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Starting Over at 70: XOX Betsey Johnson


In the 1970’s, Betsey Johnson was on her way to becoming an American fashion icon. Known for her whimsical designs, mismatched fabrics and bright colors, her clothes were popular with the young rock stars of the era. From there, she jumped hurdle after hurdle, never giving up on her wild fashions and wilder behavior. Going to a Betsey fashion show was like going to the circus and they always ended with the designer doing her signature cartwheel on the runway.

Soon, Betsey wasn’t just dressing celebrities, she was one herself. Looking more like an 80’s rock star than a CEO, she never apologized for her antics or her personal style.

The brand grew and by the mid-2000s, she had $150 million in sales and 400 employees which led to her big leap into retail. The company opened 63 stores then promptly went bankrupt. Defaulting on a 48 million dollar loan, Betsey was forced to close all of her stores, putting 350 employees out of work.

Betsey was out of work, too. For the first time in a long time, she had to hitch her wagon to someone else’s star in order to survive. Footwear millionaire Steve Madden bought the Betsey Johnson brand and now they’re in this together. For Madden, it’s a chance to expand his brand with a young, fresh clothing line but he’s taking a risk trying to reel in a strong personality such as Betsey’s.

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As for Ms. Johnson, she’s starting over at age 70. Working with the Madden company means she has to answer to a boss in regard to designs, fabrics and spending. What makes it even harder is that her assistants (Madden watchdogs) are younger than her own daughter.

How will Betsey take it when a girl 40-years her junior tells her she can’t have exactly what she wants? The world is about to find out because in addition to beginning her time as an employee, she’s also starring in her own reality show about the experience.

XOX Betsey Johnson premiered last week on the Style Network. A third of the episode was dedicated to Betsey’s business side, while the other two-thirds were spent dealing with her personal life. Betsey’s daughter Lulu has decided she wants to start a clothing line of her own without her mother’s name or help. Good luck with that. Showing the world what you can do on your own is tough enough but when you have a huge personality like Betsey for a mom, it’s nearly impossible.

The counterpoint of starting over at 70 vs a first start at 38 is fascinating. Betsey is understandably nervous about the new path. She’s concerned that she won’t be able to fit the Madden mold and that ultimately they’ll be unhappy with her work. That’s a rough place to be after years of running your own company.

Lulu is also starting over in a different way. She grew up working for her mom, learned the business, then got married and became a mom. Now she’s divorced and the kids are off to school so she’s ready to live the dream she passed on years ago. 38 used to be old to start a new business, but not anymore. With more people delaying retirement the median working age is on the rise. There’s also been an increase in the number of people who start second careers later in life.

Prior to age 30, celebrity chef and foodie entrepreneur Ina Garten was a White House nuclear policy analyst. Tim Zagat was 51 when he quit his job as corporate counsel for Gulf & Western to pursuing writing his famed restaurant guides full time.

All of this is good news for Lulu, but for Betsey there are trickier times ahead. How will she cope with being an employee again after being the boss? Find out on XOX Betsey Johnson – Sundays at 8 on Style. 

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We want to hear from you! Could you be happy as an employee after being the boss for twenty years? Share your thoughts on Twitter or in the comments!

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Photo Credit:  XOX BETSEY JOHNSON — Season: 1 — Pictured: (l-r) Lulu Johnson, Betsey Johnson — (Photo by: Matthias Clamer/Style)

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