Betsey Johnson’s 1994 Spring Runway Show: Deep Dives

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Welcome to Forgotten Fashion Shows, a deep dive into some of the more specialized runway presentations in fashion history—which still have an impact today. In this new series, writer Kristen Bateman interviews the designers and the people who made this production happen, revealing what makes each one so special.

Betsey Johnson opened the sprawling spring 1994 show with her signature somersaults, kicks, and splits—all while wearing a skirt made of hair extensions. A group of models sat behind him in a set built to resemble a beauty parlor, complete with glossy pink curtains and retro dryers. They then paraded across the stage, wearing little slip dresses, belts, square knit vests, and fruit print dresses with bright bras peeking out—and even brighter corsets layered over them. Despite all the insanely fun, high-octane fashions and skits, what Johnson was able to focus on during a recent interview was his stunts. “Oh my God, what was I thinking?,” he said with a laugh. “I usually wait to do that at the end.”

The designer says the show—which he believes took place at Parsons in 1993, but isn’t 100 percent sure—is his personal favorite of all time. But beyond any emotional ties, the Spring 1994 presentation defined a different era and aesthetic for Johnson, showing a range that fits well with his brand DNA. Here is a designer who embraces kitsch and femininity, while also producing over-the-top shows without creative limitations, on a very tight budget. And now, its candy-colored design resonates with Gen Z, who are completely immersed in Y2K fashion trends. Celebrities also had a hand in Betsey Johnson’s revival. Olivia Rodrigo dipped her fingers into the vintage Betsey world when she wore a archive pastel slip dress with ruching on the side to a concert in April, and then opted for another Betsey Johnson archive cut—a sheer black midi dress—while traveling New York City. At Depop, a cursory search reveals a 2000s vintage Betsey Johnson option shovel, reinvented and styled through a youthful new lens.

Betsey Johnson’s 1994 spring beauty salon was on the runway.

Courtesy of Betsey Johnson

It makes sense that Johnson’s scrappy, DIY, fun-focused approach to fashion is back in the limelight, especially since it’s always been respected. Johnson broke into fashion as the in-house designer for the teen culture punk boutique Paraphernalia in New York City in the mid-1960s. In 1969, she opened her first boutique, Betsey Bunky Nini, on the Upper East Side, with Edie Sedgwick as her home model (Johnson made all the clothes featured in Sedgwick’s last film, Ciao! Manhattan).

In the 1970s, Johnson designed for the popular label Alley Cat, which was loved for its unique prints, bold colors, and affordable prices. Johnson started his own fashion line eight years later—and in the 1990s, he really began to adopt the styles people know and love today. “For the ’90s, my fashion show days were just about not following any rules, showing me clothes the way I wanted to, with the best models I’ve ever worked with,” she said.

And while the 1994 spring show took place nearly 30 years ago, the pieces remain as relevant as ever, cementing their presentation as an iconic moment in fashion history. Johnson himself sold all of his files for less than $50 a pop in 2008, but as recently as this month, he’s been buying them back on eBay and Poshmark as he approaches his 80th birthday and reflects on his work.

A look from Betsey Johnson’s 1994 spring collection.

Courtesy of Betsey Johnson

Return to Johnson’s iconic entrance to his own show. “I started playing with cartwheels and splits a few years before my first show in 1981, and I just thought, the audience really liked this,” he said. Always a character, Johnson’s move to close every single one of his runways is a turning point: a notable departure from the polite ways of designers of the past. “I had a hard time leaving the runway once I was there,” he added. “I like living with girls.”

ve Salvail, who frequently walks for Jean Paul Gaultier and makes buzz cuts sporting her signature large tattoo on her head, was just one of the girls partying on that spring 1994 runway. In addition to dancing, snaking, and pacing the catwalks, the models snap pictures of the audience with Polaroids, then throw them back into the crowd. “For me, what always makes clothes work and shows work is that I pick the right models who know about my show,” says Johnson. “The show never sells clothes. They have to sell the feeling or the vibe. They’re about clothing energy. ”

A look from Betsey Johnson’s 1994 spring collection.

Courtesy of Betsey Johnson

What made the ’90s Johnson show so much fun was the theme. There were certain elements of storytelling that other designers didn’t exploit on its scale during that time. “The show started off with a hairstylist that was really fun,” says Johnson, noting that hair and makeup are just as important as accessories and styling on the runway. In fact, the model has a little extra in shades of blue, pink, and red—unlike the look Johnson himself wears, which has become a major part of his brand code, along with his personal style. “I work with my hair extension guy, Andrew Gregory,” she says. “This is probably one of the least extensive shows I’ve ever done, except for having to rent a venue. All we had to do was rent three or four hair dryers. It starts with a fun theme for getting your hair done, goes into the beauty section, and then seduces the guys waiting for you to get your hair done.”

About the male models: Johnson insists that they were his favorite part of the entire show, apart from taking friends—including his then photographer girlfriend—for walks. “The best part of the show is the men,” he said. “And the suits I made for the men. I used to do that a lot in the early nineties and mid-nineties: we used men on the runway and made clothes for them that fit and resonated with women.”

A look from Betsey Johnson’s 1994 spring collection.

Courtesy of Betsey Johnson

Also worth noting are the accessories: gold collar, garter, elbow gloves, bow, motorcycle helmet, bubble, and plated cross necklace. Cat and dog shaped bags are paired with bloomers, and even Goth-style outfits. “There’s every trick in a book I’ve ever used, from big flowers to tiny flowers, stripes, curtains, to the Marie Antoinette look,” says Johnson. Several models dressed in matching metallic outfits walked by as Johnson danced in the background. “It’s kind of an undergarment—foamed sleeves, a busty push-up bra,” she says of the collection. “So sexy, and exactly what I’m doing now, or what I’ve been doing for 35 years.”

Seen from Betsey Johnson’s spring 1994 collection. With the permission of Betsey Johnson.

Halfway through the presentation, one model dropped a bright pink box full of shoes on the runway; Johnson tossed a few pairs into the audience before a pretend underwear-wearing duo swept them over. A model in a cake-covered Marie Antoinette dress closed the show, beside Johnson in a wedding gown, under the arm bridge a model held a sign that said, “Don’t do that!” and “Think twice!” “In those days, the main theme was being able to do what I wanted,” he added. “My shows in the 2000s were a little calming. They are more organized.”

But nothing compares to the colorful mess Johnson envisioned for the spring of 1994. “I’ve always wanted my show to be like a dance recital, with little themes and stories,” says Johnson. “They are usually not taken seriously, except by my customers, who totally understand. I’m like the little bean box out there. But over the years, suddenly, I ended up as a highly respected American designer.”

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