Welcome to Forgotten Runway, a deep dive into some of the more niche presentations in fashion history—which still have an impact to this day. In this new series, writer Kristen Bateman interviews the designers and people who made these productions happen, revealing what made each one so special.
Betsey Johnson opened her sprawling spring 1994 show with her signature cartwheels, kicks, and splits—all while wearing a skirt made out of hair extensions. A group of models sat behind her on a set built to resemble a beauty parlor, complete with shimmery pink curtains and retro dryers. They then paraded onstage, wearing little slip dresses, garter belts, granny-square crochet vests, and fruit-printed dresses with bright bras peeking out—and even brighter corsets layered on top of them. Despite all the superfun, high-octane fashion and theatrics, all Johnson can focus on during a recent interview is her acrobatics. “Oh my god, what was I thinking?,” she says with a laugh. “I usually wait to do that at the end.”
The designer says the show—which she believes took place at Parsons in 1993, but isn’t 100 percent sure—is her personal favorite of all time. But beyond any emotional attachments, the spring 1994 presentation defined an era and aesthetic distinct to Johnson, demonstrating a range that spoke to the DNA of her brand. Here was a designer who embraced kitsch and femininity, while also producing over-the-top shows without creative constraints, on a very limited budget. And now, her candy-colored designs are resonating with Gen Z, who are fully steeped in the Y2K fashion craze. Celebrities, too, are getting in on the Betsey Johnson revival. Olivia Rodrigo dipped her toes into the world of vintage Betsey when she wore an archive pastel slip dress with ruching on the sides at a concert in April, and later opted for another Betsey Johnson archival piece—a sheer black midi dress—while out and about in New York City. On Depop, a cursory search reveals spades of vintage 2000s Betsey Johnson options, reinvented and styled through a new, youthful lens.
It makes sense that Johnson’s scrappy, DIY, and focused-on-fun approach to fashion is returning to the limelight, especially since it’s always been well-respected. Johnson made her entrance to the fashion world as the in-house designer for the youth culture punk boutique Paraphernalia in New York City in the mid 1960s. By 1969, she opened her first boutique, Betsey Bunky Nini, on the Upper East Side, with Edie Sedgwick as house model (Johnson made all the clothing featured in Sedgwick’s last film, Ciao! Manhattan).
By the 1970s, Johnson designed for the popular label Alley Cat, which was beloved for its quirky prints, bold colors, and affordable prices. Johnson started her own fashion line eight years later—and in the 1990s, she really started etching out the style which people know and love her for today. “For the ’90s, my fashion show days were just about not going by any of the rules, showing the clothes the way I wanted to, with the best models I’ve ever worked with,” she says.
And while the spring 1994 show took place nearly 30 years ago, the pieces are as relevant as ever, cementing the presentation as an iconic moment in fashion history. Johnson herself sold all her archives for less than $50 a pop in 2008, but as recently as this month, she has been buying them back on eBay and Poshmark as she nears her 80th birthday and reflects on her work.
Back to Johnson’s iconic entrance to her own show. “I started fooling around with the cartwheel and the splits a couple years before my first show in 1981, and I just thought, well, the audience really likes this,” she says. Ever the character, Johnson’s go-to move to close out each of her runways became the cartwheel: a noted departure from the demure bows of designers past. “I had a hard time leaving the runway once I was on it,” she adds. “I like to stay with the girls.”
Ève Salvail, who often walked for Jean Paul Gaultier and made a buzz cut revealing a large tattoo on her head her signature, was just one of the girls who partied on that spring 1994 runway. In addition to dancing, shimmying, and strutting down the catwalk, the models took Polaroid pictures of the audience, then tossed them back into the crowd. “To me, what always made the clothes work and the shows work is that I picked the right models who knew what my shows were about,” Johnson says. “The shows were never to sell clothes. They were to sell a feeling or a vibe. They were about the energy of the clothing.”
What made Johnson’s ’90s shows so fun were the themes. There was a certain element of storytelling that other designers of her scale simply weren’t tapping into during that time. “That show started with a very fun hairdresser attitude,” Johnson says, noting the hair and makeup were every bit as important as the accessories and styling on the runway. In fact, the models had little extensions in shades of blue, pink, and red—not unlike the looks Johnson herself has worn, which have become a major part of her brand’s codes, along with her personal style. “I worked with my hair extension guy, Andrew Gregory,” she says. “This was probably one of the least extensive shows I ever did, except for having to rent a place. All we had to do was rent three or four hair dryers. It started off with a fun theme of getting your hair done, getting into the beauty part, and then flirting with the guys who are waiting for you to get your hair done.”
About the male models: Johnson insists they were her favorite part of the whole show, in addition to casting friends—including her photographer boyfriend at the time—to walk. “The best part about the show was the guys,” she says. “And the suits I made for the guys. I did that a lot in the early Nineties and mid Nineties: we used guys on the runway and made clothes for them that matched and related to the girls.”
Also worth noting were the accessories: gold collars, garters, elbow-length gloves, bows, motorcycle helmets, bubbles, and layered cross necklaces. Cat- and dog-shaped handbags were paired with bloomers, and even Goth-inspired getups. “It had every trick in the book that I’ve ever used, from the big flowers to little flowers, to the stripes, to the draping, to the Marie Antoinette look,” Johnson says. A couple of models wearing matching metallic outfits walked as Johnson danced in the background. “It was kind of lingerie—the puff sleeves, the busty push-up bras,” she says of the collection. “Very sexy, and exactly what I do now, or what I’ve done for 35 years.”
Looks from Betsey Johnson’s spring 1994 collection. Courtesy of Betsey Johnson.
Midway through the presentation, one model dropped a bright pink box full of shoes on the runway; Johnson threw a few pairs into the audience before a duo wearing lingerie pretended to sweep them up. Models in cake-tiered Marie Antoinette dresses closed the show, alongside Johnson wearing a wedding dress, underneath a bridge of models’s arms holding signs that said, “Don’t do it!” and “Think twice!” “In those days, the main theme was being able to do exactly what I wanted,” she adds. “My shows in the 2000s sobered up a bit. They were more organized.”
But nothing compares to the colorful chaos Johnson dreamt up for spring 1994. “I always wanted my show to be like a dance recital, with themes and little stories,” Johnson says. “They were usually not taken that seriously, except by my customer, who really got it. I was like the little nut case out there. But over the years, all of a sudden, I ended up as a highly respected American designer.”