Andy Warhol’s sphere of influence defined 60’s subculture in New York. Though most remember Andy as an artist, he should be coined as a collector, collecting characters at The Factory who he manufactured and preserved as icons. His taste was impeccable; his instincts dead on. “Anybody who Andy discovered and found and ‘named’ as his ‘superstar’ became his superstar. Andy had the best taste. I mean, he’s my favorite artist…he knew a good thing”, said Betsey Johnson. From 1965-1967 Andy delivered an explosion, giving rise to three of the most memorable icons of the era. The intersection of Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, Betsey Johnson, and The Velvet Underground illuminated a generation, culminating in the most influential icons of the 60’s social scene.
Edie met Andy at a party in January of ’65 and she became a regular at Andy’s studio, The Factory, by March. During this time Andy shot footage of Edie getting ready in her apartment, later used in his film Poor Little Rich Girl. Andy and Edie became quite inseparable, and in April of ’65, Andy brought Edie to an art opening of his in Paris. When they got back to New York, Andy said that he wanted to make Edie the ‘Queen of The Factory’. He had a script written for just for her, resulting in a film called Kitchen, shot in the kitchen of a friend’s studio apartment. Around this time Andy also shot Vinyl, which featured Edie in an otherwise all male cast. By the spring, The Factory hosted a “Fifty Most Beautiful People” party where many celebrities, including Judy Garland, came. It was said that at this party, “the stars went out and the superstars came in; that there were more people staring at Edie than at Judy”. By the early summer, Edie starred in her most famous Warhol film, Beauty No.2, which opened in July. The film showcased Edie lying in bed with a male lover while an offscreen voyeur berated her with personal questions. That same month Edie was named the “Newest Superstar” in the New York Times.
Edie became notorious by age 22, frolicking around the city in heavy eye make up with her hair sprayed silver, donning black leotards, tights, and big chandelier earrings. “Edie ran with the wild horses. Edie was not only ‘the look’, she had the head, she had the body, she had the screwed up background, I mean she’s the perfect candidate. Young, gorgeous, the look of the time, on Andy’s arm, and able to really hold her own, falling down, standing up, or whatever. She was a one in a zillion,” said Betsey Johnson. In November, Edie appeared in a LIFE magazine feature titled “The Girl with The Black Tights”. After hanging out with Bob Dylan for a bit, Edie got the impression that Bob’s manager would offer her a film contract. She then veered astray from Andy in February of ’66 after he filmed her last Factory role in “Lupe”. Betsey reflects, “We were passionate, tormented kids with visions, stuff to do, and things to make. Edie led a sixties acceptance and love and wannabe population of copycats. She was gorgeous.”
Betsey designed the fashion that defined the look of The Factory. Before being introduced to Andy, Betsey was one of the in-house designers for a Manhattan boutique called Paraphernalia. Metallics, plastics, and minis filled the shop, where all clothes retailed for less than $99. “People would walk into the store dressed in their straight clothes. They’d buy something and put it on. Then and there they’d apply an outrageous make-up, before heading directly to a party. They were buying something to wear tonight and more or less throw away tomorrow” said Paraphernalia’s owner, Paul Young. The boutique itself looked like a minimalist art gallery, designed by Architect Ulrich Franzen, and it sat right next to the Vidal Sasson salon. Paraphernalia and Vidal Sassoon provided the essential components for any woman to transform into a mod mistress, an enormously radical shift from the conservative look of the 50’s. After designing for Paraphernalia for about a year, Andy introduced Betsey to Edie who immediately fell in love with Betsey’s designs. Betsey lent Edie a collection of her signature silver clothing, and Edie became Betsey’s fitting model for the following year.
Edie became a regular at Paraphernalia where she simultaneously established and consumed the notorious look of the 60’s. By dressing Edie, Betsey developed an integral role in The Factory which continued to expand. The Factory was the new master of media, manufacturing film, art, and celebrity status. If that wasn’t enough, in ’65 The Factory began to manufacture music when Andy became the manager for a band called The Velvet Underground. The Velvet underground was formed by Lou Reed and John Cale, two talented 23 year olds who bonded over music and heroin. Betsey was dating John Cale at the time, and she readily began to design clothes for the band once Andy had brought them into The Factory. The web was woven; the stage was set. Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, Betsey Johnson, and The Velvet Underground became the incubators of an era, producing a radical wave and cult phenomenon that has yet to be rivaled.
The Velvet Underground:
In March of ’66 Betsey hired Andy to stage a party at Paraphernalia. The Velvet Underground played music at the party, ultimately selling a look, a sound, and a scene. Andy suggested that the band feature German singer, Nico, on several of their songs. Nico was a 5’10”, German born, blonde model who’s stoic beauty and deep, soft voice gave the male band a female offset. She famously sang the song, “Femme Fatale”, which Lou Reed had written about Edie at Andy’s request. Between ’66 to ’67 Andy organized a series of multimedia events called the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable”, also referred to as “EPI”. The series featured musical performances by The Velvet Underground and Nico, showcasing notable regulars from The Factory as dancers. The “EPI” officially began in January of ’66 at a dinner for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry. Edie and another of Andy’s superstars, Gerard Malanga, danced on stage as The Velvet Underground and Nico sang. Establishing its roots in New York City, the “EPI” roadshow continued throughout the United States and Canada until May of ’67. In April of ’66 The Velvet Underground and Nico album was recorded in New York City, featuring Nico on three of the songs. Andy designed the album cover; a yellow banana sticker with “peel slowly and see” printed near the tip, revealing a fleshy, pink banana underneath. Brian Eno is credited with saying, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” The album was named the 13th “Greatest Album of All Time” by Rolling Stone in March of 2003.
Andy, Edie, Betsey and The Velvet Underground had a huge influence on culture during and after their fame in the 60‘s. Each of these icons possessed peculiar characteristics that helped challenge the rigid, societal norms of their time. For instance, Edie suffered from mental illness since she was a child, primarily due to a troubled family life. Though Edie was born into wealth, her affluence only made her more susceptible to dependence on prescription pills and party drugs which ultimately led to an overdose that killed her at age 28. Andy too had his own troubles. He grew up as a hypochondriac and outcast who isolated himself in his room, immersing himself in magazines and radio. Andy was undeniably insecure, and perhaps he surrounded himself amongst his large crew of eccentrics as a way to camouflage his own insecurities. The Velvet Underground frontman, Lou Reed, also suffered from a troubled upbringing. At 17, Lou received 24 electric shock therapy under his parents wishes to “cure” him of his homo-erotic tendencies and mood swings. The dosage of the shock treatment was incredibly high, and it made him feel like a vegetable for the entire following year. Lou was quick to leave home after that.
Many of the regulars at The Factory thought of themselves as misfits, sharing a resentment towards their upbringing and a desire for life anew. The Factory provided an exciting, alternative lifestyle to those young people who had never fit into the box that their parents tried desperately to confine them in. Drugs, particularly heroin and speed, became a common habit amongst The Factory crowd. Though they were popular, the drugs were hardly glamorized due to the drastic consequences they caused. The fame and notoriety of The Factory icons helped publicize the gritty reality of youth that had been banned from media in the 50’s. Andy successfully showed America these beautifully talented and troubled artists as pioneers of a new 60’s generation. These icons broke through the social molds of conservatism, establishing a wave of culture that radically embraced the beauty within the harsh realities of life.