Halston: The Glimmering Rise – and the Spectacular Fall

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(THE CONVERSATION) Walk into any department store and you’ll get a feel for the powerful brands being built by high-end American designers: Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan. They’ve created true fashion empires by leveraging their names to create low-cost lines and sign profitable licensing deals.

But before them all, there was Roy Halston Frowick – better known by the singular name Halston.


The subject of an eponymous Netflix miniseries starring Ewan McGregor, Halston became one of the first American creators to expand his brand across multiple price points. In doing so, he created models that were normally beyond the reach of ordinary Americans to be available to the general public.

But as fashion historians, we’ll often tell Halston’s story as a caveat. Although he made the style simple, his relationship with the fashion industry was anything but straightforward.

Listening to the mood

Born and raised in the Midwest, Halston enjoyed early success in hat design as a custom milliner for Bergdorf Goodman. Halston quickly rose to prominence as a trailblazer and, in a notable triumph for the young designer, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wore one of Halston’s signature pillbox hats at her husband’s inauguration.

Later in the 1960s, Halston made a foray into clothing design. His success was both talented and fortuitous, and he once described his approach as “editing the mood of what’s going on.”

While the overt simplicity may seem incongruous with the grandeur, Halston clothing was both understated and luxurious.

Halston’s chiffon kaftans, wrap-around jersey dresses and long cashmere sweaters were often constructed from a single piece of fabric. They fully covered the body, but with careful handling of the fabric – wrap, drape and twist – Halston’s pieces were sultry and flattering.

Halston was even able to turn the Ultrasuede – a soft, synthetic, machine-washable faux suede – into a status symbol, shaping it into sleek shirt dresses and coats. These have become popular despite – or perhaps because of – their absolute purity. Her clothes were perfect for the 1970s, when a faltering economy made blatant displays of wealth inappropriate.

Yet the creator’s social life was the opposite of sobriety. In fact, the image of fashion design as a glamorous and exciting profession owes a lot to Halston. In his heyday, he was “at the top of the catwalk segment,” as Women’s Wear Daily editor John Fairchild once wrote.

At the legendary Studio 54, he mingles with Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol. The world-famous nightclub became both a showroom for Halston’s creations and a stage for the man himself, and Halston was often accompanied by an entourage of beautiful women called “the Halstonettes”.

Halston the businessman

As his stature grew, Halston always looked for ways to expand his fashion empire.

Early in his career he experimented with what is known as ‘branding’, which is how companies use the same brand name on items at varying prices.

His top line was Halston Ltd., a bespoke ready-to-wear company. Located on Madison Avenue in New York City, it catered to an exclusive roster of private clientele that included movie and television stars like Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo, Liza Minelli and Elizabeth Taylor.

Meanwhile, the Halston Originals store sold dresses to department stores across the country, with prices ranging from US $ 150 to over $ 1,000. And with Halston International, the designer created “component” knit pieces – not outfits, but singular garments, turtlenecks, jumper sets, shirts and coats – that consumers could mix and match. as they please.

After the acquisition of the Halston companies by the conglomerate Norton Simon Inc. in 1973, Halston remained the principal designer of its many collections. He worked at a breakneck pace, creating all the uniforms for the 1976 US Winter and Summer Olympics and making costumes for Martha Graham’s ballet production “Lucifer”. Products bearing his name included perfumes, luggage, linens, coats, rain gear and even wigs. In 1983, Halston Enterprises generated an estimated annual turnover of 150 million dollars.

Perhaps emboldened by his success or motivated by his deep roots, Halston signed with JCPenney in 1983 to create an exclusive line that was, as he put it, “for the American people.”

With items priced from $ 24 to $ 200, “Line III” marked a new era in fashion and retail.

While high-end fashion designer Pierre Cardin pioneered this form of licensing in Europe, the plan to pair a haute couture designer with a mass merchant best known for selling Levi’s, hardware and items housewares was unusual in the United States. While Halston argued he was hugely successful, claiming he generated $ 1 billion in sales, executives at JCPenney were less enthusiastic. In the mid-1980s, industry insiders suggested that clothing was not selling as well as expected.

The deal with JCPenney ultimately proved damaging to Halston. Distrustful high-end retailers, including its first employer, Bergdorf Goodman, feared that the prestige of the Halston name would be tainted by its presence on the shelves of a mass merchant. Bergdorf Goodman finally gave up his line completely.

Meanwhile, Halston’s growing reputation for overspending and erratic behavior increasingly left its mark on the decisions of businessmen and creative control on other parties. Halston was sidelined, and his business dealings effectively cost him the right to his own name.

In 1988, Halston was diagnosed with AIDS. He lived out of public sight until his death in 1990.

Others follow Halston’s example

Despite his eventual failure, Halston’s pairing with JCPenney was definitely ahead of its time.

Citing the importance of creating practical, easy-care leisure wear for working women and young mothers, Halston tried to offer a fashionable wardrobe at reasonable prices that almost anyone could afford. to permit.

Contemporaries like Anne Klein, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Kenzo Takada will immediately try similar diffusion lines. All have succeeded without incurring the extraordinary professional cost that Halston endured.

The corporate and creative decisions of these designers were arguably more tightly controlled than Halston’s evil diffusion. The acquisitions of these companies by larger conglomerates took place much later than Halston’s, often decades after the brand’s inception. Maybe it gave these brands more time to come up with a more singular vision.

Maintaining consistent leadership across such a diverse array of lines proved impossible for Halston, and something was lost along the way: the cachet and allure that made a Halston a Halston.

Halston’s successes and ultimate downfall provided cautious inspiration. Isaac Mizrahi’s collaboration with Target in 2003 – 20 years after Halston’s twinning with JCPenney – has become a boon for both parties.

It was not without apprehension, however. In 2019, Mizrahi recalled that the partnership “was a very scary thing. Halston was my idol… and he had failed.

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Relationships between designers and retailers are now commonplace in a climate where the hottest and most visible women freely mix mass market and luxury items, and designers skilfully jump between discount sales. and the podiums.

The Halston brand lives on, but resurrecting it has been a long process. Fashion heavyweights Kevan Hall and Marios Schwab, as well as style figures Rachel Zoe and Sarah Jessica Parker, have lent their creativity and business acumen to the brand, with limited success.

With the release of Netflix’s “Halston”, a new revival is at hand: not of the line, but of the personality who for a relatively brief – but brilliant – moment ruled the fashion world with devastating simplicity. .

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/halston-the-glittering-rise-and-spectacular-fall-of-a-fashion-icon-160847.



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