Halston. It’s a name that may conjure up images of the '70s, Studio 54 and easy, sensuous glamour. Born Roy Halston Frowick on April 23, 1932, there was little indication that the Midwestern bred boy would go on to become the toast of the world’s jet-setting elite. But that’s exactly what he became. There have been many great, innovative designers of the past, some who were forgotten and others who remain in the public consciousness through the sheer strength of their aesthetic or continuation of their namesake label. Though Halston’s own company did trudge along after his death in 1990 from AIDS-related illness, it had already weakened considerably when the corporation’s buyers pushed him out in the early 1980s. What had been perhaps the single most important fashion brand of the decade essentially fizzled despite countless attempts to revive it. But genius isn’t so easy to kill. Whether or not most recognize it, the signs of Halston’s influence are as pervasive as ever.
Over the past ten years, there has been a rise in minimalist fashion with the likes of Céline’s Phoebe Philo and Raf Simons ushering in a starkly pared back look that relies on exceptional fabrics and immaculate cutting. Both of these figures and many others owe Halston an enormous debt. Though Halston was not the first person in the industry with a reverence for simplicity (Madame Grès, Charles James and Balenciaga were noted influences), he was possibly the first to make it his hallmark. From his Grecian goddess-inspired dresses made from heavy silk jersey to his gowns cut from smoky chiffon, often with only a single seam, he was in constant search of purity and developed brilliant techniques that were genuinely at the level of couture. His particular take on modernity was deeply in sync with the speed of the times. He produced work that was easy to slip and, perhaps more importantly at the height of the Disco era, easy to slip off. Even his famous dress shirts were often fabricated from Ultrasuede, the soft fabric that appeared like genuine suede, but was machine washable.
Women like Kim Kardashian and Joan Smalls may count themselves as members of the Balmain Army, the coterie of glamorous women who perpetually surround Olivier Rousteing (the brand’s designer), but decades before that informal group came to be, Halston had his Halstonettes.
Halstonettes were house models and close friends that accompanied Halston everywhere; from his grand trip to the Great Wall of China to his brief television appearance on an episode of The Love Boat. Modeling legend Pat Clevelandand even a pre-acting Anjelica Huston were famous members who came to define a particular kind of allure that would become synonymous with the 70s. The sheer impact they had on perceptions of beauty during their reign was unparalleled, as they presaged the gang of supermodels who would emerge a decade later.
Shrinking in scope from the macro to the micro, Halston’s influence has even seeped into the look of one today’s most prominent pop stars. Though we’ll probably never be sure just how much Ariana Grande or her team knew about Halston, it is clear in certain looks that they have borrowed heavily from his oeuvre.
In 1975, the great photographer Helmut Newton captured Elsa Peretti, who was a model at the time before starting her legendary career as a jewelry designer for Tiffany & Co., wearing an incredible Halston-designed bodysuit and bunny mask against a dramatic Manhattan skyline. One need only glance at Grande’s costume for the cover of her Dangerous Woman album to see where her styling team got their idea.
Halston was unique in that he was both completely of and completely ahead of his time. Everything he did, from his fashions to being the first designer to attempt the launch of an affordable label at a national retailer (J.C. Penney in his case), was groundbreaking. I can’t help but notice that everyone from Donna Karan to Tom Ford has done his best to catch up to Halston’s legacy. But none have succeeded. And I don’t think anyone will soon.
Written by Martin Lerma