One of my first fashion shows ever was Betsey Johnson. I was a student at Parsons. The shows were still in the tents at Bryant Park. Even post-9/11 we snuck in without badges or invitations and managed to finagle seats (which included goodie bags).

One of the first street-style photographers, Kate Schelter, took my picture.

A live DJ spun Motown. Models sashayed shauntayed down the runway.

No one was particularly interested in the clothing (exuberant, frilly, coquettish largely derivative styles that appealed mainly to homecoming-dress buyers in second-tier Saks & Nordstroms around the country).

We didn’t come for the clothes, though. We came for the party.

And for Betsey herself, a life-size anime/caricature of fun & frivolity who embodies her brand.

If you haven’t been following the biz news, Betsey Johnson LLC filed for bankruptcy protection last week according to Hannah Elliott at Forbes.

The company, whose IP rights are owned by Steve Madden, has been struggling for years (according to industry insiders), and it looks like about 350 people will lose their jobs and that most of the 63 BJ stores will close.

Apparently, however, Johnson will continue to design for her other product lines that are licensed and apparently doing well.

So, eek? What went wrong?

1. Personality alone cannot sell merch.

Last week I followed Betsey Johnson on twitter because some guru named her one of the top 10 tweeters. She’s great at engagement and has mastered a medium that has outsmarted many a whipper snapper decades younger than she.

But engagement alone cannot, apparently, sell $400 dresses.

Though Betsey has positioned herself as one of the most accessible, relatable fashion designers in the industry, with a specific and defined point of view and aesthetic, it could not save her core business.

Perhaps that’s because…

2. You must continue to innovate.

While Betsey’s style is clear cut and consistent, it failed to innovate with the market trends. Sure you want to stay true to your aesthetic vision, but as a designer you have to give your core customer a reason to keep coming back.

Betsey’s latest style (satin bodices, tulle skirts and copious lace) say nothing new at best. At worst, they’re derivative three times over- she’s actually ripping off herself ripping off Dolce ripping off fifties pin-ups.

3. Licensing can be great for cash flow, but not for the brand. 

I suspect that part of the downslide of Betsey’s contemporary line was that anyone could swing by TJ Maxx to pick up a BJ baby doll dress or bra/panty combo for about $25 any day of the week. While licensing is often the cash cow to a brand’s upmarket loss leading efforts (see Calving Klein), it can spell disaster over the long haul.

(For an example of another brand decimated by licensing see Pierre Cardin.)

No doubt the long term vision for Betsey Johnson is to cash in on her brand equity and celeb status, deep six the costly retail store model, and churn out mass market lingerie/swimwear/accessories under licenses as a way to reduce risk.

 

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