Fashion victim

The rise and demise of Halston, America's superstar designer.

Topics: Elizabeth Taylor,

Before she discovered the look that would enduringly and amusingly define her throughout the rest of her life — that is, before she became the fabulously besequined “Liza!” — Liza Minelli was a marmot-eyed, slightly hirsute, terminally insecure star-pup without a thing to wear. Then she met Halston.

Say what you will about beaded tunics, billowing caftans, halter pantsuits and Ultrasuede shirtdresses. His clothes, whose pervasive influence can still be seen in the designs of Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Narciso Rodriguez, were different from anything that had been done before. And if, as Halston often repeated, “you are only as good as the people you dress,” then he was very, very good. Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Babe Paley, Lauren Bacall, Liz Taylor, Barbara Walters, Betty Ford, the Duchess of Marlborough and Katherine Graham were all among his friends and clients.

Halston’s influence on American fashion goes beyond his designs — he took an era, reupholstered it in Ultrasuede, dabbed “Halston” on its pulse points and made it his own. A new book, “Halston: An American Original,” by Elaine Gross and Fred Rottman — which features interviews with those who knew, loved and emulated him, as well as 225 photos, some from top fashion photographers — pays tribute to a completely original designer who, without any formal fashion training, changed the way the world dressed forever.

The first international fashion superstar — and possibly the best designer America has ever had — Halston was a master of detail, cut and finishing. His devotion to simplicity and elegance of line was so pure that he zealously avoided such frippery as zippers and buttons. More than construction, however, what Halston understood best was stardom — how to fabricate, showcase and exploit it — and how to hold people in its sway. In the mid-’70s, at the height of his success, Halston — an international legend and the king of New York nightlife — had the power to make women across the globe aspire to resemble hypertrophied drag queens wrapped in towels. He had the power to make Princess Grace of Monaco let herself be photographed in sky-blue Ultrasuede. He had the power to make the muumuu a must-have, because it was just about the only thing that still looked good on Elizabeth Taylor when she was expanding at a faster rate than the Crab Nebula. He even had the power to make it OK for dozens of Manhattan socialites to show up at Le Cirque wearing the same dress (the famed model No. 704, a knee-length, belted, Ultrasuede shirt, which the New York Times called a “status security blanket”) and think it simply divine.

“The herd instinct is the new chic!” wrote Eugenia Sheppard. “It’s like belonging to a club!”

Nowadays, when the Gap can get “everybody in vests” one month and “everybody in cords” the next, this may not seem extraordinary. But fashion and fame have changed since the late ’60s and ’70s. Ironically, Halston was instrumental — both through his designs and his business decisions — in bringing about the changes that would ultimately lead to his own demise. As much as Halston came to symbolize modernity in the ’70s, and as much as he would usher in the future of fashion, he was, in many ways, old school. He truly believed that “fashion is not made by designers, it is made by fashionable people.” He would never understand that eventually fashion would be made by business people, and that would be his undoing.

Born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1932, Halston was voted “healthiest baby” at the Iowa State Fair. He always knew he wanted to be a milliner, and began creating hats — much to his family’s bafflement — at a very early age. Like Coco Chanel, who also began her career as a milliner, Halston always understood the importance of having well-connected friends. In Steven Gaines’ dishy 1990 biography, “Simply Halston: The Untold Story,” Halston’s brother Bob recalls: “In high school, my brother was driven around by rich girls in convertibles.” After moving to Chicago following an abbreviated stint at the Indiana University, Halston became involved with “Basil of the Ambassador,” a well-known celebrity hairstylist. It was through his stormy relationship with Basil that Halston first met milliner Lilly Dachi, who would eventually give him his first New York job. Within a year of arriving in New York and becoming the new best friend of several influential fashion magazine editors and publishers, Halston, as he now called himself, left Dachi’s studio to become head milliner for the luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman.

By the time he was 30, Halston had already won his first of five Coty Fashion Critics Awards, and had managed to convince Bergdorf’s to sew his name onto the labels of his hats — a privilege the department store had never granted another designer. He designed the pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore to the presidential inauguration — which made him internationally famous.

In 1966, determined to quit hats and go into the ready-to-wear business (which he correctly saw as the wave of the future), Halston was surprised to find that many of the rich socialites and famous celebrities who absolutely adored him and thought him an absolute genius were unwilling to finance his dressmaking venture. He was eventually able to set up shop in 1968, thanks to an investment of $125,000 from a Mrs. Estelle Marsh of Amarillo, Texas — a distinctly unfabulous and, apparently, somewhat doughy lady whom Halston privately referred to as Mrs. Marshmallow. Out of necessity, Halston turned his then-unfashionable Madison Avenue locale into an exotic, orchid-strewn oasis unlike anything in the Garment District — and subsequently into the preferred hangout of ladies who lunch but don’t fund.

His first collection, which consisted of only 25 remarkably similar yet startlingly unique pieces, was such a smash that, the day after his first show, Halston was surprised to find Babe Paley (every designer’s dream client) parked outside his studio at 9:30 in the morning. Paley, for reasons of her own, was anxious to order a custom-made argyle pantsuit, but immediately. The show had clearly had an impact on the country’s premier trendsetter. At a time when fashion shows were still stiff and formal affairs in which models walked down runways holding numbered placards in silence, Halston had instructed his models to strut down the runway to music, holding up copies of “Valley of the Dolls.” The clothes they wore — casual, free, functional and strangely pajama-like — seemed to instantly embody the feminist and egalitarian spirit of the era.

By 1972, Newsweek was calling Halston “the best designer in America.” His name was everywhere — New Yorker cartoons, gossip columns, top-10 songs. He was everybody’s permissive and forgiving best friend — bingeing on sliders at White Castle with Liz, bingeing on scotch and coke on Fire Island with Liza. He became enamored of a bizarre, unintelligible and maniacal Colombian window dresser named Victor Hugo, who liked to give window mannequins submachine guns and have them act out “the Patty Hearst bank robbery scene.” Through Hugo (so called for his physical endowments, his literary ones being undoubtedly few), Halston soon met and befriended his perfect art-world counterpart, Andy Warhol. Like Warhol, Halston was now one of the most internationally recognized figures in the world. It was inevitable that they would become friends.

In 1973 — “the year of Halston” — Halston Inc. was acquired by Norton Simon Industries (a company in the business of buying brand names) for $12 million in stock and a yearly salary for Halston of $150,000, escalating to $500,000. It was an unprecedented deal for a designer, and the potentially negative implications of selling a company built around his own name, image and creativity were not immediately apparent to anyone. Halston believed that for a company to acquire — or even desire — his name without his talent would be senseless. Why would anyone even want to put the Halston name on something that he himself had not created or at least supervised? Other designers, such as the ubiquitous Pierre Cardin, were splashing their names across anything with a surface, from cigarette lighters to cars, but Halston refused to have his name on anything that had not bubbled up from the wellspring of his own creativity.

A case in point was the creation and launch of his signature perfume, “Halston,” which would go on to be the second-biggest-selling fragrance of all time (after Chanel No. 5). NSI also owned the dowdy cosmetics firm Max Factor and hoped that an association with Halston would bolster its image. Halston was less than thrilled about working with the company and fought one of the longest and most difficult battles of his life to retain control of every aspect of the creation of his first fragrance. Among the most bitter battles he fought centered on the fragrance’s bottle. Max Factor had wanted to present it in something rectangular and Chanel-like, and coyly call it “Halston Nights.” Halston, on the other hand, had wanted to use a bottle designed by his good friend, jewelry designer Elsa Peretti, and call it just “Halston.” (The Peretti bottle, globular and rather bean-shaped, was impossible to fill on a conventional assembly line.) But perhaps most egregious to the cosmetic company’s slow-moving marketing department was that Halston refused to have the name of the fragrance printed on the bottle at all. He finally conceded to printing in tiny letters on a strip of tape wrapped around the neck of the bottle, which would have to be forcibly removed when it was opened.

By the time the fragrance launched — and became an instant, runaway hit beyond anyone’s wildest expectations — Halston the superstar had almost completely replaced the sweet Midwestern boy who had come to New York and made good. His constant drug use prompted him to start wearing dark glasses at all times — even indoors at night. He held his cigarettes vertically aloft, and always traveled with an entourage of models in matching outfits known as “the Halstonettes,” who followed him like ducklings trailing their mother. Studio 54 had become his home away from home, and Steve Rubell and Bianca Jagger his new best friends.

Meanwhile, back at headquarters, the suits were getting restless. Pressured into entering into dozens of licensing agreements with the manufacturers of such sundry items as sheets, gloves and luggage, Halston, never one to delegate authority or share credit, found it increasingly difficult to fulfill his contractual obligations. Aside from perfume sales, his business, though glamorous, was not very profitable. When NSI asked him to sign a deal with downscale J.C. Penney, in which he would essentially become its in-house name designer, Halston surprised his bosses by cheerfully agreeing, with much lip service to his lower-middle-class, Midwestern roots.

The backlash was instant. Bergdorf’s dropped Halston’s collection, and many of his formerly faithful friends and clients began defecting to other designers’ camps. In 1983, the Wall Street firm of Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts orchestrated a leveraged buyout of NSI. Esmark Inc., a company with holdings as diverse as a chemical and fertilizer company and a bra and girdle company — as well as $6.3 billion in annual sales — bought NSI. Max Factor was spun off from Halston, making the design house even less profitable than before. Within a year, Esmark was bought by the megaconglomerate Beatrice Foods, a behemoth with $9.3 billion in annual sales. Rapidly becoming a smaller and smaller fish in an ever-growing pond, Halston didn’t even meet his last boss — the CEO of the company that owned his name — before getting locked out of his offices after throwing one too many coke-fueled hissy fits. He died in 1990, of AIDS-related causes, still trying to buy back his name.

Toward the end of “Simply Halston,” Gaines describes an anecdote Esmark’s CEO related to a group of Chicago stockbrokers after what had been, to him, a baffling encounter with the famous designer.

“He kept calling me ‘Mr. Kelly,’” the businessman recalled, “but I didn’t know what his real name was. What do you call him? Mr. Halston?” As for the absurdly grand office and the impossibly regal manner of a man whose influence was fading by the minute: “All I’ve got to say is that it was a very impressive office for a small amount of profit. It’s a long run for a short slide.”

What makes Halston’s rise and demise poignant is that it played itself out on the cusp of modern celebrity. What began as a classic Hollywood “boy from the boondocks hits the big time” rags-to-riches story ended like a scene out of “Wall Street.” Halston became a celebrity when celebrity required a certain degree of accomplishment and distinction. He was never able to understand how his name could be successfully disassociated from his work and turned into the brand to which he would become a slave.

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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