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Roy Halston Frowick, known worldwide as simply Halston, was one of the most influential American designers of the 20th century. He helped define ’70s style with his elegant yet sexy dresses that were staples during the disco era, especially among the group of diverse models who followed him seemingly everywhere, dubbed the “Halstonettes.”
Halston was known just as much for his lavish lifestyle as he was for his designs. The designer and his gang of models and celebrity friends were fixtures on the New York City party scene of the ’70s and ’80s, especially at the famous Studio 54. He also regularly hosted parties at his Upper East Side town house with many of his famous friends, including Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Elsa Peretti.
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His party-going inspired some of his most popular designs, including the halter dress, which became a go-to look for many women of that era, including friends like Bianca Jagger, Marlene Dietrich, Lauren Bacall and many others. In his heyday, Halston described his design approach as “editing the mood of what’s happening” and modestly described his success as “a designer is only as good as the people he dresses.”
Reflecting on his career a year before his death in 1990, Halston said his work was “an experiment” that was “revolutionary in its day.”
“I made the change from very structured clothes to a more casual look, and fashionable women picked up on it,” he told WWD. “Whether it was cashmere, jersey or chiffon, it was about a total look. Clothes should be practical, glamorous, functional and spare. But mine weren’t always simple. Some of the simplest looks were actually the most complicated.”
More than three decades after his death, Halston continues to fascinate both the fashion and general worlds. The latest renewed interest in his life and career comes thanks to the Ryan Murphy-produced Netflix limited series “Halston,” in which Ewan McGregor plays the designer. The show offers a dramatized version of how Halston’s career skyrocketed in the ’70s and ’80s and how it was thrown off course by his excessive partying, which ultimately led to him being fired from his own design company in the mid-’80s.
Halston was born April 23, 1932, in Des Moines, Iowa, and studied at Indiana University and the Chicago Institute of Art. Before getting into fashion design, he started his career as a successful milliner, opening his own salon at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago in 1953.
He moved to New York City five years later, where he worked as a milliner for a year for Lilly Daché before going over to Bergdorf Goodman’s millinery salon. At the department store, Halston grew in popularity with a celebrity clientele that included Kim Novak, Gloria Swanson and Fran Allison. His career was catapulted in 1961 when he custom-designed the pillbox hat that First Lady Jackie Kennedy wore to her husband’s presidential inauguration.
As his clientele increased, Halston expanded into apparel. In 1966, he started designing couture and ready-to-wear collections under his Halston Ltd. business. The collections included accessories like hats, scarves, shoes and jewelry, as well as furs and leather apparel.
Halston debuted his first rtw collection at Bergdorf Goodman with a runway show that presented his millinery skills at their best and a promising start for his later much-sought after apparel. In WWD’s review of the debut collection, Halston was described as a “great milliner who is not yet a great designer of women’s wear,” adding, though, that he has “showmanship and so the show came off.”
In 1970, he established Halston International with Henry Pollack Inc. to offer knitwear and accessories at a more accessible price point. Two years later, he opened Halston Originals, a complete rtw business, and Halston III, an outerwear collection. That same year, he opened his first boutique, on Madison Avenue. He opened a second one in Chicago in 1976.
In 1973, Halston sold his business to Norton Simon Inc. for an estimated price of between $11 million and $12 million. He remained as an executive and the company was renamed Halston Enterprises.
He was also one of the first designers to create a unisex line, developing collections with items like fur coats, argyle sweaters and leather jackets. In 1975, he designed a separate men’s wear collection.
Halston participated in the famous WWD-dubbed “Battle of Versailles” in 1973, where he joined fellow American designers Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein and Stephen Burrows to show their designs against five French designers — Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro and Marc Bohan — in a fashion showdown meant to raise funds for the restoration of the palace at Versailles. Halston showcased his sportswear designs on several of his famous model friends, including Pat Cleveland, Beverly Johnson and Alva Chinn.
“Americans came, they sewed, they conquered,” read WWD’s front-page headline on Nov. 30, 1973, following the showdown. The “battle” was a showcase of American sportswear at its finest, and was a huge step forward in terms of diversity and inclusivity in the modeling world as 10 Black models were enlisted to sport the American designers’ styles.
The “Battle of Versailles” — while it’s become one of the hallmark moments in the history of American fashion — almost didn’t happen because of Halston. It has been reported that the designer had a disagreement with the choreographer who he enlisted for the show, Kay Thompson, and demanded that the show be called off. The dispute was ultimately resolved, Thompson exited, and the show went on.
Halston’s designs were ubiquitous in the ’70s and ’80s. He was most famous for popularizing ultrasuede, which he used in his signature shirtdresses, jackets and other styles. He was also known for his various dress styles that worked for a wide range of women and body types. In a 1977 interview with WWD, Halston described his design process as “one has to think of every American wardrobe need from the with-it young girls with style to the woman that leads a corporate structure lifestyle. That means I have to have a short dinner look, a gala look, something for entertaining at home and practical clothes that adapt to climate change.”
Aside from his highly popular halter dress, Halston debuted what WWD referred to as “the swinger” in his spring 1977 rtw collection. The style was a godet-skirted halter dress in a pale peach georgette fabric. The designer said “the cut has the prettiest movement of any dresses I have made recently. It flows a little more — it’s easy to walk in, and easy to run in.”
He expanded his dress offerings over the years to other fabrics and styles, such as graphic printed slipdresses in polyester georgette and wrap dresses in cashmere. In his fall 1977 collection, he unveiled what he called the “High Rise” dress style in wool jersey, charmeuse, chiffon and velvet fabrics with a tied waist he said would “elongate any figure.”
In addition to his disco-inspired clothing, Halston had a robust offering of skirt suits for more professional occasions. He still brought his signature flair to the workwear, specifically a 1979 collection that included skirt suits with an asymmetric collar. “It’s really an abstraction of a collar,” Halston said about the design. “It’s very graphic. With all the business and luncheons taking place across a table, this is something that attracts attention.”
The designer grew his fashion empire through licensing deals for offerings such as fur, luggage, linens and cosmetics. By 1983, it was estimated that Halston Enterprises had generated $150 million in sales. He won several accolades throughout his career, including four Coty Awards for millinery and apparel. In 1974, he was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame.
The allure of Halston’s designs was often amplified by the group of models — the Halstonettes — that he regularly traveled with and dressed. The models often wore matching, head-to-toe Halston looks and were meant to showcase the designer’s intent on dressing a diverse range of women.
According to Patricia Mears, the coauthor of “Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the ’70s,” the Halstonettes were “striking not only for their tall, lean bodies and beautiful faces, but also their ethnic diversity.” The group included some of the biggest and most revolutionary models of that era, including Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Karen Bjornson and Anjelica Huston, among others.
In 1979, Halston and 27 of his Halstonettes went on an international tour to promote American fashion, visiting cities like Paris, Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo. WWD reported on the beginning of the tour as Halston and the models arrived at JFK airport.
“Dressed in streamlined sportswear — all in complementary shades of red, black, beige and ivory, so anyone could stand next to anyone else and not clash — and sunglasses as glossy black and secludingly impenetrable as the limos, they watched as piece after piece of matching brown ultrasuede luggage covered the sidewalks.”
More than 500 outfits were packed for the trip, including outfits to wear on the plane and for activities like a tour of the Great Wall of China. “The only thing I didn’t furnish was their underwear and something to sleep in,” Halston said.
One of the designer’s closest Halstonettes was the late jewelry designer Elsa Peretti, who served as one of his model muses and collaborators. Peretti started her design career with Halston, creating jewelry and accessories that debuted in his rtw collections such as silver-buckled belts and bottle-pendant necklaces.
André Leon Talley described Halston and Peretti’s relationship as “aligned in a universe of elegance,” upon her death earlier this year. He explained, “her bud vase necklaces were such an inventive thing, when they first appeared on the Halston catwalk with a simple blossom thrust inside and worn inside a low-slung halter evening look.”
In a 1971 interview with WWD, Peretti spoke about her close relationship with the designer, saying: “Halston — he is my best friend, my security. He’s also a Taurus. I get along with Tauruses. He knows more about me. He is a very closed man.”
Halston was largely responsible for Peretti’s successful design career. The designer introduced Peretti to Tiffany & Co., which signed her to create a line in 1982. Peretti’s designs for Tiffany had a huge impact on the jeweler’s legacy, as her minimal silver designs have become a core part of the brand’s identity and its revenues.
Peretti was among the many famous figures Halston regularly partied with. The designer was a notorious partygoer and was known for throwing lavish parties at his Manhattan town house at 101 East 63rd Street, which he bought in the mid-’70s. In 2019, designer and CFDA chairman Tom Ford bought the town home for a reported $18 million.
As high as Halston’s career had flown, his star took a severe hit in 1983 when he signed a deal with J.C. Penney Co. Inc. to create a line of lower-priced apparel. The first-of-its-kind line was expected to be revolutionary and generate $1 billion in revenue in its first five years. However, Halston’s association with a midtier retailer made high-end retailers, most notably Bergdorf Goodman, drop his main line from their stores.
Due to his party life and drug use, Halston was fired from his own brand by Norton Simon in 1984 and he lost the rights to design under his name. He spent the remainder of his life trying to regain control of his brand, but was ultimately unsuccessful. He continued designing clothing in a smaller capacity, namely making costumes for Minnelli and dancer Martha Graham. Halston died in 1990 at the age of 57 after battling AIDS-related cancer, Kaposi’s Sarcoma.
After Halston’s death, his namesake company changed hands several times following the Norton Simon acquisition. The company ended up under Revlon Inc. in 1990, which ceased production of Halston’s clothing line, but continued to release fragrances. Halston’s company was then acquired by Tropic Tex in 1996, where it began releasing apparel again designed by Randolph Duke. In 1998, the company was sold to investment firm the Catterton Group, which enlisted designer Kevan Hall to continue designing for the brand. The company was sold again the following year to Neema Clothing, which brought in designer Bradley Bayou from 2002 to 2005.
In 2007, disgraced former film producer Harvey Weinstein teamed with Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon and stylist Rachel Zoe in an attempt to resurrect the Halston brand and bring it back to its former glory. With financial partner Hilco Consumer Capital, Weinstein invested $25 million in the company. The resurrection attempt had a rocky start, as the partners disagreed on which designer to bring in to helm the new Halston brand, with both Giambattista Valli and Marco Zanini being considered for the role. The title ultimately went to Zanini, who came to the brand after working under Donatella Versace.
Zanini’s debut collection came during the fall 2008 season with a complete rtw, footwear and handbag assortment. Two looks were also made readily available for consumers to purchase through Net-a-porter. The new Halston collection, however, failed to make an impact, and Zanini was out one year after joining the company.
Marios Schwab was then tapped as the next Halston designer and the company launched a secondary line of affordable offerings, called Halston Heritage, that was based on archival Halston designs.
Actress Sarah Jessica Parker later became involved in the brand after wearing pieces from the Halston Heritage in 2009 when filming “Sex and the City 2.” She was appointed the brand’s president and chief creative officer in 2010, but like many other Halston designers, her tenure didn’t last long. A year after her appointment, Parker left the company. After her departure and a critically panned Halston collection by Schwab, Weinstein exited the company. Schwab also left Halston in 2011.
That same year, Hilco Consumer Capital enlisted former BCBG Max Azria Group president Ben Malka to join Halston as chief executive officer and chairman. The company then focused exclusively on the Halston Heritage line.
Xcel Brands Inc. acquired the H Halston and H by Halston trademarks in 2014, which it brought into QVC and lower-tier department stores, and then acquired the Halston and Halston Heritage trademarks in 2019. Last year, designer Robert Rodriquez was tapped by the company as the new Halston chief creative director to steer the brand into more elevated sportswear reminiscent of the late fashion designer’s original brand.
Even as his brand repeatedly changed hands and struggled, fascination of the designer and his life has never waned. The “Halston” Netflix series is the latest depiction of him. He was the subject of the CNN Films documentary “Halston” released in 2019 and the 2010 documentary “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston.”
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