“Hi, I’m Betsey Johnson, and I design clothes.”
Legendary designer Betsey Johnson uses that simple sound bite — rather understated for such a larger-than-life lady — to launch the first episode of her eponymous reality show XOX Betsey Johnson, an inside look at the reboot of Johnson’s once-hot brand now under the purview of mega shoe company Steve Madden, which took ownership after Johnson’s 65-store company went bankrupt in 2012.
At the outset of the show, Johnson’s new team at Steve Madden outlines a three-point plan for her business relaunch: 1) Let the world know she still exists via personal appearances, 2) Create a fashion retrospective of her work to present at Fashion Week, and 3) Ramp up sales on betseyjohnson.com, which Johnson hilariously refers to as “webbing.” Betsey makes it immediately clear, however, that she’s nervous about working for someone else, surely a preview of fireworks to come later in the season.
The show also closely follows the relationship between Johnson and her only daughter, Lulu, as the pair work through their rather intense mother-daughter connection and — yes, really — go to couples therapy together. (Happy Mother’s Day indeed!) Betsey and Lulu are loving, for sure, but the tension between them is portrayed as stemming from them living in separate apartments on the same floor of an Upper East Side building — the free-wheeling Betsey seems to just make herself at home in her daughter’s apartment. “This is life with my mother,” Lulu says at one point. “Here, I am trying to talk to her about how she’s hurt my feelings, and we end up talking about crayon drawings under the table.”
Along with the slight tension — a preview for the season at the end of the premiere tells us that it’s going to ramp up — between the pair, Lulu also seems to be trying to distance herself from her mother professionally. She worked for Betsey for 13 years before having her children and at one point declares: “I don’t want to work for my mother anymore.” Instead she’s creating her own fashion line with her pal Allison, a venture that seems fraught, somewhat ill-conceived, and removed from actually creating fashion. We see the pair vintage shopping and rifling through fabrics and assigning someone to create designs, but it doesn’t seem like the two women actually do much designing themselves.
Elsewhere, Betsey goes to dinner by herself — a rather wacky interlude — and spends time trying to figure out how to get to New Jersey to work out with a trainer. (She’s 70 and spry, so kudos to her.) She doesn’t really want to work out, though, and just uses the session as a way to relax with attractive company. “Some people do drugs to feel better,” she says, adding that she prefers instead to hang out “with a cute guy — and a lot of champagne.” This all is pointless but fun. Why not watch Betsey Johnson hug random people outside of Manhattan’s Penn Station while she heads to the train? She shows up at the workout with a bottle filled with mimosa, so she’s a woman after my own heart, for sure.
XOX Betsey Johnson is silly, light, and cute — but ultimately of little consequence and mostly serves as a promotional vehicle for Betsey’s rebrand. Will Betsey become the next great reality star from this? No, but mostly because she was already a star, and her kooky antics are already well known to her followers. What should be interesting, however, is to see how the Steve Madden partnership works out for the legend: Can she remake her brand and rise to the top again? Will she actually do any work? Do people still want the Betsey look? It seems both likely and unlikely, so if this show remotely captures that smartly, it’ll be like catnip for fashionistas and business folks alike. The personal drama seems ultimately less exciting (at least initially), but there’s something intrinsically fascinating about the fact that Lulu mothers her mother more than her mother mothers her. (Get that?) As long as Betsey keeps turning her signature cartwheels — she used to cap each fashion show off with one back in the day — documenting her life will probably never be a bore. B–
XOX Betsey Johnson premieres on Style Network tonight at 8 p.m.
Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky