with magenta highlights. Two-tone triangles of make-up outline each of her clear, brown feline eyes. Her thin features and high cheekbones are the type you’d expect to see on a glossy fashion magazine cover, but Natasha’s concept of style is light years ahead of the Seventh Avenue crowd.

“I prefer a curvy model rather than just a straight, toothpick model. Movement is very important to my models, because when we do a fashion show we do it to music.” Natasha acknowledges that fashion is influenced by music. This is especially true of her own professional career, which was launched in the early ‘70s when she started designing costumes for the New York Dolls. [Note: Natasha responded to this reprint, saying, "I did clothes for Arthur Killer Kane of the New York Dolls and did for Joey Ramone, the Magic Tramps and many others as they would shop in my store, and custom made for others..." - RBF, 2016.] “I don’t really get influenced by other designers,” she said. “But there is one designer from the ‘60s that I do relate to: Collette.”

Although Natasha’s collection does include a wide variety of miniskirts and colorful sleeveless tops, reminiscent of the Mod era, her clothes are definitely not retro. She is best known for slinky spandex dresses, shirts and pants, and fishnet jumpsuits that let every curve show through the fabric.

Her clothes are not only for women, though. She has designed dozens of tuxedo-style jackets with art deco prints, as well as vinyl jackets and unique accessories.

“As we go into the ‘80s,” Natasha speculates, “we’re going to get more into future wear. Not costumey things, but functional things for traveling in outer space,” she smiles, “and different kinds of things for here on earth. Because the earth is definitely changing.”

Natasha is very much aware of the changing world around her. Recent political situations have inspired her to unveil her own version of the military look, which will be invading her store at 1 St. Mark’s Place, this Fall.

1 comment:

  1. I love seeing my words of my younger self and remember this like it was yesterday. What a treat! Thank you Robert! You were always there and you still are. OXOX