It’s been over twenty years since Halston died. When people think about Halston they automatically think of 70’s and the hoards of celebrities who use to stomp Studio 54 in his clothes. Halston was an innovator for American fashion.
A young Halston fitting one of his hats on a model
Roy Halston Frowick was born on April 23 1932 in Des Moines Iowa. At an early age Halston had interest in sewing which came from his mother, soon young Halston was making hats and altering clothes for his mother and sister. In 1952 Halston moved to Chicago where he took night courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1957 he opened his first hat shop on North Michigan Avenue, which he eventually left to peruse work with milliner Lilly Dache in New York City.
Halston with one of his hats in 1961
Mrs. Kennedy on Inauguration day in a Halston Pillbox hat
By 1960 Halston had become a milliner at Berdof Goodman and eventually became the head milliner to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. His most famous design was the pillbox hat that she wore to the 1961 Inauguration of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. A perfectionist and never one to miss detail, Halston allegedly use to try on Mrs. Kennedy’s hats before he sent them out. He would wear them while looking at two mirrors: one in front of him and one behind him so that he could see how it looked at every angle. With this success Halston’s hats were frequently featured in Vogue and Harpers Bazaar.
Friend Liza Minelli outside of Halston’s first store
By the mid 60’s Halston’s interest had shifted from hats to women’s wear. In 1966 he presented his first collection and by 1968 Halston opened his salon on Madison avenue that catered to New York socialites and celebrities.As Halston’s star begun to rise in the early 70’s he struck up a $12 million dollar licensing deal with Norton Simon Inc., at this time Halston was one of the first designers to use licensing which would help push his label and be its demise.
American presentations from the Battle of Versailles
Halston along with four other American designers participated in the 1973 Battle of Versailles Fashion Show. The historic event pinned American designers against classic French designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Hurbert de Givenchy among others. With an audience of stars like Andy Warhol, Princess Grace of Monaco, and Liza Minnelli the show was significance because it was the first time that American fashion had gone toe to toe with the long standing traditional French fashion and triumphed. Many applauded Halston and fellow designers like Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows for bringing legitimacy to American fashion in the fashion world which was dominated by Europe. The show is also best remembered for featuring many black models.
Halton’s time cover
Halsotn and his Halstonettes
By the mid 70’s Halston was the undisputed king of American fashion. His clothes were on the cover of vogue and Time ran a cover article about him. Close friend and costumer Liza Minnelli wore one of his dresses for her 1972 Oscar win. By 1976 his company was making more than 30 million dollars, had the second best selling perfume of all time, made the 1976 U.S. Olympic team outfits (an honor which has recently been bestowed on Ralph Lauren), and was licensing itself to the world of carpets. During this time Halston also began sporting a jet setting lifestyle that included an entourage of models known as the Halstonettes who followed him around everywhere (one these models was future Oscar wining actress Anjelica Huston).
The famous tube dress. Model Jerry Hall in Halston.
Halston was know for using the fabric ultrasuede. It was his signature fabric that he used on most of his clothes. Ultrasuede is an artificial fabric that was created in Japan during the early 70’s. His clothes were noted for their minimalism and effortless style that included maxi length dresses, jumpsuits and lose fitting blouses, he told Vogue that one of his objectives was, “just getting rid of all of the extra details that didn’t work”. And he did this with such looks as his ultrasuede shirt dress and his iconic tube dress which was made of a single seem and a single piece of fabric.
Bianca Jagger in Halston at Studio 54. Halston, Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol at 54.
The place to be in the late 70’s was Studio 54. The disco and fashion Mecca was Halston’s own playground. Just about anyone who was anyone was at Studio 54: Mick and Bianca Jagger, Woody Allen, Diana Ross, Jerry Hall, Gia Carangi, Betty Ford, Debbie Harry, Sidney Poitier, Andy Warhol, (a teenaged) Brooke Shields, Michael Jackson, Cher, Martha Graham, Truman Capote, Elton John, Calvin Klein, and Grace Jones. If Studio 54 were a production, then all the costumes would be done by Halston. In addition to being a regular patron, he made most of the clothes that every one would wear. Most of his costumers were his friends like Elizabeth Taylor and Bianca Jagger who he threw an all white party for in 1977.
Halston’s designs for JC Penny
By the early 80’s the fashion world was changing. The disco fashions that rocked the 70’s were being overpowered by rising trends of punk and cutting edge fashion. Halston knew he had to keep himself on top, so he signed a first of its kind, controversial deal with JC Penny to design a line of low priced clothes. Sales for the clothes were dismal despite the fact he was one of the biggest names in fashion. JC Penny had demanded 8 collections a year from the designer. All the pressure was beginning to mount on Halston and things were getting worse.
Halston in 1983
During his reign as fashion king, Halston signed many licensing deals that helped boost his career. During this time however his name was being licensed over to products which had nothing to do with him or his fashions (like toilet seats). As a result of the JC Penny fiasco Berdorf Goodman decided to drop Halston’s hat collection. Everything Halston had worked for came to a screeching halt when in 1983 Norton Simon was sold to consumer goods company Beatrice (which also owned playtex). Halston and the company were at odds with each other, especially when they forced him to move out of his Olympic Tower headquarters in New York City where he had been for years. By 1984 they fired him from his own company and he was unable to sell or design clothes under his own name. Despite this he still made clothes for friends like Liza Minnelli and choreographer Martha Graham.
In 1986 Halton’s company was sold to Revlon with the hope of rebooting it, but negations fell through because they were unable to meet wishes. Halston spent the rest of life in exile from everyone. All the excitement, excess, glow, and decadence of the decade that he defined had died down. He lost his label that he had built his whole life, and now he was left with nothing. Halston moved out to San Francisco where he learned that he had developed AIDS. After an 18 month battle with AIDS related illness, Halston passed away at the age of 57 on March 26 1990.
A modern take on the tube dress from the 2013 Spring Halston Heritage collection
Since his death the Halston company has had a number of people from all over the fashion industry come in and try to reboot it without success. Recently the company now known as Halston Heritage has opened two stores (one in L.A. and N. Y.C.) and sells clothes online. Most of the clothes are an eery echo to Halston’s days in the 70’s with a modern twist. Compared to the monster company that once dominated the 70’s, Halston Heritage is nothing more than a small boutique like online store with no sense of direction, inspiration, or originality. Despite the shortcomings in the end of his career, Halston was a true pioneer in fashion. Halston was the first designer to take on the concept of licensing a brand and selling a clothing line to a place like mass market retailer at JC Penny. Today designers Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace, Roberto Cavalli and many more have done lines for stores like H&M so that the average consumer can get a taste of high fashion. Even designers like Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier have lent their names to unlikely brands such as diet coke.
Though designers like Norman Norell and others were the first American designers to be accepted into the fashion world, it was Halston who made American fashion acceptable. When he represented the U.S. in the 1973 Battle of Versailles fashion show it wasn’t just about who had the better clothes, it was about America finding its platform and place in the world of fashion. Europeans (epically the French who invented the modern day concept of fashion), look down upon Americans. But when Halston and the works of others came out in Palace of Versailles, it was a moment in which every American with even a small interest in fashion was welcomed. When renegades like Gianni Versace and Christian Dior died, their countries paid tribute to them with front page papers and televised funerals. The fashion world and their companies continued to support and keep their brands alive with absolute care. But when the most important American designer of 20th century lost his business and passed away, all he got was a magazine cover, a quick 30 second news reel, and became a poster child of what can go wrong in licensing fashion. When American designers like March Jacobs are creative director’s of European brand’s like French fashion house Louis Vuitton, it’s a comforting reminder to see that Halston’s legacy did not die in vain.