Saturday, July 30, 2011

...Musing Over Muses

What is a muse?

After a recent video showroom tour with Gala Darling, where I introduced myself as Betsey’s muse and assistant, Gala received a tweet from a fan that asked, "When that girl says she's Betsey's muse, what does that mean?" From this I decided that maybe there was a little de-mystifying to be done about being Betsey’s muse. Strictly speaking, I am Betsey’s design assistant and in that role I am her sometimes muse.  It’s always a bit tongue and cheek when I introduce myself as such because, fact of the matter is, no one pays me to be her muse even though Betsey has referred to me as such. And when walking down the street people don’t turn their heads and say, “Oh look there goes Betsey’s muse!” I often struggle with defining myself in this way but in essence being the muse is just a fun aspect of my job when I am in the showroom. It is sort of like an inside joke between myself and all the Betsey employees. So I am going to swing a bat at the topic…

The Nine Greek Muses

First I did a little research…

When I started writing about what being Betsey’s (sometimes) muse meant, I really had a hard time explaining it. We all know a muse to be a source for inspiration for an artist but I wanted to see what other definitions I could find. defines a muse as “a goddess presiding over a particular art,” which my immodest side loves. Wikipedia’s entry speaks of the nine original Greek muses as, “the source of the knowledge, related orally for centuries in the ancient culture that was contained in poetic lyrics and myths. The compliment to a real woman who inspires creative endeavor is a later idea.” Well said Wiki!

Talk about a lot to live up to, or did I really have to just be myself? I was not willing to accept that just by being myself I could inspire someone like Betsey Johnson. So I reached the point where I began writing down things I do for Betsey and finding things I do for her that no one else could. From my list, I came to the conclusion that it is not painting her nails from time to time, modeling, or acting as a design assistant, it is not anything I do it is why I do it. I’d do anything for her because I am her friend.

 Betsey and Me and the Betsey for Tweezerman PA

How I became Betsey’s muse…

When I met Betsey as a design intern she immediately asked me to head to tech design (where specs for clothing are finalized) and have my measurements taken. Little did I know that this was the gateway to spending my days in the showroom playing dress-up…

…Betsey was working on designing retail specials for Fall 2010 and her process involves searching through her vintage, trying it on a body, and tweaking it to make it new. Since according to tech design I was close to a size four, I became the new body.

That day I remember Betsey and I going through her archive collection and separating things into piles on the showroom floor and laughing at the fact we were going to get in trouble for the mess we were making. At the end of the whirlwind we had succeeded in designing all the retail specials and trashing the showroom.


Long Story Short…

In the following weeks I spent more time with Betsey and became her “Gal Friday.” I was not just a body at that point, she began to ask my opinion and listen to it. I watched and learned and really got to know the method to Betsey’s madness. The first Christmas time we spent at the showroom Betsey gave me the present of a job. So here I am two years later as (sometimes) muse and design assistant to one of the most creatively brilliant minds.

In all of our dress-up silliness, it never really occurred to me that this meant I was her muse. The distinction happened on an extraordinarily busy day before or Fall 2010 show when our PR manager introduced me to the production crew saying, “This is Stef, Betsey’s muse and assistant.” I remember becoming flush and thinking, ‘really?’ Slowly I felt that idea swell inside me, a little embarrassed, but proud of it as well. I felt unique.

A portrait of Marie Therese Picasso's Muse

Anyway, what the hell does a muse do?

I had some insight to this question during a recent visit to the Gagaosian Gallery to see the Picasso and Marie Therese exhibit. The subject matter of this exhibit was Marie Therese as Picasso's muse and how her image was translated into some of Picasso's most exquisite works. After seeing the juxtaposition of a photo of Marie Therese and Picasso’s cubist interpretation of her identifying features, I began to understand the bare bones of what a muse does. Muses are sort of like out lines, not models, but outlines. Picasso painted from Marie Therese.  Betsey designs on me. Picasso manipulated the paint around Marie’s image and Betsey cuts and pins to shape my body. Marie and Picasso had a child and a love affair together – Betsey and I have a friendship and an understanding. I like to think that the conversations we have while she is designing make an impact on the out come of a garment. So I am an outline for Betsey, a jumping off point, which is easier to face then a blank canvas.

Betsey is really good at not objectifying me in this role and that is why I am mainly her design assistant. After she is finished designing something on me, she trusts me with putting it into work and seeing it though to the end. I take most pride in this part of my job. You have to speak Betsey to be able to accomplish this task, which I can only imagine to an outsider would seem like alien language.

A lot of my job involves being supportive of Betsey’s vision and encouraging and challenging her creativity. Let’s face it, everyone, even Betsey Johnson, needs to be reassured that they are doing a good job. I also try to be the best sounding board for her ideas, which means that I do not agree with her all the time. Constantly being told you are doing everything right is not healthy for anyone. Between us is just the right amount of understanding where she can tell and accepts that I do not like something. Recently, Betsey brought to my attention that I curl one side of my lip if I don’t like something. She calls this the Stef lip and she takes note.

Betsey and I celebrating my 28th birthday 

In Conclusion…

Every relationship between muse and artist is intensely personal and unique. Because this is so hard to define I want to “open up the phones” so to speak and see if you have any questions. Mostly the sometimes muse part of my job is something that I make up as I go. It is like an encyclopedia sized “choose your own adventure” book because every day is different, which suits me just fine.



  1. I think this is a great interpretation, I would just like to hear how Betsey personally describes you.

  2. Hi Team Burton!
    Sorry it took me so long to get back to you about this...
    When I asked Betsey this question she said very simply, "you are my perfect body type." This is the first time in my life that I have ever heard these words spoken to me because as a former ballet dancer you are constantly over analyzing every inch of yourself so you never actually appreciate what you have. Betsey helped me find that type of confidence by describing me as such. For her it is very simple...she like me in her clothes.
    Hope this helps explain a little further!

  3. You describe your entry as the "new body"... which suggests all the bodies that came before. I'm curious about the transitional nature of muses... YSL for instance had several over the course of his career. Have you ever met any of Betsey's former muses, and if so what are the inter-muse relationships like - is it like a sisterhood - I'm sure there are a lot of commonalities? Or did she used to play that role for herself? Do you think it usual or unusual for a designer to have multiple muses at once, or is it more like a succession? Thanks for a great post!

  4. the last picture is adorable, Danielle's question is quite interesting, I never though about old muses vs current. I remember once seeing a magazine article or tv episode on major designers and their muses, it was so long ago that I dont remember.

  5. Hi Danielle,
    Sorry for the late reply! I have been thinking about your question...I have only met one of Betsey's muses and that is her daughter Lulu. She had much of the same role that I have in the company.

    In a much different role was Edie Sedwick, who was a famous model/actress but also a great muse to Betsey. I wish I could have met her.

    I don't think I will always be Betsey's muse but I think Betsey take really good care of the people she trusts. And since I have gained that trust, I will continue to grow with her!


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