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2011 June 28

Assistant Files, Vol. 17: Stephanie Wagenman, Betsey Johnson

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Stephanie Wagenman Stephanie Wagenman
Giorgio Niro
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(NEW YORK) There’s perhaps no other designer who lives on her own planet—in the most fabulous manner fathomable—than Betsey Johnson. The kooky designer has been around for four decades, and her endless cornucopia of prom frocks are just the tip of the zany, tulle-swathed iceberg. Meet her design assistant, midday dance party starter and model, Stephanie Wagenman, 28. The Austin native and former professional ballerina gives The Daily the scoop on “funny coffee,” why odd numbers are vastly superior to even digits, the perils of counterclockwise vs. clockwise, and “the pink tank think tank.” Of course there’s a zany vernacular and quirks galore in Betseyland—would you expect anything less? ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV

What were you doing before joining Betsey's brigade?
I was going to design school and teaching ballet professionally in Austin where I'm originally from, before I started working for Betsey. I was 16 when I graduated from high school, and then I was a professional ballet dancer for four years. I got my start dancing in San Francisco before moving across the country to dance with the Boston Ballet. 

How did you nab this gig?
I was ready to do something totally new, and I figured New York City was the best place to go for fashion—well, considering it would be harder to get a visa to go to Europe. A friend of mine had been working at Betsey Johnson and really liked it. I didn’t really know much about Betsey; I knew her name from design school classes but she wasn’t really one of my designer idols or anything like that. My friend got me an interview and I got an internship position here. I interned for two years before Betsey offered me a job as her assistant. I get to sit next to the master and learn every day.

What’s your daily grind like?
I get here around 9 a.m., and Betsey arrives around 10 or 11 a.m. I try to do everything I need to do before Betsey gets in. When she arrives, we’ll sit in the showroom together and get to work—it’s impossible to make a schedule for her. Believe me, I tried a million times. Betsey just wants to do whatever is at the top of her head each day. I’m the translator between Betsey and everyone here. I can relay information well to everyone because I basically spend the entire day with her. She sketches at home, and brings in a stack of hundreds of sketches—for something we needed two drawings for! I’ll find sketches crumpled in the pages of a magazine she gives me; just in really random places. So I’ll save them in this giant book that we keep, just filled with sketches. We also play dress-up. She brings something new for me to try on every day. We dance around a lot, usually to punk rock. Betsey leaves around 5:30 each day—she thinks we all should leave then, but we tend to stay a bit later than that.

So it sounds like you don’t have to really get dressed before coming into the office!
I am wearing a slip right now! I have great Betsey clothes in my closet at home, but it’s just pointless to put much effort into what I show up in. While I'm here, I change at least 50 times a day. Around the office, they call me Mowgli, like the character in The Jungle Book, because I run around in my underwear between fittings. I don’t even care—I’m like the least modest person in the world.

How does Betsey rely on your input?
Betsey has a handful of us in the showroom that she calls the “Pink Tank Think Tank." She calls us all in when she’s uncertain about something. We pretty much reassure her that she is making the right decision, because she is brilliant. There are four or five of us, and it’s not a scheduled thing, which is a little nutty. Betsey will say, “I need a meeting with everybody now. I want a vote.” We raise our hands and everything. Betsey has seen it all, and she has it all in her archives, so it all looks new and old to her at the same time. She wants to know if we would wear or buy a particular design.

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