His glitzy designs were worn by starlets who flocked to Studio 54. Now a group of US power-players are reviving the legendary 1970s disco label. Carola Long reports
Monday 04 February 2008
Our thirst for glamour is greater than ever, but a certain show at New York Fashion Week today might just have the right cocktail of money, celebrity, power and glitz to satisfy it. Raise your glasses to the (latest) Halston revival. The label synonymous with Seventies American sophistication has been resurrected by Tamara Mellon, with a group of investors that includes the powerhouse film producer Harvey Weinstein. LA stylist Rachel Zoe will also collaborate, and Marco Zanini, former first designer at Versace, will be the creative director.
Roy Halston Frowick went from being American fashion's first superstar to a casualty of sex, drugs and ego. But his lack of business acumen also contributed to his fall from grace, and, in Tamara Mellon, the new company will have one of Britain's most successful businesswomen. Meanwhile, Marco Zanini's background at Versace – a label that specialises in high-octane, jet-set glamour – makes him a clever appointment. The clothes are likely to include plenty of red-carpet candy, and Mellon has said, "Halston will be what it was in the Seventies – a pure luxury brand."
Rachel Zoe, who will inject her own bohemian-luxe aesthetic, will be able to swathe her celebrity clients in the label. Weinstein, who told The New York Times that the label has "got to signify a certain coolness, Studio 54, a young American designer going against the grain", is well-placed to make the link between fashion and entertainment closer than ever and even transform the way clothes are promoted.
That revolution is already underway. The new Halston dream team have agreed a marketing strategy, whereby two pieces of the collection will go on sale on net-a-porter.com tomorrow, alongside video from the show and an interview with Zanini. Natalie Massenet, Net-a-Porter's founder, says: "We realised we could use the internet to market Halston in an effective way. We work hard to create excitement and tell the story behind collections... and Halston's story is one of the best to tell."
Even with such hotshot backing, the venture is still a leap of faith. So what was so intoxicating about the label than it remains an irresistible prospect, 30 years after its heyday?
Halston's reign over the US fashion scene in the Seventies can be attributed to these factors: his appreciation of the power of celebrity; his ability to charm clients and the press alike; his creation of a complete lifestyle brand; and, most importantly, an unmistakeable aesthetic. His creative evolution never deviated too dramatically from his signature look of languid, sensual elegance.
Born in 1932, Halston's early years in Des Moines, Iowa, were a world away from his New York heyday. But in 1952, Halston enrolled in night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago while working as a window-dresser at a department store. He was introduced to Andre Basil, who let Halston set up a hat boutique in the corner of his chi-chi hair salon, and his designs soon attracted the attention of the fêted milliner Lilly Daché. She employed Halston in her Manhattan workshop, but within a year he had become head milliner for the luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman. Among his well-heeled clients was Jacqueline Kennedy, for whom he designed the pillbox hat she wore to the presidential inauguration in 1961.
Although Diana Vreeland, later the editor of Vogue, described Halston as "probably the greatest hatmaker in the world", he soon twigged that hats belonged to a vanishing age of formality. In 1966, his career took a critical turn when Bergdorf Goodman supported his first ready-to-wear clothing line. The New York Times report on the 18-piece interchangeable collection quoted the designer as saying, "I've always wanted to do this complete look," while "balancing champagne and strawberries with cheek-pecking by some of his better-known customers."
Innovation and modernity were key to Halston's success. By the late Sixties, even society women were less enchanted with the fussy fittings and stiff styling of haute couture. Halston's clothes borrowed from the fluid draping of the ancient Greeks, but his luxurious minimalism meant they always looked modern. His designs were grown-up and – more importantly – sexy. Sensual fabrics such as silk jersey, cashmere and silk charmeuse transformed minimalist dresses or classic staples, such as sweater sets and pyjama-style trousers, into outfits fit for Greek goddesses-about-town. The ideal body shape in the Seventies might have been ultra-slender, but Halston's clothes didn't alienate his more curvaceous clients. Not only were they intended as components of a luxury "uniform" (an idea that has inspired other designers, such as Donna Karan), his bestselling shirtdress was made from a machine-washable fabric called Ultrasuede, and his draped dresses flattered all figures. He explained: "I have no ideal woman. We have suggestions for every figure type."
Unsurprisingly, Halston's celebrity models, who included Anjelica Huston, all embodied the tall, slender physique familiar from Helmut Newton photographs. Labelled "the Halstonettes" by fashion editor André Leon Talley, these vivacious ambassadors of the brand were joined by celebrity clients such as Liz Taylor. But the woman on whom he had the most dramatic effect was Liza Minnelli. In Halston's backless evening dresses or satin trouser-suits, Minnelli went from being a boyish ingénue to a 100-watt, sequin-adorned star who would light up the dancefloor at Studio 54.
It wasn't long before Halston became a regular at the club – part of a hedonistic clique that included Andy Warhol, Taylor, Minnelli and Bianca Jagger. Halston was at Jagger's party when she rode on a white horse, and a flock of white doves was released in her honour.
The fact that the doves were all toasted when they hit the lights provides a rather gloomy metaphor for the way Halston, the supernova, began to burn out through partying and drug use. As his fame grew, so too did his ego and his predilection for sex and drugs, and he became unable to keep pace with the demand for an ever-greater number of licensed products. His bestselling perfume, launched in 1975, enabled him to reach a wider audience, and paved the way for lifestyle brands such as Calvin Klein. His enthusiasm for this sartorial democracy didn't amuse his higher-end patrons, however. After he designed a range for the mid-market chain JC Penney in 1983, Bergdorf Goodman dropped him. In 1984, when he had difficulty meeting his deadlines, he was ejected from his sleek Olympic Tower offices. The designer spent the rest of his life fighting to buy back the name he had sold. In 1998, Halston was diagnosed with Aids, and he died on 26 March 1990.
It was a tragic ending to Halston's American dream, but today's show will give some indication as to whether the bearers of his legacy will rewrite a happier one. Previous attempts to revive it, such as Randolph Duke's, have met with limited success. The industry loves to breathe new life into vintage names, but the recent reinvention of Biba hasn't exactly set the catwalk alight, and it remains to be seen how the new Ossie Clark will fare without Celia Birtwell. Biba is similar to Halston insofar as it captured the energy of an era, but the label's reinvention hasn't been a critical hit because the clothes were based too literally on Sixties and Seventies styles.
Tamara Mellon is confident that the essence of the label can be successfully updated. "His aesthetic was so strong that the whole DNA of the label works perfectly today. It's all about easy, relaxed glamour and confidence."
Marco Zanini, meanwhile, adds: "Halston is more than just fashion, it's a lifestyle. In this relaunch, I hope to recreate that sense of glamour and elegance with a modern approach."
This suggests he is attuned to the essence of the label, and he is the man on whom it all rests. Ultimately, despite the money, the marketing and the likelihood of a star-studded front row, when the lights go up on the catwalk, it's the clothes that need to be the stars of the show.
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