Aiming to open up socio-political discussions in the fashion landscape, Betsy Johnson truly appears to be doing it all. From ghost directing a METAL 44 editorial, to creating images of a Gucci-clad, Thatcher-masked model, Johnson produced some of the most iconic and anthropologically resounding images and looks for 2021. Speaking to the Grimsby-born creative director about her success, intentions, and process, one thing shone through: an unrelenting drive to create. Johnson’s admirable work ethic in tandem with her boundary-pushing perspective on editorial content makes for an evidently unstoppable combination.
Betsy, I first want to congratulate you on your really innovative editorial for METAL 44 Anti-Hate and your place on the BFC emerging talents list. Tell us a bit about the daily life of a multi-faceted young creative building an empire.
Well, this morning started with a half conscious “How did the quote double?” [shouted to myself] out loud; my eyes barely open staring down the thoroughly exciting world of spreadsheets and set design breakdowns at 7am. It’s hard to homogenise a day to day when everyday is, and always has been, completely different.
The only constant is that most days I am past the point of no return lost in my own brain, spiralling into notes, a sketchbook or a deck or communicating with what feels like every person under the sun and overseeing 3274982108475 tasks. There is literally 0 middle ground. It’s not very glamorous, I don’t get out that much, but it’s great.
Brexit here, here and here editorial was a comment on Brexit compounded with Covid cancelling travel plans. Were the characters you created based on real life people?
Some were real life, some less so. I so often base my work on real people, for this project I was operating more in the realms of surreal archetypes, only really achievable by Jazzelle, my muse for this story who could chameleon switch between the roles.
Your Balenciaga SS22 catwalk moment was one of the highlights of 2021, can you tell us more about your role and work on this project?
Ah thank you! I was actually a guest to the show and purely by accident arrived so late due to work I accidentally ended up in the line up (laughs).
Another iconic Betsy moment was carrying a book covered 'The Communist Manifesto’ to the British Fashion Council Awards with a hole cut out for your phone hidden inside. What does it all mean?
The meaning is dependant on the audience I guess. I’m less about statements, more about conversation. To me the elitist landscape of fashion is made up of ex CSM’ers attempting the so called democratisation. But really it’s somewhat a mirror of communisms attempt at radical socialism = good intentions but kind of fell short in its extreme measures and still favoured its leaders and granted them rewards.
How can we exist with the contradictions in the fashion industry and day to day life?
Fashion is hilarious in its contradictions. It wants to be art but caters (rightfully so) and sometimes painfully to its customer; it wants to cater to the customer and also be art. It cares and also doesn’t. How do we exist? I’m not sure. We surrender to its serious position within the artistic and economic space but we also have fun with it in our own capacity. Whether a day to day consumer or an industry art director. We recognise its flaws and also its power to change perspectives artistically as well as in infrastructure if fashion follows its so called ethics and sustainability attempts.
How does Western culture influence your work? Which traditions do you keep and which do you discard or repackage?
I grew up in western culture through a weird fish-tank of an isolated town and socialist parents. So it inherently is my work. I was pretty sheltered from pop culture growing up. So I hold onto the hilarious archetypes that surface from most obvious hilarity that is western culture mixed with the questionable politics and views of western democracy and it all just spirals from there.
When directing an editorial, you often cover everything from concept, to styling, to casting. How do you ensure a cohesion in your creative visions?
For me it’s easier to isolate myself and cover these areas; it makes for more cohesion. I have great people and collaborators around me who I soundboard my ideas off. This always helps when I need a new perspective or a point back in the right direction if I’ve gone off the deep end.
Do you have any main influences or methods in coming up with creative directions? I would love to hear more about your process and how you keep it so fresh.
My editorial and personal work if usually ideas I’m sat on. Most stories are developed over a few months or even years, I’m sat on ideas still from uni that aren’t quite ready. I dip in and out, add to concepts and ideas over time. With clients it’s more time sensitive. I spend a lot of my time isolated and researching. The news. Films. Books. Exhibitions. It’s hard to quantify, it’s always different sources that inform different aspects of my work.
Keeping with the idea that space affects our work, I understand it’s been over a year now since you moved to London. What was your experience like of newly living in a fashion capital during times of total shutdown?
I’ve always been quite a recluse when it comes to my work, so the isolation helped with idea incubation for sure. Financially it was the most stressful time of my life, I had to live with friends and my parents at certain parts to stay afloat.
That period prompted a lot of reflection about fashion-centric consumption. So, on that note, is the future of the fashion industry utopian or dystopian? And whatever your answer, why?
I think it’s subjective. I hope I’m wrong but I think the future of fashion is a meta-fuelled dystopia, which I think subtracts from the essence of fashion itself. The physicality of it is so important. I’m conflicted about the whole thing.
How do you view social media’s relationship with the industry? As someone who uses the platform so creatively and positively to spread art, I’m curious to hear your opinions.
Social media is a broad term. I owe a lot to Instagram back at uni, it really helped me access the fashion industry when 10 years ago I would have found it much more difficult to make any impact from outside of a fashion Capital. I think it’s so intrinsic to the existence of fashion now and in some cases solely relied upon as a market space for a consumer base. But again I think the physicality and authenticity fashion needs sometimes struggles to coexist with it. It’s refreshing when people find the balance and do it well.
I suppose after discussing so many aspects of your work I have to ask, how do you do it all? Have you enjoyed being so busy with projects since the world has started opening up again?
A lot of to-do lists (laughs)! I spent the whole of 2020 side hustling hard and self funding personal projects. I’m not sure [how I do it] actually, I’ve never thought about it too much; I just constantly do regardless of anyone asking me to, paying me to or even wanting me to (laughs). The world opening up was nice. It forced me out of hiding but I've been on the road for 8 months solid; now mostly between Paris and London.
So, what’s next for you? And what shape do you expect your work to take as the world keeps turning?
I don’t like telling people what im doing. You’ll see I guess!
Betsy Johnson Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Betsy wears dress JEAN PAUL GAULTIER archive 1986 collection, shoes BALENCIAGA, bag ABRA, balaclava HOUSE OF HARLOTT, gloves stylist’s.
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Betsy wears dress LAURA ANDRASCHKO, bag ANTIDOTE, sunglasses ALAN CROCETTI, gloves, shoes and leggings stylist’s own.