Halston, Planet Fashion’s Disco King
He threw Bianca Jagger’s birthday party the night she rode into Studio 54 on a white horse. His fame turned him into a mass-market brand—and Halston’s legend endures today.
“You are only as good as the people you dress.”
It’s how Halston intended to start his autobiography, according to his niece and confidante Lesley Frowick. And it’s how she starts her (admittedly biased) book about his prevailing influence over Planet Fashion.
When the legendary designer passed away on March 26, 1990, he left Frowick with his personal archive—boxes upon boxes of journals, ledgers, photos, and sketches from his prodigious career.
Two years earlier, Halston had fallen ill with Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-related illness, and never had the opportunity to put his own life down in words. Halston’s legacy could only be seen through his designs, which once changed the landscape of American fashion.
“He didn’t like to write things down,” Frowick told The Daily Beast. “He always believed that if you wrote things that it would haunt you, but he loved to sketch and he constantly had ideas that he was working on, whether it was clothing or accessories or jewelry or even interior design elements.”
“He told me, ‘You’ll have everything you need to write this story,’” Frowick said of writing Halston: Inventing American Fashion. “And I pretty much did. He was a tremendous record keeper and there were tons of surprises” in the ledgers and photographs that he left behind. Then, she had her own memories to rely on.
Halston’s bond with Frowick began on April 23, 1958, the day that she was born. Roy Halston Frowick had been birthed on the same day 26 years earlier in Des Moines, Iowa. It was the middle of the Great Depression and the family by no means was wealthy or privileged.
Still, Halston’s eye for design caught hold at a young age. At 6 years old he was crafting objects and garments from household items, including hats his mother would wear to church. He knitted for soldiers in World War II, and counseled his high school crew on the upcoming school year’s wardrobe.
“A sweater tied around the shoulders, a look he’d later render in cashmere for his upscale clients, became his signature finishing touch,” Frowick writes.
But Halston would make a brief pit stop in between.
His college education stopped after he enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute. His illustration professors confessed that he knew as much as they did, so he continued to focus on his job designing windows at one of Chicago’s most elite department stores, Carson Pirie Scott and Company.
Then, came the hats, which were an integral part of day-to-day dressing. He crafted them at home and sold them very persuasively at a friend’s salon in the star-studded Ambassador Hotel.
It was there that he met elite artists like Salvador Dalí, Charles James, and Fran Allison, who became his first celebrity client. Peg Zwecker, the legendary Chicago Sun-Times fashion editor, introduced Halston’s designs to Lilly Daché, a famous and influential milliner, who summoned him to New York for work in 1957.
A year later, he had joined Bergdorf Goodman’s millinery department with his own label, Halston for Bergdorf. His social circle expanded—Andy Warhol became a very close friend, Jackie Kennedy sported his “pillbox” hat to her husband’s inauguration—and soon enough he was fitting everyone from Barbra Streisand to Carol Channing in his hats.
“My first memory of Halston was when I asked him to make my mask for my mid-life debutante party, the Black and White Ball,” Katherine Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post, said of the legendary party hosted by Truman Capote in which Halston designed many of the elites masks. “I relied on him entirely for what I wore, before I was one of fashion’s one hundred neediest cases. He taught me so much and vastly expanded my vision and style.”
By 1966, Halston had launched his first line of ready-to-wear with Bergdorf’s. He wanted “function and ease … simple Action Clothes that women can breathe in, work in, play in,” he said, according to Frowick. “Dresses are not going to have feathers and fuss in the future…we’ll go on simplifying…everything uncluttered…this is a tailor’s world, not a dressmaker’s world.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
Two years later, he launched his own eponymous label with the financial help of New York socialite Estelle Marsh Watlington and the guidance of Joel Schumacher (a boutique owner long before he was a filmmaker), Glamour editor Frances Stein, and Macy’s executive Joanne Creveling.
Halston’s designs held the simplest aesthetics, focusing on well-tailored construction for women on the go. As trends shifted in his favor, Halston’s followers grew and even today his designs continue to influence fashion. It’s a following that Frowick believes Halston “would be tickled about.”
Think Calvin Klein in the mid-’90s: monochromatic collections of skirt suits and jersey dresses. Or German designer Jil Sander, whose innovative coats (both men’s and women’s) carry an air that often scream 1970s couture while still maintaining a contemporary appeal.
Even Diane von Furstenberg has credited Halston as being the reason she entered the fashion game. And former employees like Naeem Khan and Ralph Rucci have made big names for themselves.
By 1973, Halston made it his mission to turn his name into a fully-fledged brand. A partnership with Norton Simon Industries slapped the Halston name on a gamut of products, from blouses and perfume to pillows and linens. “He was a visionary,” Frowick said. “People are doing things now that he was once crucified for.”
Halston had the jet-setter’s life, dressing the world’s elite: Princess Grace, Lauren Bacall, Bianca Jagger, and Elizabeth Taylor. He designed uniforms for flight attendants, the Girl Scouts and even the U.S. Olympic team.
He threw Bianca Jagger’s legendary 1977 birthday bash at Studio 54 in which she famously rode out on a white stallion escorted by a staff member in head-to-toe glitter.
Halston became known just as much for his partying days at one of New York’s most legendary (and exclusive) venues as he was for his fabulous designs. He was traveling all over the globe: hosting grand fashion shows at Versailles, meeting with Chinese and Japanese officials to embark on introducing his brand to the world, and appearing on the exclusive pages of fashion bibles.
Unfortunately, a partnership with budget-brand JCPenney (reportedly worth $1 billion) caused exclusive boutiques and department stores to rapidly drop his lines out of fear the brand had been tarnished by association. The deal, which was no different than many affordable capsule collections by high-end designers today, wound up toppling the tower of power he had built for himself.
In a series of buyouts in the mid-1980s, the brand eventually wound up in the hands of Revlon, who paid the designer to not interfere with the day-to-day business or designs. Without Halston’s magical touch, the brand lost its charm. It was officially discontinued in 1990.
Two years prior, Halston had been diagnosed HIV-positive. As his health declined, he moved from New York to San Francisco, where he eventually passed away 25 years ago today.
If things turned out different for the designer, Frowick believes that “Halston would have been very involved in the technical world,” she says. “He would have incorporated technology into his designs and into producing his lines and definitely to organize his business better.”
Many have attempted to keep his legacy afloat. In 2008, Harvey Weinstein, Tamara Mellon, and Rachel Zoe revived the line. They enlisted former Versace designer Marco Zanini as creative chief, but he soon departed, and the following season was crafted by an unnamed designer.
Marios Schwab and Sarah Jessica Parker were both affiliated with the line, but it was discontinued in 2011. Halston Heritage, Halston’s secondary line of archival looks, is all that remains.
“It’s a completely different ball game now and there will only be one Halston,” Frowick said. “He lived in this time that was so spectacular and dazzling and new and fresh.” She adds that because he ended his career the way that he did, and died fairly quickly thereafter, it’s hard to imagine what Halston could have become long after his halcyon days of disco had faded.