Roy Halston Frowick, or popularly known as simply Halston, became one of the world’s most influential designers at a young age. However, a life of partying and bad decisions led to the demise of his prestigious brand. This is the story of his rise and fall (and eventual re-invention beyond the grave) in the fashion world.
During the late 1940s, in the small town of Evansville, Indiana, a young boy named Roy Halston Frowick was playing milliner to his mother and sister. The kid possessed an incomparable talent and eye for beauty, creating interestingly shaped hats for his family members. His love for sewing developed during childhood too, and he found himself altering clothes for members of the household. Later in life, he would be known simply as Halston, one of the greatest American fashion designers of all time. He would be responsible for a style revolution in the 1970s discotheques with his biggest contribution to the fashion world, the halter dress.
Fame from a Pillbox Hat
Born in 1932 in De Moines, Iowa, Halston was the son James Edward Frowick and his wife Halle Mae. His given name was Roy Halston Frowick, but his family always referred to him with his middle name so not to confuse him with his Uncle Roy. Later moving to Indiana at the age of ten, the family was not aware that in the not so distant future, little Halston would be one of America’s most influential designers, creating outfits for such notable names like Liza Minnelli, Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth and Bianca Jagger.
After attending Indiana University for one semester in 1952, he moved to Chicago and began taking night classes at the School of the Art Institute to improve his craft. During the day, he worked as a fashion merchandiser for the Carson Pirie Scott department store. He first made a mark in the local fashion scene in 1957, when his hats went on sale at the city’s Boulevard Salon. This was with the help of well-regarded hairdresser André Basil, who owned a high-end salon at the Ambassador Hotel. Basil was the first to display Halston’s hats in his space, which proved to be very popular amongst the women of Chicago. When Basil expanded into another space, he gave Halston half the shop to showcase his hats, this helped the young designer expand his reach. The two were also rumored lovers.
As Bail and Halston’s personal relationship begun to crumble, the wide-eye designer dreamt of the Big Apple. By 1959, he made the move to New York City after getting a job as a designer for esteemed milliner Lily Daché. He also found mentorship from Charles James, the British-born couturier who Halston considered a god of fashion and design. In less than a year, Halston’s designs were well-received by the discriminating Manhattan crowd. His whimsical themes and use of fringe, jewels, and flowers made him stick out from his contemporaries. Bergdorf Goodman came knocking and hired him to be the head designer for the department store’s millinery section. With prestige of the luxury department store under his name, high-end clientele soon took notice. The first being the fashionista Jacqueline Kennedy, who asked Halston to design her pillbox hat to be worn at JFK’s inauguration as president in 1961. The rest is history.
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Because of the attention Jackie brought onto the young designer, the rest of the world’s glamourous women began flocking to him. By 1966, Halston decided to expand his line with women’s wear. He created simple, modern dresses that were considered “too sexy” for the decade they were created in. His mind proved to be innovative, a product of the future, dreaming up dresses in fabrics not thought to be typical and acceptable for the conservative 1960s. His fashion label exceeded the popularity of his hats, and by December 2, 1968, he opened his own shop with twenty-five pieces that showcased the essence of who he was as designer. It included many of the pieces he would be known for, like flowy, luxurious dresses. Fashion champions of the world began frequenting his store included such trendsetters like Babe Paley, Catherine Deneuve, Bianca Jagger, Anjelica Huston, Elizabeth Taylor, and Liza Minnelli, whom he would be greatly associated with over the years. Vanity Fair says that Halston’s true success came when “the fashionable ladies of Bergdorf’s began to pour through his doors.”
“You are as good as the people you dress. Beautiful people attract attention; they are your best advertisement,” he fabulously said. Unfortunately, with the glitz and glamour that came with the job, Halston began to sink into a world of partying and drugs. He surrounded himself with prominent New York figures such as artists Andy Warhol and Truman Capote, who introduced him to the city’s wild night life. As the sexual revolution of the 1970s approached, Halston slowly became a staple of infamous nightclub Studio 54, where he partied till the wee hours of the morning, surrounded by his “Halstonettes” (a name he used to refer to the women he dressed). The party life would later lead to his demise. The iconic designer passed away in 1990, at only the age of 57 from lung cancer and complication from AIDS.
“He became more interested in what he was putting in his body than what he was doing with it,” said Anjelica Huston in a Vogue UK profile about Halston from 2011. Despite being a cautionary tale, Halston’s contributions to the world of design and the business of fashion are really quite remarkable feats.
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The Demise of a Fashion Superstar
In 1972, Halston’s ultra-suede dress was making the rounds in the fashion scene. A year later, he was one of the wealthiest designers in the industry, making $30 million in retail sales. Eugenia Sheppard, a fashion writer for 80 different publications, dubbed 1973 as “The Year of Halston”. His success and influence would only heighten the following year when he invented the halter dress, which is arguably his biggest contribution to fashion in terms of design. It was a big hit to the party going women of the day, and was scene on multiple dance floors in the hottest of discos.
Halston had bigger plans in mind despite already engraving himself as an established designer. He had taken America easily, but it was now time to rule the world. He decided to sell the trademark to his name in 1973 to Norton Simon Inc., who would also acquire his company for a large sum of money. This was unheard of during the time, and Halston was the very first designer to do such a move. Although an innovative play in the game, it would later be considered bad business that negatively affected the Halston brand, mainly due to the fact he had no control on what they wanted to do with his name.
In the early 1980s, Halston decided to teamed with JC Penny for a ready-to-wear collection. The deal was controversial, locking down the designer for six years for a shocking price of $1 billion. The collections unperformed in stores, and the Halston brand began to plummet. Many of his original fans felt that the deal had devalued his more premium collections. The deal was discontinued soon after. Because of the JC Penny fiasco, Bergdorf’s soon dropped the Halston label. One year later, he was fired from his own company, and lost the rights to his name. He would get by the next few years by designing costumes for Liza Minnelli, who would remain his friend until he death only seven years later.
The Halston Heritage Comeback
Many have tried and failed to recreate the luster and innovative nature that was once present in the Halston brand. Harvey Weinstein in collaboration with stylist Rachel Zoe and Jimmy Choo founder Tamra Melon attempted but did not succeed. In 2013, Halston was reinvented as Halston Heritage. It is under the baton of industry veteran Ben Malka, who sits as the brand’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. Exclusively available in the Philippines through luxury department store Rustan’s, the new Halston Heritage looks act as gorgeous throwbacks to the designer’s glory days in the 1970s.
The brand describes the mood for the newest looks from the Spring 2018 Halston Heritage collection as “loose luxe, airy volume, open and bare, laid back, vintage stripes, gathered draping, and lazy sexy.” It feels like a comeback of sorts, transporting the wild spirit of the forgotten decade into the new millennium. Each look feels appropriate for the today’s women, for more than ever, it is a time of revolution and self-expression. Hopefully, beyond the grave, Halston is smiling and happy for his well-deserved return on the shelves of luxury department stores.