Halston Hits the Hamptons

Halston with models from Ultrasuede
Halston with models from “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston”
Photo: Tribeca Pictures/Roxanne Lowit

Bumping into Fern Mallis at Citarella Southampton certainly changed the course of my Hamptons Sunday evening which had me ditching plans to attend the John Legend concert at Surf Lodge to join Mallis, Stan Herman and Fred Rottman at the Southampton Arts Center. Fern Mallis has become famous for her searingly insightful interviews as she gets to the bottom of fashion’s most inscrutable characters through her 92nd Street Y series.

The documentary “Halston” which began at 6 PM on July 14th ran for nearly two hours and examined the rise of this fashion legend as told by filmmaker Frederic Tcheng who has also directed “Dior and I” and “Valentino:The Last Emperor.” If you are fascinated by Halston and the inner workings of fashion you should run to view this exhaustive film which left me restless at times.

The cinematography and camerawork of the film were rather rudimentary -justifiable when featuring clippings from the 70’s but baffling when conducting current interviews with model Pat Cleveland and jewelry designer Elsa Paretti. It would have been helpful if they dated the interviews to clarify as to when they occurred – a signature of most documentaries. Moreover, I wish they would have delved into what made Halston tick as far as familial relationships and personality traits.

A young Halston

Nonetheless, the movie was an informative glimpse into the life of Roy Halston Frowick who was born in 1932 in Des Moines, Iowa, the second son of Norwegian-American accountant James Frowick and his stay-at-home wife Hallie Mae. Halston developed an early interest in altering clothing and creating hats and enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1952 while working as a window dresser.

Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat by Halston
Photo: Getty Images

In 1953 he opened his own hat business which catered to celebrities Kim Novak, Deborah Kerr, Gloria Swanson, and Hedda Hopper. However, it wasn’t until 1961 that he achieved fame by designing the pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore to her husband’s presidential inauguration. This revolutionary look has been copied repeatedly by icons Princess Diana, Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle and Melania Trump-who wore a near identical blue hat to her husband’s inauguration.

In the film Halston describes how the dent in Kennedy’s hat was accidentally caused by the windy weather with Kennedy placing her hand on the hat which caused an identation which subsequent designers unknowingly repeated. There is also an extensive review of the history of the brand Halston which was bought by conglomerate Norton Simon in 1973 who then urged Halston to license out his designs, and create a perfume which turned out to be enormously successful.

Halston and Liza Minnelli at Studio 54

Halston collaborated with Elsa Peretti on the bottle’s design with its teardrop shape and ribbon attached causing a stir in the industry. During this period, Halston was a regular at Studio 54 where his cocaine habit picked up steam along with his invaluable friendships with celebrities Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli.

Bianca Jagger

Who can forget the 30th birthday party he threw for Bianca Jagger in 1977 where she rode around the club on a horse wearing a gold dress designed by the legendary designer. However, it was Liza Minnelli who was his most important client wearing his clothing exclusively at her concerts and stage appearances and maintaining a lifelong friendship that was the stuff of legend.

The vast amount of information presented in the film was difficult to absorb; yet ultimately an unflinching portrait of a perfectionistic man whose desire for control led him to behave monstrously towards many of his employees who were frequently victimized by his abuse was unapologetically depicted. His outrageously uncompromising behavior had him demanding employees to wear black and “speak only when spoken to.” Halston’s movie star looks, resembling a young Bill Clinton, propelled the success of the brand to stratospheric heights and made him a more sympathetic figure, however few enjoyed being in his company.

Iman in Halston

The film superficially mentions the designer’s relationship with artist Victor Hugo which it describes as tumultuous without exploring how the two complemented each other. Halston is lauded for being one of the first designers to feature African American women prominently in his fashion shows.

His ultrasuede shirts and dresses were what catapulted him to significant fame along with his ethereally simplistic dresses and pantsuits with the film commenting that the ultrasuede shirts cost an unheard of $200-a paltry sum in today’s luxury market. His expensive tastes were examined as we learned he requested $123,000 to fly his staff to Europe for a Martha Graham performance. His outrageous requests were often satisfied as he had cultivated a public persona that made him inextricably linked to the success of the brand with appearances on Phil Donahue and news shows.

Halston with models
Photo: The New York Times

The movie documented his stratospheric rise and fall as his obsessive compulsive ways and unrelenting drug habit made him impossible to handle. In 1983, Halston boldly collaborated with JCPenney in a disastrous pairing-significantly devaluing his brand’s reputation as stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks immediately cut ties with the designer. The democratic notion of making one’s wares accessible to the general public is currently commonplace; however, the public was not yet ready for this ambitious endeavor.

The final nail in the coffin occurred when Esmark Inc. purchased Halston in 1983 with managing director Carl Epstein portrayed unfavorably in the movie as destroying the brand due to the unsuitable partnership. Halston ultimately died of AIDS at the age of 57 in March 1990 surrounded by his family who he had chosen to reside with in the final years of his life.

Fred Rottman, Stan Herman & Fern Mallis
Photo: Lieba Nesis

At the conclusion of the film, a panel discussion took place with creator of New York Fashion Week Fern Mallis, three-time Coty award-winning designer Stan Herman and Halston employee Fred Rottman. Herman delivered the most gossipy tidbits of the evening declaring that Halston had copied designs of Sonia Rykiel that Herman had refused and that Halston’s boyfriend Victor Hugo asked Herman on a date years ago.

President of IMG Models Ivan Bart
Photo: Lieba Nesis

Herman also recalled Halston obnoxiously throwing papers of a stage manager in the air and declared that if Halston were alive today he doubted he would have rid himself of his self destructive drug addiction. When Mallis asked Rottman if he liked Halston he was hesitant to answer as he recalled him being a “rough character” with Herman unequivocally remarking he was not fond of the legend who was “out of his mind.” Mallis said “The Row” was currently the most similar label to Halston and that she often cautions designers to hire a lawyer before they need one to ensure they hold onto their name-something Halston, Tracy Reese and Ralph Rucci failed to do.

Lieba Nesis

My love of fashion, writing and photography were something that always dominated my lifestyle however it wasn't until I was approached by the editor of Lookonline that I realized I could utilize these three skills in combination.

  1. Just read this article on Halston. I was a former Halstonette and frequently flew out with Halston and my late husband Bill Dugan to the sleepy Montauk airport.
    Bill was his then executive assistant. We flew to Montauk from Teterboro during the 1970s. And spent many weekends there with visits from celebrity guests. It was quite a ride the whole experience. Most people don’t know other spinoff stories related to the world of Halston .
    Bill was not only valued for his creative contributions but was loved from the janitor to the king. It’s ironic that in the fashion world inclusive of high wattage egos, that someone understood the power of kindness.
    Our living ,Halston survivor of design, Ralph Rucci is another example of someone who has no issue
    encouraging and supporting the talent of others.

    Nancy North aka Nancy Dugan

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