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A force to be reckoned with

You name it, Betsy Johnson did it.

Self-portrait by Betsy Johnson, shot by Cameron Tidball-Sciullo

Anything you can do, Betsy does better! Betsy does anything better than you… This is hardly an exaggeration—Betsy Johnson, the Grimsby-born, London-based fashion powerhouse, is one of those hyper-productive creatives for whom there seems to not be enough time in the day, and not enough days in the calendar. Modelling herself after strong female protagonists and their sidekicks “who just didn’t give a fuck”, Johnson directs, styles, casts, shoots, designs (the list goes on), all with astonishing confidence and unbreakable focus: “I know what kind of life I want for myself… I just don’t really think about anything other than that.” This relentless drive emerged from a degree of necessity—“I just always had to be MAKING or I was being naughty”—as well as raw ambition and a desire to prove to young working-class talents like herself that there is a piece of fashion world pie that belongs to them. Johnson’s advice on taking the first bite? Dive into everything 100%, cultivate an interdisciplinary skillset, take risks—and an occasional overdraft-paid flight to follow your gut. As for Johnson, she’s just getting started. It’s hard work, but hey, “If it were easy everyone would have it, and if everyone had it you wouldn’t want it.”

Soft Intervals for Hunger Magazine, shot and styled by Betsy Johnson

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and the way you presented yourself visually?

Old sci-fi films, Gaga, the whole punk/mod movement, female protagonists and side kicks, who just didn’t give a fuck.

Have you always wanted to work in fashion in some capacity? What was your dream job growing up?

I always wanted to be the front woman of a band, or a fashion designer or film director, and I guess I still do now. I just always had to be making, or I was being naughty, always one or the other, and it’s still like that now too. Except I guess I’m more of a curator/director of sorts.

How would you describe what you do, and why do you do it? What is the Betsy Johnson mission?

I tell stories. Through an image, a film, a casting, working directly with clothing or all of the above in conjunction. I build worlds, or I try to at least. I want to create thought-provoking stories that can change some aspect of the crumbling world around us, whether that’s through people escaping in, or reacting to, my work. Also, to prove to myself and other working class young people that it is possible! You can have a voice in this field and be listened to.

You’re one of those 20-something-year-olds that honestly put the rest of us to shame: you art direct, photograph and style, you model, you are always on the go—where does all this energy and drive come from? What motivates you the most?

I think I just know what I want, I know what kind of life I want for myself, I know I want to make. I just don’t really think about anything other than that. I just always look forward and try and be as honest with myself and my work as possible.

Concept, creative direction and styling by Betsy Johnson

What has been the highlight of your career so far? And what has been the most revealing lesson?

My career highlight? I don’t know. I’m still so new to this, just out of university, it’s all a blur at the moment! The most revealing lesson is probably that a lot of people really are as fake as people presume. But it’s whatever, just don’t become one of them, work hard and keep your real ones close.

And is there something you haven’t done that you’d really like to do?

OMG, infinite amounts of things I want to do, but I’m not telling.

Violet Chachki for Paper Magazine, directed and shot by Betsy Johnson

You’re from Grimsby in the North-East Lincolnshire, and you were based in Manchester for ages, right? I know you recently moved to London – what has led you to make that decision? Do you feel like your work has a Northern identity of any kind?

I grew up in Grimsby and went to uni in Manc. I lived out of my parents spare bedroom in Grimsby and spent all my overdrafts on flights to NYC, LA, Paris, Berlin, just executing creative ideas and going out, meeting new people. I moved to London in April because I couldn’t sofa surf forever and it seemed like the best option right now. I think my work is just Betsy, I’ve travelled so much and seen so much I don’t think my work has any geographic identities attached to it. I do however want to do more projects with comment to the North and the problems people face from there.

What is the role of beauty in your work—is it something you try to actively capture and communicate, or is it secondary?

I think for me it’s less so about depicting the mainstream idea of beauty and more so about alternative beauty standards, and I hate that I even have to call it “alt”, because everyone I cast is just beautiful by definition. But, sadly, the Kardashian-esque “beauty” is still the archetype for beauty to most people. The beauty I try and depict in my work is, hopefully, the world I can create and how much the audience can be transported into that world. Even if that world brings some harsh truths.

Is there such a thing as bad taste?

YES. However, I do think every form and piece of work has its place, one without the other cannot inform what is or isn’t in good taste.

Malthus directed and shot by Betsy Johnson

Words by Masha Ryabova

All images courtesy of the artist.


Follow Betsy on Instagram.