April 23, 1932– Halston:
”You are only as good as the people you dress.”
Roy Halston Frowick, or as I called him, Halston, was the iconic clothing designer of the 1970s and a friend to Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Martha Graham, Candice Bergen, Anjelica Huston, Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor, and of course, Andy Warhol, but he always managed to somehow ignore me at Studio 54.
A Mid-Westerner, after attending Indiana University and the Art Institute of Chicago, he opened a millinery shop in the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago in the 1950s. His first client was Fran Allison of the popular Kukla, Fran And Ollie kiddie’s television show.
A fashion article in a Chicago newspaper brought him a lot of attention, and within months he was making hats for chapeau wearing celebrities, including Kim Novak, Hedda Hopper, Deborah Kerr and Shirley Booth. From the start of his career, cosmopolitan, cool and considerate, the tall, slender, handsome Halston was a favorite of fashion editors and showbiz folk, gaining enough recognition to be asked to design that pillbox hat Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration in 1961.
Yet, that wasn’t enough to revive the vanishing millinery business as women gave up hats in favor of big hair. In 1966, Bergdorf Goodman, where he had been making hats, introduced the first collection by Halston. His clothes bridged the gap between couture and ready-to-wear. His look was younger than traditional made-to-order clothes and better made than ready-to-wear.
Two years later Halston established his own company, and in 1972 added his own boutique and ready-to-wear division, ”Halston Originals”, to sell to department stores all over the country. Halston then moved to designing Haute Couture.
In 1973, Halston was one of five American designers invited to present their clothes, along with five French couturiers, at a special benefit at Versailles. The exuberance of the American clothes by Halston, Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta looked more fresh and contemporary than the serious clothes by Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin and Marc Bohan.
In 1974, Newsweek Magazine called Halston: ”The premier fashion designer of the USA”.
He was the first American designer to perceive the potential of licensing himself and becoming a single name brand. The Halston influence went beyond style and reshaped the business part of fashion. With his licensing agreement with JC Penney, his designs were accessible to women at most income levels and tastes. Although this practice is common today, it was a controversial move at the time and cost him some of those couture customers.
No American designer had such a strong impact on the re-defining of women’s clothing. Halston’s minimal style, use of luxurious materials such as cashmere and ultrasuede, and his thoroughly modern interpretation of classics, even his posse of models dubbed ”The Halstonettes”, all defined the look of the 1970s, after the hippy bohemian look of the 1960s.
Although he enjoyed enormous success in business and design, Halston liked to party, as we all did during those years. Instead of arriving at his office at 8am and staying until midnight, he would stay at Studio 54 until 4 or 5am and arrive at work past noon.
His drug use deepened and a failure to meet deadline demands undermined his progress and profit. In 1984, Halston was fired from his own company and lost the right to design and sell clothes under his own name. He moved to San Francisco and lived the rest of his life in self-imposed exile. Halston, who was only as good as the people he dressed, ended up not dressing anyone.
Halston was diagnosed with HIV in 1988. He left this world because of HIV related cancer in San Francisco, in the spring of 1990. Liza has never quite recovered.
Despite never having been invited to his table at Studio 54 (I found my coke from other generous party-goers), I do have a Halston connection. I wore a little red Halston number to Portland’s Red Dress Party in spring 2007. I looked super chic.
In the Sister Sledge disco tune He’s The Greatest Dancer, Halston is memorably mentioned in a description of a well-dressed man:
”Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci, he looks like a still, the man is dressed to kill.”
Halston has been mentioned in other songs, films and shows, usually as the criterion for a certain kind of cultured, cosmopolitan style. There was a 1978 cartoon in The New Yorker by Dana Fradon, with a wife saying to her husband over cocktails: ”I dreamt I was sitting in on a National Security Council meeting, and guess what? Liza Minnelli and Halston were there, too!”
Check out the documentary Ultrasudue: The Search For Halston (2012).