The Thighs Have It, as Betsey Johnson Designs a Return to Mini Madness

updated 08/30/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/30/1982 01:00AM

If, as one theory goes, the Dow-Jones average rises and falls with women's hemlines, there's hope for Wall Street. From the Left Bank cafés of Paris to New York's steamy sidewalks, trendsetters like Brooke Shields, Raquel Welch, Diana Ross, Cheryl Tiegs and Monaco's Princess Caroline are flashing lots of leg. And even for their fall and winter collections, both European and American designers are going to any length to satisfy their customers. For the first time in a decade, fashion giants Norma Kamali, Perry Ellis, Pierre Cardin, Bill Blass, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Giorgio Armani are offering large assortments of minis along with their more conservative dresses and skirts.

No one could be more delighted than Betsey Johnson, 40. It was Johnson, after all, who helped popularize the rage in the U.S., following the lead of British designer Mary Quant. Johnson's wild microminis, often skin-tight and worn with boots, were the uniform of the '60s. She was the only major designer who never abandoned the short lengths when baggy trousers and the slouchy, layered Annie Hall look took over in the '70s. "I'm a pack rat," she admits. "I've kept my closets stocked with minis all these years."

Johnson is the first to concede, however, that the new crop of minis serves a different purpose. "Back in the '60s they were just another form of rebellion," she recalls. "That was a once-in-a-lifetime era—the craziness of the Vietnam War, LSD, the Pill. But today's miniskirt has evolved with a purpose: to show off an athletic and healthy figure. It's not a stiff, body-clinging symbol of sexuality and politics like it was before." Indeed, it appears that the current fitness craze is responsible for the trend; women who knock themselves out running or with aerobic dancing or exercising at the local gym want to show off the results. "If you've got it, flaunt it," says Johnson.

"There's nothing to hide anymore."

Leah Bowman of the Art Institute of Chicago views the mini's return as "an inevitable part of the fashion cycle. Young girls who never wore them before are buying them for the first time, along with women over 35 with great legs." If today's minis are less socially significant, they are, happily, more feminine. Most of the new designs are fluid, full at the hip and gathered for a billowy effect. Usually worn with flat shoes, ruffled tops, short sweaters and sexy T-shirts, the minis, explains designer Kenzo, "are comfortable and dynamic." But Michaele Vollbracht, whose knee-length "trumpet" skirts were the hit of his fall collection, cautions that short lengths aren't for everyone: "If you have knobby knees or varicose veins, stay away."

Not so, says Johnson, who jokingly describes her own legs as "quarterback." She believes the mini belongs on anybody who wants to wear it. To meet the demand, she has even introduced four different short lengths in both her summer and fall collections: "super short" (not unlike the hot pants popular in the mid-'70s), "street short" (four inches above the knee), "subway short" (two inches above the knee) for everyday living, and cut-off culottes that stop just below the bikini line. "Today, we can wear anything we want," Johnson proclaims. "When I'm working in my dress factory I wear the shortest skirts possible so people will pay attention to me." Still, most working women probably won't go to the office wearing what Johnson calls "seethe-knee, look-at-me" skirts. "In the '60s fashion was rocked by a youth-quake," says Betsey. "Now the mini will be worn by women in their 30s and 40s as well as teenagers—but at the appropriate time and place."

The daughter of an engineer and a housewife, Johnson coyly insists she has been "showing leg" since she was a 3-year-old Broadway dancer. Born and raised in Connecticut, Betsey wore short skirts all through high school and later at Syracuse University. Graduating magna cum laude in 1964 with an art degree, Johnson spent one year as a Mademoiselle magazine guest fashion editor before trekking to Manhattan's Seventh Avenue. She then joined the trendy Paraphernalia, a design workshop where she was given free rein. With no formal training, Johnson drew from the worlds of dance and theater to come up with a futuristic-looking line, all stopping indiscreetly above the knee. "Paraphernalia," she recalls, "proved that anything could be made to work."

Well, almost anything. Her two-year marriage to rock star John Cale ended in 1969, not long after she had left Paraphernalia. She spent the next 10 years moving from one ready-to-wear company to another until the New Wave swept red and black stretch leotards and short satin skirts back into vogue. With the fashion wind blowing in her direction again, Johnson put up $100,000 to launch her own firm. This year Betsey Johnson Designs should gross more than $5 million.

For fall, Johnson is offering smocklike minis in orange and black flannel ($96), backless peasant mini dresses ($82), T-shirt minis with hip belts ($30) and romantic minis in solid black and hot pink ($52). Just how does Johnson explain the ankle-length dresses she includes in her winter collection? "Even I believe in the law of gravity," she admits. What goes up...

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