The lasting legacy of 1970s disco designer Halston, the first American couturier


Halston has redefined the concept of the fashion star. Irresistible to the media and the Fashion System, he has linked high fashion with bass, as well as producing a range of perfumes, a diffusion line and extensions of licensed brands bearing his own name.

By the dawn of the 1960s, the old rules had already been broken and Halston helped usher in the sweeping changes that followed. By the 1970s, he had created a style that spoke of the freedom and youthful energy of the club generation, becoming the “quintessential designer of the decade,” says Patricia Mears, Deputy Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York.

But “Halston” also shows how, in his megalomaniac desire to “dress all of America”, the designer unraveled at the hands of the powers of fashion and business that he couldn’t bend to his will – and at the hands of the vices of he. Mears tells CNN that he was America’s first superstar fashion designer, one who brought an unprecedented diversity of racial origins and body shapes to the runway, offered a “cautionary tale.” “He was the big shooting star of fashion in the 1970s and early 1980s, but he also got lost very quickly,” says Mears, who oversaw the designer’s work in the Museum at the 2015 FIT exhibition, “Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s “.

Halston, Cher, Yves Saint Laurent

“The things we see today – designers joining large conglomerates or growing their companies worth billions of dollars – (were) probably made easier thanks to Halston’s pioneering efforts. He was the first to really build a business in the United States at that level, and it was the first to really crash and burn. “

During the 1970s, Halston was often joined by a team of models and celebrities, including Anjelica Huston, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli. The women who wore Halston’s creations remembered his ability to use a single piece of fabric and transform it into an eye-catching shape that moved over the wearer’s body. “His clothes danced with you!” says Liza Minelli that she has spent decades as Halston’s close friend and confidant.

Halston, Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol

Halston had designed the hat 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 famous 1973 Battle of Versailles fashion show, which featured top American designers such as Halston and Oscar de la Renta against famous French colleagues including Saint Laurent. and Christian Dior.

Jackie Kennedy’s tambourine hat designed by Halston

Through front-page stunts – he was responsible for Jagger riding a white horse around Studio 54 at the height of the nightclub’s notoriety – he cemented his position as America’s best-known designer. Yet Halston continued to run his empire to a minimum, hand-drawing clothes worn by everyone from American girl scouts, whose official uniforms he redesigned, to Avis car rental workers and American athletes at the 1976 Olympics.

Democratize fashion “Halston” was born from an idea of ​​Frédéric Tcheng, the French-born documentary maker behind 2014’s “Dior and I”. The new documentary, written and directed by him, exposes two sides of the American designer. The film depicts Halston as an aspiring, Tom Ripley-like figure, whose rise from obscurity was made possible by a series of masks he hid behind, protecting his true identity with eccentricity and a talent for showbiz. . At the same time, Tcheng’s film argues that he was a fashion democratizer who dreamed of breaking the great class abyss to bring elegance to the common American woman (whose dignity and power he saw in his Midwestern mother). Despite his once huge public profile, Halston mostly kept his story under wraps. In interviews, he has repeatedly dismissed questions about his past about him: “The past doesn’t interest me that much,” he squirms in one scene.

In fact, he came from a working-class home in Des Moines, Iowa, and spent his youth in provincial Midwestern towns before finding a job as a milliner at Bergdorf Goodman Department Store in New York. His work culminated in Jackie Kennedy’s aforementioned pillbox hat, a radically clean shape that has inspired copies across the United States. But it was after leaving Bergdorf that Halston, following in the footsteps of milliners turned designers like Coco Chanel and Jeanne Lanvin, made what Mears calls his “quantum leap” in designing clothes.

Models Margaret Donohue, Karen Bjornson, Pat Cleveland, and Shirley Farro
Models: Margaret Donohue, Karen Bjornson, Pat Cleveland, and Shirley Farro in floral-inspired dresses from Halston’s 1981 resort collection on Park Avenue in New York City.

She gained early success by creating the hot pants craze and designing “Ultrasuede” dresses, which became best-sellers for an emerging generation of young professional women. She then began to develop her own style of hers. “The 70s were all about youth, dancing, being sexy (and) carefree,” says Mears. “And her lifestyle, as well as her clothes, embodied it. But she also retained a strong element of elegance. Her clothes were never messy. “Always clean, always very modern looking. At the same time, the clothes were meant to be worn often without bras: they were often tied at the neck or cut, so you could see the skin and also see a lot of the female body very clearly underneath. the clothes.”

A lasting legacy According to Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan, Halston’s impact is clearly visible in the work of designers like Tom Ford, whose late 1990s glamor carries her influence. By making everyday clothes luxurious, he was also one of the first pioneers of “athleisure”, adds Mears. Furthermore, his business empire has 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 tremendous financial support (although the deal meant he no longer owned his own name). Then, in 1982, he struck a $ 1 billion deal with JCPenney, the affordable department store where he had shopped as a child. Collaborations between leading designers and high fashion brands like H&M are common today, but it was big news at the time. The decision led to his label being kicked out of high-fashion stores including Bergdorf Goodman, who had kicked him off. Model Alva Chinn, one of her group of so-called “Halstonettes,” tells Tcheng that the JCPenney deal has broken the boundaries of exclusivity that fashion has fiercely protected.

By losing his name, he lost control of his inheritance from him. The brand, now known as Halston Heritage, has been sold repeatedly in the 21st century, with former president Sarah Jessica Parker and former co-owner Harvey Weinstein among those who failed to win back the magic. “In a way, we see it as a tragic tale,” says Mears. “But it is also a good story, I think, to tell. “I hope that in the midst of all this we do not forget that he was also a great pioneering designer. He did not become famous just because he was good at self-promotion: he became a great designer and remains a great designer in the minds of many, because he was like that. revolutionary.”

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