Walk back into the party

If disco was the beat of the Seventies, Halston was the look - sexy, glossy and very glamorous. Now the sleek-chic label is back - and it's all over America By Tamsin Blanchard
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The Independent Online
On Wednesday night, at the Historical Society on New York's Upper West Side, Halston, the most influential American fashion label of the late 20th century was reborn.

The designer himself, died in relative obscurity in 1990 at the age of 57, after a life of excess and extravagance. In his heyday, Halston dressed the like of Liza Minelli and Bianca Jagger, and made the hat Jackie Kennedy wore for her husband's inauguration. It was his idea to hold the infamous birthday party for Bianca Jagger at Studio 54 when the birthday girl rode a white horse around the dance floor to the glee of the other revellers. If disco was the beat of the Seventies, Halston was the look - sexy, glamorous, glossy and sleek.

Over the past few years of fashion's obsession with stark minimalism, Halston's influence has been evident in collection after collection, from Gucci in Milan to Donna Karan in New York. He was the master of slinky jersey dresses, often cut in a spiral or on the bias with only one seam, which caressed and flattered the body as if by magic. As much a technician as a visionary, Halston was driven by the quest for purity of line and simplicity of shape. He was a modernist; for that reason, his clothes are both synonymous with the Seventies, but timeless classics all the same.

The Halston name, with all its heritage of Studio 54 parties, Seventies rock-star glamour, caviar and cocaine, is so ripe for a relaunch, it's amazing nobody had done it before. But next autumn, the first collection since the designer's death will be on sale, designed by Miami-suntanned, Las Vegas-born Randolph Duke, along with more than 20 licences for everything from sunglasses to ties and bathmats. Just who would buy a Halston bathmat is another story, but somebody somewhere has done their market research. There was even a request for a licence to sell Halston furniture.

The keenly priced, mass-market Halston Lifestyle "career wear" line, also designed by Duke, is already on sale in US department stores. Strangely enough, it was Halston's ambition to dress America, if not the world, that saw his label off in the Eighties. His licence to take Halston to the masses with the decidedly unchic, middle-market department store, JC Penney, was a failure. The designer unwittingly sold his own name and disappeared into drug-addled isolation. Since then Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Polo Ralph Lauren have proved the potential of mass marketing and when the Egyptian brothers Mark and Jack Setton acquired the rights to the Halston name and licensing (everything apart from the fragrance and cosmetics) last year, their plan was to sell that name, or simply the letter H, to as many people across America and the rest of the world as possible. It is estimated that in three years' time, worldwide sales will reach $500m.

Randolph Duke - Randy, to his friends -does not fear history repeating itself: market saturation by Halston products, from $15,000 cashmere dresses to $15 logo T-shirts, will not, in his opinion, lessen the brand's of appeal. Times have changed. "In America, there is no such thing as too much. The more the better," he says.

In the seven short months since 38-year-old Duke was appointed design director, the company has launched 21 licences and produced the first luxury designer collection, focusing on what Halston was best at: evening wear. He was ready with the collection a week early. "I feel I've been waiting to do this for 20 years," he says.

In the Seventies, the teenage Duke was familiar with Halston's work: "It was because of him that I decided to become a designer."

Duke had been training to follow in his German grandfather's footsteps and become a concert pianist but decided to leave music school to study fashion at the Fashion Institute in Los Angeles. His mother was in showbiz, a dancer in Las Vegas. In 1978, when Halston was at the height of his fame, Duke enrolled at fashion school and became a swimwear designer. He moved to New York in 1984 and launched his own collection in 87. "I did it all, including packing the boxes," he says. In 1993, he took a job selling clothes on the television shopping channel, QVC, not something most fashion designers would readily admit to. "I thought: it's modern. I used to sell 5,000 garments in five minutes."

Before landing the job that most designers would kill for at Halston, Duke was design director at the prestigious Henri Bendel store. When he heard about the relaunch of Halston, he wrote persistently. He knew it was the job for him and pipped more established names to the post.

With his unsnobbish attitude to clothes (he acknowledges that women who cannot afford a $1,000 dress are exposed to the same media and magazines as the woman who can, and wants the same looks at lower prices) and his eye for clean, modern lines, it seems he was born for the job. "The formula is the same," he said. "Halston is sportswear that you can take into evening. It's not about big ballgowns in America anymore."

One thing he does not have in common with Halston is that he is not a party animal. He would rather have dinner than party and has to ask the model from the shoot for the names of New York's hottest night spots. Nevertheless, he understands what makes a drop-dead evening dress guaranteed to sell. "It's about sex."

The relaunch collection has the unmistakable Halston stamp. There are spiral dresses, cowl-back sequinned cashmere knitted dresses, a dress with a long trail strewn with thousands of tiny sequins that catch the light like prisms, and body-clinging dresses sewn with sequins made from Halston's other great love and trademark, Ultra Suede. The licensing and marketing of Halston the brand looks set to achieve the designer's ambition to dress America after all. And his spirit is alive in the signature collection - partly because the linchpins of Randolph Duke's design team are the same crafts people who worked closely with Halston himself. Gino the tailor worked with Halston when he was an unknown milliner and for the following 18 years; Mariuccia, Halston's assistant, is now Duke's; and Rita, the master draper, Lidia, a pattern cutter and Tutino, Halston's head pattern cutter, are all still on the team. "There is a real camaraderie between them," says the Duke. "They really wanted to make it happen, more for him than for me"n