edited by Steven Bluttal
essays by Patricia Mears
Published by Phaidon Press
560 pages, 2001
Buy it online
As Good As the People He Dressed
Reviewed by Dana De Zoysa
Those were the days.... Jackie O, Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Liz Taylor, Ali MacGraw, Anjelica Huston, Martha Graham.
As fashion eras go it was both brief and timeless. It started with the demise of hippiedom around 1968 when it became clear to many people that dope really didn't taste all that good and the Vietnam war was going to continue with or without their approval. Out went the girly patchwork-hippie styles and in came a virtually opposite refined minimal look. That look was defined almost single-handedly by one man who, to glimpse him in the early years of his career, you wouldn't think would define much of anything except good looks and good style. But define he did. Even if you can't name any politician or broker or financier of the time, you will remember Halston. Dressed in his trademark black cashmere turtleneck, cocktail in one hand and cigarette in the other, he was a self-celebrated celebrity so famous he used only one name. If you were saddled at birth with "Roy Halston Frowick" you'd probably cinch it up, too.
His early credits included being born in Des Moines and having been declared at the ripe old age of two as the "Healthiest City Boy" at the Iowa State Fair. They must run long on awards at those fairs. He ended up the archetypal fashion-designer-as-gorgeous-dandy. That he commuted in a black Rolls-Royce from atelier to catwalk show to Studio 54 to Fire Island didn't hurt the image, either. Nor did the Manhattan apartment that he turned into a monument of cozy comfort so complete the fireplace burned even in summer.
Like an astonishing number of garment designers who go on to invent trends for their times, Halston's talent showed early. He designed and made hats for his mother as early as age eight. He got better at it -- his most famous client was Jacqueline Kennedy, who wore one of his pillbox hats to Jack's 1961 inauguration -- and was seen wearing one in no end of paparazzi shots thereafter.
By the early 1970s Halston was Liza Minnelli's personal designer and good pal, and he blossomed quickly into the architect of 70s Style: minimal, glamorous, simple, sleek, impeccably tailored. International in that it embraced the simple but flowing caftan to Ultrasuede shirtwaists. He was dubbed "the premier fashion designer of all America" by Newsweek. And, like anyone unburdened by self-doubt (and who wouldn't be after all this?) he epitomized himself in the enduring phrase: "You're only as good as the people you dress."
Dress he did, and a great deal more. He perfumed, shod and accessorized as well, and more still: turned imaginary selves as garment buyers into celebrity selves as wearers of a Halston. Not an easy job given that, when you get right down to it, all a designer has to work with is a few yards of fabric. How does someone trim and sew that into a state of mind, and even more, a lifestyle model that thousands embrace?
Starting with the very first of his mom's hats, Halston was a master of invention. It is difficult to imagine in these hatless times that up until the late 1960s the modiste or milliner was a more demanding, and more highly paid, designer than all but the greatest Parisian couturiers. Hats were complicated, fussy, had to be individually designed for a single woman's head (and more important, her hairstyle) and no two could be alike. With feathers, straw, knots, jewels, fur and whatever else the designer could lay hands on that worked, the hat used a far wider range of materials than garments ever did. Halston cut his teeth in a world where invention was an absolute and materials almost limitless.
Looking at Halston's hats chronologically, they moved from the fussbudget to the sublime. And so, as a matter of fact, did the times. The late 50s and early 60s were the age of the bouffant and the beehive. By the mid 70s hair was shorter, less styled, often unstyled. So were Halston's hats. In garments, overly thready hippiedom disappeared into a long, gentle sigh of simplicity. Halston's greatest insight was to master simplicity -- in form, line, cut, texture, tailoring. He minimized to such a monastic extent that he eventually dropped even buttons and zippers.
As is so often the case with a clothing designer who opts for simplicity, luxury takes its place. Halston would reject swatch after swatch until he found the exact quality and texture he wanted. Few people not involved in the fashion world realize just how varied and myriad are the number of fabrics that mills develop in the hopes of a smash success like denim or Ultrasuede. A well-known designer's studio has walls of swatch books, the contents of which would both bewonder and intimidate anyone who does not have a sense for fabric -- and the garment from which it is made -- as an art form.
Halston is one of those cases where the art of the garment and the style of the times come together. American Style in the mid-1970s prized modern material, minimal treatment and glamorous elegance. Halston understood that at the bottom of these lay pure color, pure form and pure line. Those were what he perfected, and they became his "look." Although Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren were working in New York at the time, Halston reigned supreme. Sheer luck, some say. The right man with the right taste at the right time, say others. More likely, it was the purity that he produced at a time when buyers identified purity of form with social value.
Too, he was a good businessman. Halston pioneered a surprising number of fashion innovations. Ultrasuede was one, which he popularized using a second innovation, his famous shirtdress. This easy, simple, sexy garment works with a great many textiles and is still with us. He also popularized the use of cashmere, knitted caped stoles and halter dresses -- the latter became almost as much a signature on Liza Minnelli as his pillbox hat on Jackie K.
He turned the typically placid white-walled, gold-chaired look of the average designer's studio into a boutique masquerading as a museum of personal art -- batik-covered walls, orchids and East Indian furnishings in his case. He was the first person to see the potential of the catwalk show -- until then a trade event aimed mainly at buyers for retail chains -- as a performance event in its own right, with music and lighting to match. Today's catwalk shows are a cross between high-amp concert, modern dance event and light show -- an art form by nature so ephemeral and rarefied it is rarely understood as an aesthetic testament of the time.
Halston was also the first designer to realize the potential of licensing himself. He started off with selling the exclusive use of his name to Norton Simon, who put the Halston stamp on a wildly successful perfume, and to a much less successful degree, on shoes and sheets.
Therein lay one of the threads toward Halston's doom. He was a perfectionist. He insisted on doing every design himself. As Norton Simon sought to attach his name on more and more "profit centers," Halston couldn't keep up. Today "name" designers usually act as delegators -- approvers, really -- letting others do the idea generation (within a set frame of values, of course) and then passing judgment on the best, thereby associating their name to it. In the mid to late 70s when Halston was slowly being commoditized, he didn't realize it for the deepening gyre it was. Norton Simon worked out a deal with J.C. Penney to carry the Halston label as a mass-market commodity, and that alienated the ritzy crowd which saw him as their icon.
The other thread was drugs and AIDS. In the mid-70s few jet-setters realized that addiction could happen to them, too, and AIDS wasn't even on the horizon. Pressure plus partying plus addiction produced an inability to delegate to assistants, then temper tantrums, then erratic designing, then the realization that as his name as a brand was being sold from one corporate giant to another, he was but a fish among fishes and the sharks were directing the net. In 1988 he was informed that he had AIDS. Two years later it claimed him. His last act was to donate his white Rolls to be sold to fund AIDS research.
He was as good as the people he dressed.
Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol. The models Elsa Peretti, Pat Cleveland, Karen Bjornson, Marisa Berenson. Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Diane von Furstenberg, Geoffrey Beene, Lauren Bacall, Princess Grace of Monaco. Studio 54 and the non-stop nightlife of the 70s and early 80s which Halston described to a Newsweek reporter in 1989, "In every corner you'd see somebody you read about in a paper or a friend or Beautiful People or mad people. Major, major stars. All the social people. You had a blend of society that had never happened before. It was like a movie."
This -- and more -- demands quite a book to wrap it all between covers. Edited by Steven Bluttal with essays by Patricia Mears, Halston is a mix of catalog raisonné, image anthology and personal scrapbook that documents just about all there is to document about the man. Although it contains plenty of previously unpublished catwalk snaps, behind-the-scenes fashion show shots, and fun party images, Bluttal and Mears do much more than that. He puts it well: "I wanted not only to convey how important his contribution was as the great American designer, but to also show and capture the zeitgeist of the period."
Charismatic, impeccably dressed, loftily ambitious, celebrity-aware, totally logical about being totally illogical, and in the end, fatally compromised by a huge conglomerate whose first lure seemed so pretty, Halston's zeitgeist was that of the 1970s. The finger of his past is burning at our heels. | February 2002
Dana De Zoysa has a passion for developing-country authors. He commutes between Bombay and his writer's paradise in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. He can be reached at DanaDeZoysa@aol.com.