Today I want to tell you about one of my favorite & one of the greatest American designers, Halston.
I unfortunately didn’t learn about him until my late 30s, because some people tried to burn his legacy out of revenge. But as famous as he was, he left behind something that no one could destroy, his art.
Halston, a man who redefined American fashion, was an iconic clothing designer of the 1970s.
Halston was instinctively in tune with his times. He rewrote the rule book, but ultimately fell victim of his own success. His story can teach us a good deal about the perils of brand extension and downfall by giving control of his brand to financers.
Now a little background about him,
Roy Halston Frowick, best known as Halston, was born in Des Moines, Iowa on April 23, 1932.
Halston learned sewing from his grandmother. He started off designing hats, and opened his shop in Chicago at the age of 25.
He later moved to New york & worked as a milliner for Bergdorf Goodman in 1959.
During this time, he designed Jackie Kennedy’s well-known “Pillbox Hat”, and that opened the door for him to work with celebrities and socialites.
After working as a milliner for a few years, in 1966, he started to expand his hat lines to clothing in Bergdorf Goodman. Also in 1966, he opened his own couture house, which catered mostly to celebrities.
Now, I want to talk about his sense of fashion and what made his work so timeless, chic and still modern to this day. I’ll tell you about his approach to making clothes, and lessons we should learn from his successes and failures.
His mantra was “less is more”. Clean look was his signature.
No fuss, or any unnecessary accessories, buttons, buckles. Simplicity at its best.
Most of his gowns were super easy to wear. Some had no zippers — in and out over your head.
This philosophy was very similar to Vionnet.
He was a close friend to one of his mentors, great American Couturier Charles James.
Halston learned about architectural cuts & creative cuts from him, and after a few years he tried to help him financially in different ways but Charles James as famously as he was a difficult man drove their friendship to a catastrophe. James was bitter toward modern everything, and blamed everyone for stealing his designs. In an interview he ultimately called Halson a copycat and said Halston wasn’t a designer, only a buyer or at most a stylist.
Halston wasn’t copying Charles James’s work, but understood his concepts. Whatever he learned from him, Halston turned it and made it modern, wearable, relaxed and chic.
He understood women’s position in the 1970’s and what they wanted.
Women did not like to be caged in corsets, girdles, tight skirts and dresses they couldn’t move in.
He gave women elegance and ease with a sense of power without being masculine!
Halston’s evolutionary process connected him to the work of past couturiers, by refreshing and updating the silhouettes, integrating more comfort, and blurring the lines between activewear, daywear, and evening clothes. Halston created garments that were perfect for the modern jet-set lifestyles of the 1970s.
Simple doesn’t mean the clothes were simple to make.
His cuts and shapes were all unconventional, origami like. He cut and sewed everything in bias, and was one of the pioneers in creative cutting in draping.
(A topic I have been working with and practicing for a long time and will share with you soon!)
Despite the fact that he never formally studied fashion or French Couture dress-making, he was smart and understood fabrics and cuts.
His patterns looked like abstract art, like popular art movements in the 50’s, and he was inspired by many artistic dialogue going on in that era.
He appreciated the woman’s body. He appreciated all the different types of bodies.
His close friend & right-hand person who was on top of his fashion house’s sales, Patty, was a large woman (for those days’ standards) & wasn’t fashionable. She was ridiculed quite a few times in the press (I know, I know!!) but Halston designed and dressed her. She was one of the important members of his entourage.
He was diverse in choosing models too. Iman, one of the most celebrated models, had her first fashion show with Halston and she became a muse to him.
Coming from a mid-class background, he kept mixing social circles around him. That was the essence of that era, and he saw that. He was a great example of a designer who understood trends in a social, political and cultural level and meshed his work with it. And that was a breakthrough!
Halton’s designs were simple and minimalistic, but not his fabric choices and finishing.
He had great seamstresses, and used mostly Silks, chiffons, velvets, and suedes that all became hallmark Halston fabrics.
The Hollywood fashion elites of the time such as Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli could often be seen wearing Halston’s designs.
He developed his famous Ultrasuede shirtdress in the early 1970s, and his career took off throughout the decade. He would soon be spotted with his celebrity friends at off-the-time hot spots like Studio 54, eventually becoming as famous as the women he dressed.
He even traveled with his own group of models known as “Halstonettes.”
His brand became synonymous with celebrity culture through marketing genius.
But like many others, his own fame deceived him into wanting to expand more and more.
All troubles started to surface after he sold his name and brand to a corporation that had nothing to do with fashion.
This decision gave him enough capital and freedom to do whatever he wanted.
But in a few years Halston brand was sold to another bigger corporation that owned Playtex, the underwear unit of Esmark Inc.
Halston only was a president of the brand with no other legal ownership.
This made Halston suffer and lose his freedom in creating and his voice.
To prove he could be a money-making brand and gain more power, he made a deal with JC Penney to design a ready-to-wear collection.
His peers in high fashion saw the JC Penney alliance as heretical & this caused his fashion snob base to turn their backs on him.
By this time Halston’s star was on the wane.
Soon he was eclipsed by Calvin Klein and a new generation in fashion.
To find a way out, he went on battle to regain his rights, but he lost each time.
Eventually he lost his fight, and in 1984 Halston was locked out of Olympic Tower, and a junior designer was given his role as creative director.
Esmark sold off his samples like a rag and wiped all the tapes of his shows and archives.
He was devastated and dropped everything, moved to California and spent his last few months in peace close to his family.
In the late 1980s Halston was diagnosed HIV-positive and he succumbed to AIDS-related complications in 1990. He was 57.
Few Facts about him:
- Halston made the pillbox hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore when her husband was inaugurated President.
- His first big success was the classic shirtdress in Ultrasuede, an imitation leather material made in Japan that the designer referred to as ”leatherette.”
- He loved to use Cashmere and Silk Jersey. His Cashmere knit pajama was the ultimate Luxury.
- After he signed an agreement with J. C. Penney in 1982 to design lower-priced clothes, his business began to disintegrate. Halston said the JCPenny deal gave him a chance to dress America. Bergdorf Goodman, the store that gave him his start more than a quarter century earlier, dropped his collection because of the JCPenny connection. That was the start of his downfall.
- Halston was the first American designer to capitalize on his fame, becoming a brand by licensing his name on a massive scale, but unfortunately his own label wasn’t his.
- Even after his death, Halston remains a force in the design world. So many designers have been inspired by him, most prominently Tom Ford of Gucci.
- Donna Karan was influenced by his sexy relaxed style and the way he made women move easily in his clothes.
- Halston is one of the handful American designers whose work museums want to collect, says Rita Watnick, owner of Lily, a Beverly Hills vintage store. But unfortunately they can only collect from women who purchased his clothing in the 70’s.
Lessons to be learned from his, work, life
- Do not sell all your brand name’s full rights. If you ever do, make sure you can start over with another name.
- Being a perfectionist and having full control of your work is important, but build a great team or find outsourcing people that you can trust. This ensures you don’t have to be there for the job to be done!
- In fashion if you want to survive for a longer period, find a partner that can help you or work with you. The partner would have an ownership sense and mentality toward your brand.
If not, surround yourself with people who worship you on your best and worst day.
- Always educate yourself on what’s going on in the world. Follow the climate in social, political, cultural, Art, Cinema and inner circle gossip. It will save you big time.
- Treat your customers like your best friends. Do not gossip behind their back, keep their secrets safe and be nice and polite. Remember his quote “You are as good as who you dress”.
- You are not invincible, and you are not God. Keep your ego in check.
Your work, your clothes & your brand is not the most important thing that happened to anyone! Invest in hard work, good relationships and acknowledge everything can collapse in a week.
This motto keeps your feet on the ground.
- Stay off drugs, alcohol and party life. These habits made everyone that’s brilliant and successful fall badly.
- Know your demographic & your clients, and be loyal.
Don’t change your price-point & make a cheaper version of your collection within the same brand name!