The rise and fall of Halston, the man who redefined American fashion

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CNN Films’ “Halston” is now available on demand.

There’s a scene in “Halston,” a new documentary about enigmatic fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick, in which his former assistant Tom Fallon tells a story that still shocks – even half a century later.

Halston, who made hats for New York high society in the early 1960s before becoming a household name, was invited to a big dinner at a client’s house on Long Island. As they sat down to eat, two men remained standing, refusing to sit down unless Halston and another restaurant – which they attacked with homophobic slurs – were kicked out.

“Tom”, Fallon recalls Halston telling him, “I just need you to understand that you and I can’t hope to be anything but fa**ot poodles trained to jump through these rich people’s hoops .”

But Halston would prove his own pessimism wrong in almost every way. Over the next two decades, he became perhaps the most influential figure in American fashion history.

Halston with Betty Ford, Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli at Studio 54. Credit: Robin Platzer/The LIFE Images Collection/The LIFE Images Collection via G

The first superstar fashion designer

The documentary chronicles how Halston redefined the role of American fashion star. Irresistible to the media and defined by branded designs, he blended high fashion with bass, as well as producing a range of perfumes, a diffusion line and licensed brand extensions bearing his name.

By the dawn of the 1960s, the old rules were already being broken – and Halston would do as much as anyone in fashion to usher in the sweeping changes that followed. By the 1970s, he had created a style that spoke to the freedom and youthful energy of the disco generation, becoming the decade’s “quintessential designer,” says Patricia Mears, deputy museum director at the Fashion Institute of Technology. (FIT) in New York. York.

But “Halston” also shows how, in his megalomaniacal desire to “dress all of America,” the designer wrestled himself into the hands of fashion and business powers he couldn’t bend to his will – and in the hands of his vices (Halston reportedly spent thousands of dollars a week on cocaine at the height of his power).

Mears told CNN that America’s first superstar fashion designer — one who brought unprecedented diversity of racial backgrounds and body shapes to the catwalk — offered a “healing tale.”

“He was fashion’s big shooting star in the 1970s and early 1980s, but he also burned out very quickly,” says Mears, who curated the designer’s work in the 2015 Museum at FIT exhibition. , “Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s.”

“The things we see today – designers being part of large conglomerates or growing their businesses to be worth billions of dollars – (have) probably been made easier by Halston’s pioneering efforts. He was the first to really build a business in the United States at this level, and he was the first to really crumble and burn.”

Halston in New York in 1980.

Halston in New York in 1980. Credit: SAUER Jean-Claude/Paris Match Archive/Paris Match via Getty Images

dance clothes

Throughout the 1970s, Halston was often flanked by a cast of models and celebrities, including Anjelica Huston, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli. In the documentary, women who wore Halston’s designs remember her ability to use a single piece of fabric and shape it into an alluring shape that moved across the wearer’s body.

“His clothes danced with you!” says Minelli, who spent decades as Halston’s close friend and confidant.

By her late twenties, Halston had already designed the pillbox hat that Jackie Kennedy wore at her husband’s presidential inauguration. In his early 40s, he had helped break the global dominance of French fashion with the historic Battle of Versailles fashion show in 1973, which pitted top American designers like Halston and Oscar de la Renta against famous French peers. , including Saint Laurent and Christian Dior.

Thanks to headline-grabbing stunts – he was responsible for Jagger riding a white horse around Studio 54 during the height of the nightclub’s notoriety – he cemented his position as the best-known designer of America. Yet Halston continued to micro-manage his empire, hand-designing clothing worn by everyone among the American Girl Scouts, whose official uniforms he redesigned., Avis car rental employees and American athletes at the 1976 Olympics.

Halston redefined the role of the American fashion designer.

Halston redefined the role of the American fashion designer. Credit: John Preito/Denver Post/Denver Post via Getty Images

Democratize fashion

“Halston” is the brainchild of Frédéric Tcheng, the French-born documentary filmmaker behind “Dior et moi” in 2014. The new documentary, which he wrote and directed, exposes the two sides of the American designer.

The film portrays Halston as a wannabe, Tom Ripley-esque figure, whose rise from obscurity was made possible by a succession of masks behind which he hid, protecting his true identity with eccentricity and a sense of duality. show. At the same time, Tcheng’s film argues that he was a fashion democrat who dreamed of breaking the great chasm of class to bring elegance to the American woman (whose dignity and power he had seen in his own mother from the Midwest).

Despite her once-huge public profile, Halston mostly hid her own story. In interviews, he has repeatedly brushed off questions about his past: “The past just doesn’t interest me that much,” he squirms in one scene.

In reality, he came from a working-class home in Des Moines, Iowa, and spent his youth in provincial towns in the Midwest before landing a job as a bespoke milliner at New York’s Bergdorf Goodman department store. His work there resulted in Jackie Kennedy’s aforementioned pillbox hat, a radically streamlined shape that inspired copies across the United States.

But it was while leaving Bergdorf that Halston — following in the footsteps of milliners turned fashion designers like Coco Chanel and Jeanne Lanvin — took what Mears calls her “quantum leap” in clothing design.

He scored early successes by organizing the hot pants craze and designing “Ultrasuede” suits, which became bestsellers for an emerging generation of young professional women. He then began to develop his own signature style.

“The 1970s were all about being young, dancing, being sexy (and) being carefree,” Mears says. “And his lifestyle, as well as his clothes, embodied that. But he also maintained a very strong element of elegance. His clothes were never ruffled.

“Always clean, always very modern. At the same time, the clothes were meant to be worn often without a bra – they were often halter necks or cutaways, so you saw the skin and you also saw a lot of the female body very clearly under clothing.”

Halton in 1980.

Halton in 1980.
Credit: SAUER Jean-Claude/Paris Match via Getty Images

A lasting legacy

Halston’s impact is clearly visible in the work of designers like Tom Ford, whose glamorous womenswear of the late 1990s bears his influence, according to Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan. By making everyday outfits luxurious, he was also an early pioneer of “athleisure,” adds Mears.

Additionally, his business empire set a model for today’s ambitious designers.

In 1973 he signed a deal with food conglomerate Norton Simon, which also owned Max Factor cosmetics, giving him huge financial backing (although the deal meant he no longer owned his own name). Then, in 1982, he struck a billion dollar deal with JCPenney, the affordable department store where he had shopped as a child. Today, collaborations between top designers and big brands like H&M are commonplace, but back then it was big news. This decision led to the withdrawal of her brand from high fashion stores, including Bergdorf Goodman, which had allowed her to debut.

Model Alva Chinn, one of her group of so-called “Halstonettes,” told Tcheng that the deal with JCPenney transgressed the boundaries of exclusivity that fashion fiercely protected: “He stepped out of the norm , and people love their boundaries that are set between them and those.”

“It was hell after that,” says Don Friese, Halston’s vice president of sales, who recalls high fashion brands cutting orders to stand out from the increasingly accessible brand. “He realized he had done the wrong thing.”

Haltson was later removed from his position as head of the company that bore his name. This, and his untimely death from AIDS-related complications at the age of 57, form the tragic second act of the film, which chronicles how he disappeared from American fashion. By losing his name, he lost control of his inheritance. The brand, now known as Halston Heritage, has been sold many times in the 21st century, with former chairman Sarah Jessica Parker and former co-owner Harvey Weinstein among those who failed to recapture the magic.

“In a way, we see this as a tragic story,” Mears says. “But it’s also a good story, I think, to tell.

“I hope in the midst of all this we won’t forget that he was also a great pioneering designer. He didn’t become famous just because he was good at self-promotion – he’s became a great designer and remains a great designer in the minds of many, because he was so revolutionary.”

Halstonairs Sunday, August 25 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN.
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