Walk into any department store, and you will get a sense of the powerful brands built by high-end American designers. Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, and Donna Karan, for example, created veritable fashion empires by leveraging their names to create lower-priced lines and sign profitable licensing agreements. But before them all, there was Roy Halston Frowick – better known by the singular appellation Halston.
The subject of an eponymous Netflix miniseries starring Ewan McGregor, Halston became one of the earliest American designers to extend his brand to multiple price points. In doing so, he made designs that were normally out of reach for everyday Americans available to the masses. But fashion historians often tell Halston’s story as a cautionary one, as while the late Halston made style seem effortless, his relationship with the fashion industry was anything but uncomplicated.
Attuned to the mood
A born-and-bred Midwesterner, Halston found early success in hat design working as a custom milliner for New York shopping mecca Bergdorf Goodman beginning in the late 1950s. It did not take long before Halston would become known as a trendsetter, and, in a notable triumph for the young designer, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy wore one of his signature pillbox hats to her husband’s presidential inauguration in 1961, spawning seemingly countless copies. Later in the 1960s, Halston made his foray into dress design, with his success being equal parts talent and serendipity, and he once described his approach to fashion design as merely “editing the mood of what’s happening.” (It was, of course, more than that.)
Although overt simplicity may seem incongruous with grandeur, Halston garments were both understated and luxurious. His body-skimming silk chiffon caftans, jersey wraparound dresses and long cashmere sweaters were often constructed using just one piece of fabric. They covered the body fully, but through careful manipulation of the fabric – wrapping, draping and twisting – Halston’s pieces were sensuous and flattering. And in a further testament to his skill, Halston was even able to turn Ultrasuede – a soft, synthetic, machine-washable faux suede – into a status symbol, molding it into elegant shirtdresses and coats. These became popular despite – or maybe because of – their utter plainness.
Ultimately, his garments proved fitting for the 1970s, when a shaky economy made flagrant displays of wealth unseemly.
Yet, the designer’s social life was the opposite of understated. In fact, the image of fashion design as a glamorous and exciting profession owes much to Halston. During his heyday, he was at “the top of the fashion show-biz heap,” as Women’s Wear Daily publisher John Fairchild once wrote. At the legendary Studio 54, he mingled with Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol. The world-famous disco club became both a showroom for Halston’s designs and a stage for the man himself, and Halston was often accompanied by an entourage of beautiful women known as “the Halstonettes.”
Halston the businessman
As his stature grew, Halston always looked for ways to expand his fashion empire. Early in his career, he experimented with what is now commonly known as “brand diffusion” lines – which sees companies use their well-known brand name and corresponding trademark on varying items at varying price points in an attempt to reach a larger pool of consumers and generate greater amounts of revenue.
With this in mind, Halston maintained his high-end line, Halston Ltd., a made-to-order, ready-to-wear business. Headquartered on New York City’s Madison Avenue, his brand catered to an exclusive list of private clientele that included film and television stars like Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo, Liza Minelli and Elizabeth Taylor. At the same time, the “Halston Originals” boutique sold dresses to department stores across the country, with prices ranging from $150 to over $1,000. And still yet, with Halston International, the designer created “component” knit pieces – i.e., singular garments, turtlenecks, sweater sets, shirts and coats – that consumers could mix and match to their delight.
After the business conglomerate Norton Simon Inc. acquired the Halston businesses in 1973, Halston remained lead designer of his many collections. Eventually, products bearing his name came to include perfumes, luggage, home linens, coats, rainwear, and even wigs. By 1983, Halston Enterprises was generating an estimated $150 million in annual sales.
Perhaps emboldened by his success or motivated by his heartland roots, Halston signed with JCPenney in 1983 for the creation of an exclusive line that was, as he put it, “for the American people.” With items priced from $24 to $200, the “III line” marked a new era in fashion and retailing. While high-end fashion designer Pierre Cardin pioneered this form of licensing in Europe, the project of pairing a high-fashion designer with a mass merchandiser best known for selling Levi’s, hardware, and household goods was unusual in the United States. Halston proclaimed the venture immensely successful, claiming it generated $1 billion in sales. JCPenney’s executives, however, were less enthusiastic, and by the mid-1980s, industry insiders were suggesting that the garments were not selling as well as expected.
The JCPenney deal ultimately proved to be damaging for Halston. Wary high-end retailers, including his early employer, Bergdorf Goodman, were fearful that the prestige of the Halston name was sullied by its presence on the racks of a mass-market merchandiser. Bergdorf Goodman eventually dropped his line altogether. To make matters worse, Halston’s growing reputation of excessive spending and erratic behavior increasingly left his brand to the decisions of businessmen and creative control to other parties. Halston was relegated to the sidelines, and his corporate deals effectively cost him the right to his own name. In 1988, he was diagnosed with AIDS, and lived out of the public eye until his death in 1990.
Others follow Halston’s lead
Despite its eventual failure, Halston’s pairing with JCPenney was truly ahead of its time. Citing the importance of creating practical, easy-care leisurewear for working women and young mothers, Halston tried to offer a fashionable wardrobe at reasonable prices that nearly everyone could afford, a move that would prove to catch on. Contemporaries, such as Anne Klein, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Kenzo Takada, for instance, would immediately try out similar diffusion lines. All pulled it off without suffering the extraordinary professional cost that Halston endured.
Why their success? These designers’ corporate and creative decisions were arguably more tightly controlled than Halston’s devil-may-care diffusion. Acquisitions of these companies by larger conglomerates occurred much later than Halston’s, often decades into the brands’ existence. Perhaps this gave additional time for these brands to arrive at a more singular vision. After all, maintaining a consistent direction over such a diverse array of lines proved unfeasible for Halston, and something was lost along the way: the cachet and the allure that made a Halston a Halston.
Halston’s successes – and ultimate downfall – have provided a cautious inspiration. Isaac Mizrahi’s 2003 collaboration with Target – 20 years after Halston’s pairing with JCPenney – became a boon for both parties. It was not, however, without trepidation. In 2019, Mizrahi reminisced that the partnership “was a very scary thing. Halston was my idol … and he had failed.” (Relationships between designers and retailers are now commonplace in a climate where the most fashionable and visible of women freely mix and match mass market and luxury items, and designers deftly jump between discount retail and the runway.)
Fast forward to 2021, and Halston’s brand lives on, but resuscitating it has been a long process. Fashion heavyweights Kevan Hall and Marios Schwab, as well as style figures Rachel Zoe and Sarah Jessica Parker, have lent their creativity and business acumen to the brand – albeit, with limited success. The Halston brand is currently owned by Xcel Brands, which – interestingly enough – also owns Isaac Mizrahi’s eponymous label.
With the release of Netflix’s “Halston,” a new revival is at hand: not of his fashion collection, itself, but of the famous personality that for a comparatively brief – but glittering – moment, ruled the fashion world with devastating simplicity.
Jennifer Gordon is a Lecturer of Apparel, Events and Hospitality Management at Iowa State University. Sara Marcketti is a Professor of Apparel, Events, and Hospitality Management at Iowa State University. (This article was initially published by The Conversation)