Betsy Johnson instantly changes an atmosphere, when she comes in. With her two-tone hair, mask butterfly sunglasses and infectious energy. Her work too doesn’t go unnoticed. From creative direction to photography, Betsy celebrates the raw, the absurd, the messy. A nice snook to the well normed aesthetic of luxury.
You are a creative director, fashion stylist, image maker and creative consultant. How did your journey with fashion begin and led you to where you are today, mastering all of these positions?
Short PSA: I’m not good at talking, that’s why I make visuals.
To answer your question, my journey in fashion in the traditional sense and consciously began when I went to university in Northern England, in Manchester. There wasn’t many people to collaborate within that city, at least at the time. I didn’t have anyone to lean on creatively, so I kind of ended up absorbing a lot of the roles in terms of actually producing the work from concept to outcome. When I was coming up with a film idea or short campaign idea, I was shooting, casting, styling it myself. I’ve never really seen myself as one thing or another, I think it’s just easier to say creative director just so everyone can understand what the fuck it is that I’m doing.
Whatever I need to do to make what is in my brain exist in real life and wherever my shortcomings are, there is people around that are so much better in what I need than I am - they step into those gaps. So I work with great hair and makeup teams, amazing photographers, designers and set designers. No man is an Island.
Is covering every creative aspect also a way to make sure your vision is embodied the exact way you imagined it?
Yeah, I think so. When I start coming up with a concept or when I am sat with a concept, majority of the time, I immediately know who I want to shoot it. So I can just see the images through that person’s lens. And that’s why sometimes I’ll be sat on decks for sometimes two years because the resources are not there or I don’t have a relationship with that photographer yet so I need to hold it for when that opportunity presents itself. Timing is everything and it’s important to work with the right collaborators.
To me, the fact that you don’t limit yourself to only one discipline or title says a lot about you. It says that you don’t like boundaries and labels. We can also see that through your vision of beauty. You challenge the consensual definition of beauty, you always try to find beauty in unexpected places and forms. What’s actually beauty to you?
I think that where I grew up, there's literally no beauty in the traditional sense. I hope that no one from Grimsby is reading this. But there's also so much beauty in the nooks and crannies and the decrepit nature of that place.
When I was around 12/13 onwards, I made it my mission to kind of look as hardcore as possible, I shaved my head, got tattoos when I was 13. It was a kind of protection and rebellion against femininity or beauty or tradition. God knows.
I guess I like ordinary things. I think I didn't even buy a fashion magazine until I was in university. I grew up watching the news and war movies with my siblings and grandad, so everything I was absorbing was quite intense and gritty and I think I saw a lot of beauty in that, in the aggression of human nature, in how horrible humans are. We don't live in a beautiful world, so why are we pretending we do and why are we pushing that narrative of this is what life looks like when it literally doesn’t?
When I saw the first Vetements show I was like “Wow fashion can be kind of working-class, and normal, and ugly and everything that I recognise from growing up in Grimsby”, like people in tracksuits, rain coats and running gear. Until that point I’d spent all of my life in Grimsby, so seeing a small reflection of that walk down the runway was something that resonated with me in a way that fashion never did before. All of a sudden fashion was a space I could exist in. This is how I dress, this is what my friends look like at the corner shop in Grimsby. So thank you Demna for inspiring me to take that leap because honestly that was the key trigger point of me channeling my energy into that pathway. There is of course a conversation about price points and the sensationalisation of working-class culture etc which I am still conflicted about, but it's still so smart what he did and it carved out a space for people to feel like they belonged in an industry that until that point wasn’t open to them or welcoming their point of view.
Where do you look for inspiration?
When I really want inspiration, I go home, I lock myself in my parents’ house, in Grimsby, I shut the door and I don't leave about four days. Because a lot of my inspiration kind of comes from life experiences or home, and it always starts with something in my brain and then the visual references kind of come after.
I really need a lot of solitude actually. Like next week I'm going into isolation for two weeks because I have a lot of projects I need to work on. And I really have to be completely alone. I have to delete Instagram on my phone sometimes, because there is so much visual information.
I watch a lot of movies as well, a lot of action movies, old action movies.
Also my dad got me this Banksy book when I was around 13 and it's the only art book to this day I've ever owned and ever cared about really, I revisit that a lot. Banksy has always been a huge inspiration, probably my first ever big inspiration. If I want to get inspired, I look at a lot of Banksy’s work. The way he approaches art resonates with me a lot. He infiltrated the most traditional art spaces in the most satirical and political way. I remember being a teenager and realising “Wow art can be for normal people and actually SAY something, this is fucking cool”. I really do hope I meet him one day. That’s someone I really want to work with, I don’t know how that would happen….
Since his work always conveys a specific message, what message do you want your work to convey?
I think there's a bigger picture that sometimes I'm not even aware of yet. I'm too young to fully understand what the bigger picture is of my creative work. But I think each project is more like a micro-moment of something that is annoying me. It usually is about something that's pissing me off or something I'm thinking about or a commentary on something, that kind of regurgitates into some sort of shoot. I feel like each shoot is a time stamp of where my thoughts are.
Are you the most inspired when you are the most annoyed?
Yes absolutely. I think my best work was in the first proper lockdown, I was actually in Grimsby for four months, staying with my parents, they were both working the whole time. And I made some of my best work during that period. I was so annoyed at the fashion world carrying on and the people were dying. I was annoyed at so many things.
What project of yours is the most meaningful to you?
I feel like I have almost forgotten about all of my work. I get really attached to my projects and it got to a point where I had to let them go once I release them, otherwise I just analyse them so closely, so often, it’s torturous. I read this book once at university called ‘the Death of the Author’ by Barthes, so once it's out, I kind of just like surrendered to its existence.
You're an all-or-nothing person.
Oh my god, yeah. I’m the worst, such an all-or-nothing person. It’s my biggest downfall probably but also a strength.
I think a project I am really proud of is probably… I feel like I can’t remember a single shoot I’ve ever done.
No really? Stop!
I did a story called ‘She Commodity’ which was in a really weird time in my life, I was in this really weird breakup in a lockdown. I just felt like a piece of furniture, and all these references sort of came together in the space of three months. And I had no money, I had to go back home for two months just to pay to do the shoot. And it actually ended up being the cover of this magazine. It’s like this girl in this Balenciaga look reimagined as a chair. I find it so funny because I tried to get that Balenciaga look maybe three times for shoots and it was at a time where they wouldn't loan to me. I spoke to the set designer and we found a way to make a sofa that looked like this suit I couldn’t get. I was like LOL, when Balenciaga won't loan, you make a sofa.
I worked with Marcin Kempski, who was one of my favourite photographers for such a long time. I'm really proud of that. I really like something I’ve done for Re-Edition as well, I did a Margaret Thatcher shoot which is pretty funny…
It seems like you ran into a lot of roadblocks on your way. What keeps you motivated at the end of the day?
I never had a plan B, I had to make a success of this. I’m not some rich kid than can just go back to mom and dad when it all falls apart. I really asked my parents to trust me for so many years, “I’m gonna be an artist, I'm gonna make it work”. I had a lot to prove, probably to myself as well.
Also, like any artistic medium, it's there for a reason, we're supposed to say something. I think, there are some key players that are making it interesting. I don't think I'd probably be involved in the industry if they weren't there, I have a love-hate relationship for sure, but it's like anything you know. Someone close to me asked me before “Why are you even in fashion?” It makes almost no sense sometimes.
But you do it your way, so…
Yeah. Don’t know if I’ll do it forever but…
It’s not an easy industry.
It’s definitely not easy. I’m optimistic that it is getting easier though, the glass ceiling is showing cracks at least.
TOM GODDARD + BETSY JOHNSON
TOM GODDARD + BETSY JOHNSON