The designer Roy Halston Frowick (1932-1990) was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and began his career as a milliner. He subsequently rose to become one of the most important American designers of the 1970s, whose influence was still being felt into the twenty-first century.
Biography of Roy Halston
While studying fashion illustration at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1952, Halston began designing hats in his spare time. Eventually, he started to sell his designs at André Basil’s hair salon at the Ambassador Hotel. Halston moved to New York City in 1958 to design hats for the legendary milliner Lilly Daché and then began working in the custom millinery salon of the prestigious retailer Bergdorf Goodman in 1959. While there, he designed the famous pillbox hat worn by the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy for the 1961 presidential inauguration of her husband, John F. Kennedy.
Moving beyond hats, Halston went on to design his first clothing collection for Bergdorf Goodman in June 1966. Two years later he left the retailer to form his own company, Halston Ltd. In December of 1968 Halston showed his first namesake collection in his new Angelo Donghia-designed showroom at 33 East Sixty-Eighth Street in New York City. As his business grew, Halston took over the entire building, creating a retail boutique in 1972 that took up three floors of the building, with each floor selling a different collection (and at a different price point). Later that year a ready-to-wear company, Halston Originals, was formed with two partners and headquartered on New York’s Seventh Avenue.
In a first-of-its-kind deal for a fashion designer, Halston and his partners sold both the Halston businesses and the Halston trademark to Norton Simon Industries (NSI), a large multibrand corporation, in 1973. Halston’s success soared during the mid-1970s, and so did his fame. An article in Esquire magazine asked the question: “Will Halston take over the world?” (p. 69).
As the success continued, NSI started signing a multitude of licensees-thirty existed at one point. In 1978 the company moved its design studio to a spacious venue on the twenty-first floor of the Olympic Tower at Fifty-first Street and Fifth Avenue. With the bigger space once again came an increased workload. Eventually, Halston was designing four ready-to-wear, four sportswear, and two made-to-order collections per year. All this was in addition to furs, shoes, swimwear, robes, intimate apparel, men’s wear, luggage, and uniforms for both Avis Rent A Car System and Braniff Airline employees. Halston also continued to design costumes for his celebrity friends, including the performer Liza Minnelli, and for Martha Graham’s dance company.
By the early 1980s, however, Halston’s influence was waning, and his social life began to garner more attention than his fashions. The beginning of the end, according to many, came when, in 1982, Halston signed a multimillion dollar deal with the J. C. Penney discount chain to create products under the Halston label. Many prestigious retailers voiced concern about the deal, and Bergdorf Goodman dropped the designer’s ready-to-wear line from their store.
Before signing the deal with Penney’s, things had started to unravel for the designer. Many cite the pressure of his workload and his inability to delegate responsibility as major faults. Others noted that as he spent more time socializing, allegedly using drugs, and as his increasingly difficult temperament became apparent, his business started to fail. In 1984, with tension mounting between the designer and NSI, Halston took a two-week vacation and never returned to Halston Enterprises. Until 1988 he kept trying to buy back a part of the company that bore his name from the various owners of the trademark, but he was unsuccessful. While negotiating one such buyback with Revlon, the owners of the trademark, in 1988, Halston tested positive for HIV. He died of complications from AIDS on 26 March 1990.
Halston’s most famous saying was “You’re only as good as the people you dress.” If that is true, he was better than good. He was good enough, in fact, to win five coveted Coty Fashion Critics Awards, the Oscars of the fashion industry. Halston’s clientele list reads like a who’s who of celebrities and socialites: Lauren Bacall, Marisa Berenson, Candice Bergen, Princess Grace of Monaco, Katherine Graham, Margaux Hemingway, Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Elsa Peretti, Barbara Cushing “Babe” Paley, Lee Radziwill, Elizabeth Taylor, and Barbara Walters.
Halston was known for his minimalistic approach to fashion, and his signature looks were spare, fluid, and often deceptively simple. He married the ease and comfort of sportswear with ready-to-wear and then raised the bar with luxurious fabrics and his distinct eye for cut and proportion. Halston has been credited with creating a unique new look, an original American way of dressing. His clothes were a representation of his own pared-down lifestyle. Many say that his life and his work were one and the same. In simplifying fashion for modern lifestyles without sacrificing glamour and luxury, he influenced many other designers. “Halston was one of the most influential designers of our time,” said Donna Karan, quoted in Gross and Rottman (p. 225). “I say that on a personal level, because when I was young, he was the designer I aspired to be like. He understood luxury, glamour, simplicity, fit and the importance of uniform. To me, he represented all that was modern and pure. What more could a designer hope to be?” Narciso Rodriguez, also a fan, said, “Halston changed the face of fashion and the way women dressed with a clean and pure look. Within its purity there was extreme femininity and sexiness. His slink dress as well as his double faced coats both maintained his clean, sensual line with brevity of construction. He is one of my heroes!” (Gross and Rottman, p. 225.)
In her book The Fashion Makers, Bernadine Morris wrote, “A nod from Halston and a fashion is flashed around the world” (p. 90). After Halston fell in love with Ultrasuede in 1971, he went on to use the fabric in everything from suits and coats to his famous shirtdress. As a result, Ultrasuede became as famous as Halston himself.
When he tied a sweater around his models’ shoulders, the look was adopted by fashionable women everywhere. Other designs also became Halston trademarks: the strapless dress, dresses made of draped rayon matte jersey, cashmere knits, caftans, one-shoulder and halter dresses, and asymmetrical necklines. He was well known for his love of the bias cut and his single-seamed spiral and wrapped dresses. In 1976 the designer created his first perfume, the enormously successful Halston. The Elsa Peretti-designed tear-shaped bottle was so recognizable that Halston insisted that it not be stamped with his name. The only branding was a small paper band with the name “Halston” that was wrapped around the neck. It broke off when the bottle was opened.
Berkin, Lisa. “The Prisoner of 7th Avenue.” New York Times Magazine, 15 March 1987.
Bowles, Jerry. “Will Halston Take Over the World?” Esquire, August 1975, p. 69.
Gross, Elaine, and Fred Rottman. Halston: An American Original. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1999.
Herald, Jacqueline. Fashions of a Decade: The 1970’s. New York: Facts on File, 1990.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. Couture: The Great Designers. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1985.
Morris, Bernadine. The Fashion Makers. New York: Random House, 1978.
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