Ken Downing’s ‘American Dream’: Make Halston Great Again

Ken Downing
Photo by Enrique Figueroa Studios

Since Halston’s passing in 1990, the storied 70’s label has undergone countless incarnations. The designers futilely tried to resuscitate the brand: Randolph Duke, Kevan Hall, Bradley Bayou, Marco Zanini, and Marios Schwab. Zanini lasted only two months.

Ken Downing, named Halston’s creative director, effective August 1st, unquestionably brings a lot to the table. While Ken is not a fashion designer, he studied fashion design at FIT and fundamentally understands how clothes are made.

I was Halston’s editor at Harpers Bazaar
Photo: harpersbazaar.com

I’ve known Downing for decades, ever since his early Neiman Marcus days. I knew Halston very well. While at Harper’s Bazaar, I had the designer market and was responsible for covering Halston. The soon to be 60 year old is a highly respected and beloved industry fixture. He has unimpeachable credentials, a proven track record, and an impeccable resume beyond reproach. He has traveled around the country dressing women of all ages and sizes. And boy, is he a great communicator!

At a lanky 6’3,” the charismatic Downing even shares an uncanny physical resemblance with Halston, down to the long elegant fingers. Like Halston, Ken looks like a man of authority when he enters a room. And he loves a good turtleneck! Will this be enough to resurrect a once-storied brand put on the map by an unparalleled icon of American design, the first American superstar designer?

“If anyone can bring Halston back, I think Ken can. I believe his incredible knowledge about what women want to wear will stand him in good stead by restoring the luster to Halston.”

Jeffrey Banks
Halston and his muses, Vogue 1972
Photo by Duane Michaels

It is a very challenging time for the fashion industry and for retailing. There are already so many brands. Panache or no panache, Ken has a long road ahead and many obstacles to face. Many others have tried, and they failed. What is Ken’s plan for success? How does he see the brand evolving? Will he stay close to the DNA or make something wholly new?

Ken Downing
Photo by Marilyn Kirschner

On Friday, 15 days into Downing’s new position, I sat down with Ken in his Xcel Brands offices in New York’s garment center. Ken dressed in light camel trousers, black monk strap loafers, a white shirt, and a camel cashmere sweater thrown over his shoulders a la Halston. Like everything else Ken does, there is a great passion and commitment to see this through. Ken is very optimistic about the future, and he is all in!

“To be chosen to do this with Xcel is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I feel very confident that this is the time, and this group will make Halston exciting for multi-generations”

Ken Downing
Vintage burgundy beaded Halston dress on exhibit at the Costume Institute
Photo: The MET Costume Institute

While Ken knows this is a challenge, and it won’t happen overnight, he points to the 2019 “Halston” documentary and the 2021 Netflix series as having brought the Halston name to the forefront. The fact that two exceptional Halston gowns are currently on display at the Met’s Costume Institute in Tom Ford’s recreation of “The Battle of Versailles” is helping to pique peoples’ curiosity about the brand.

“The zeitgeist of the Netflix series put the name into the ether, and the mass population is talking about Halston again, which is a real gift. That was one of the reasons I was brought in. You can now put heat around the brand, and that’s great.” — Ken Downing

Ken says he is bombarded with emails, texts, and Instagram messages from customers, friends, and acquaintances who say they loved the Netflix series and cannot wait to wear the clothes. “This job is all-consuming,” admits Ken, who oversees a design team. He feels a great weight of being true to Halston, but at the same time, he is also liberated that Halston is not still with us so that he can take the label to a new place.

“I feel like I’m the custodian of a great American name, a great American brand, and we can’t ignore him.” Ken’s goal is to bring the brand back to where it was and use it as a launch pad to unite the different divisions. He promises a “whiff” of Halston within the clothes (the words sensuous, languid, and sinewy keep coming up) but remains adamant that this is not about a “retro launch.”

Halston and his entourage
Photo: exhibitions.fitnyc.edu

Downing uses the vast archives to see how the clothes were seamed, constructed, and fell on the body. “The way they were cut was a real game changer,” observes Downing, who knows how important it is to sit in on fittings. Ken is striving to get into the mind of Halston and think the way Halston would if he were alive today. “Could you imagine ‘H’ with social media today?” Ken recognizes that Halston’s connection with celebrity, and his glamorous entourage of Halstonettes, were way ahead of their time.

While the exact details, price points, and what the label will look like are still under wraps, Ken rattles off an ambitious list of elements that will undoubtedly define the relaunch. He sees this as a fully rounded multi-generational lifestyle brand that encompasses ready-to-wear and accessories: shoes, handbags, jewelry, and hats, which Ken feels strongly for. Not little ladylike hats but funky hats with attitude.

Bianca Jagger wearing Halston red beaded gown with Mick at Studio 54
Photo: pinterest.com

Ken promises that Halston’s love of red and camel (“nothing is chicer”) will be incorporated into the fall 2023 collection. There will be proprietary prints, patterns, and ongoing artist collaborations a la Andy Warhol + Halston. Downing is planning on a menswear line in the future. Crossing gender boundaries would be appealing to Halston Ken. Downing is not ruling out a home collection; the merging of Halston’s taste with Ken’s.

Most importantly, Ken wants to convey a sense of magic and desire. He believes the heart and the hand have left the craft of making beautiful things. “It’s so nice to see the excitement around haute couture, which has opened up the imagination,” he says. “I don’t want to make clothes to fill a rack. I want to make clothes that can fill a person’s heart and desire, and I want them to have the sense of hand and heart.”

Before meeting with Ken, I reached out to a group of important fashion figures close to Halston and Ken and asked them to weigh in on this appointment.

“Ken’s handling of merchandising and the clothes, and how they’re transferred from the runway to the clients is masterful. Ken is probably the greatest merchant since Dawn Mello, Sonia Caproni, Geraldine Stutz, and Martha.

Ralph Rucci
Angelica Huston modeling Halston 1970’s
Photo: wwd.com

Ralph Rucci’s two design heroes are Balenciaga and Halston. Ralph once said he thinks of Halston every minute of his life and worked at Halston briefly in the ’70s. He loved how Halston took Charles James’s principles and relaxed them, imbuing a more modern point of view. Rucci says it’s essential that Ken captures the spirit of Halston.

Rucci recalls that in 1975, everyone was speechless when Alva Chinn came out on the runway in that ivory cashmere sweater to the floor and a cardigan. “All of a sudden, everything changed. Nobody else mattered.” It’s important to figure out why, says Rucci. “I am 1000% behind Ken. He has always been a visionary, but he’s been quiet. Now he has the correct platform”.

Chris Royer modeling at a Halston fashion show early ’70s
Photo by Berry Berenson

Chris Royer is a former model, Halston muse, and one of the famed Halstonettes who appeared as herself in the “Halston” documentary. Royer was also a Halston Archivist and a member of their Advisory Board. Chris regularly donates to the Museum at FIT and the Met’s Costume Institute. Her two vintage Halstons are on view in the current exhibition, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.”

“Ken is the ultimate professional. He understands luxury, the sensuality and sexiness of Halston’s clothes, and that crispness of line that defines Halston. With Ken, I am comfortable in feeling Halston is in the right hands.”

Chris Royer
Halston and his muses
Photo: Eric Bowman for British Vogue

Chris believes that the 2021 “Halston” Netflix miniseries brought awareness to Halston and helped revitalize the brand. It exposed a young generation to that glamorous and edgy time and the designer’s luxurious casualness. “So much of the younger audience relates to the modernism and clean clothing lines. They like that you can move in it; it’s not overly elaborate or accessorized,” observes Chris.

“What Ken did at Neiman Marcus was amazing. Ken is the man! He is exactly what you need: he knows luxury and has the experience and a full grasp of what goes development and prototypes and everything else,” says Chris.

“Good design can always be translated, and Ken has a great eye,” says Royer, who notes that Ken, like Halston, is detail oriented, understands design, and can realize Halston’s vision. It’s a natural part of Ken’s DNA. “This opportunity is perfect, a no-brainer,”

“Ken has incredible taste, incredible knowledge of the world of fashion, dealing with the world’s best designers, and even most important, he has incredible experience with consumers and what they are looking for. It’s a pretty fantastic trifecta, which puts him in a much better position than anyone else starting out trying to relaunch a famous brand,” Dr. Valerie Steele.

Shirley Ferro, Carol Mallory, Betsey Kaiser, Halston, Berry Berenson and Elsa Peretti
Photo by Jill Krementz

Dr. Valerie Steele believes Ken’s appointment to Halston signals an exciting new chapter for an iconic American label. Is it possible to separate the legendary man from the label? The connection between the founder and the label is not necessarily as tight as people might have assumed in the past, says Dr. Steele.

The most famous examples are Chanel and Gucci, who have had tremendous success reviving their brands with a completely different designer, ethos, environment, and period. Dr. Steele believes names are less important than the fact that these are luxury brands.

Karen Graham in Halston and Elsa Peretti, Vogue 1971
Photo by Irving Penn

Dr. Steele thinks that on the plus side, Halston has name recognition and “some cultural capital” associated with that name, but she argues that the average consumer doesn’t have much of a sense of what those iconic names stand for. It’s more important that Ken deals with the heritage of the label and the image of modernist clothing rather than the image of a man. “The consumer is more concerned with what is going on with the brand now, rather than the partying image from 50 years ago,” opines Dr. Steele.

“Ken is exactly the right person for Halston at this moment in time. I can’t imagine anybody who would be better. He’s got it on all scores. The knowledge of fashion, the taste, the knowledge of the design field now and the knowledge of consumers and what they want.”

Dr. Valerie Steele

Even though Ken is not a fashion designer, Dr. Steele says he has all the “creative chops” needed to go forward. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that Ken is a very handsome and charming man. “Let’s be real. It doesn’t hurt in the world of fashion.” Dr. Steele trusts that the Halston’s Archives will be used strategically as inspiration, not as a nostalgia fest!”.

When Patricia Mears curated the 2015 MFIT exhibition, “YSL + Halston: Fashioning the 70’s”, Dr. Steele recalls that she was struck by how much more modern Halston looked than Saint Laurent. She thought the clothes looked so new, and they could easily wear them today. This has to be the DNA for an American brand.

“I think they need to rethink the whole thing and erase what everybody thinks about the name Halston. You can’t look at what he’s done and take his patterns and rehash them. They must develop a new story and create a buzz for the new generation”: Naeem Khan.

While some believe it will be necessary for Ken to uphold the DNA of Halston, Naeem Khan believes Halston is a name that should be completely redefined. Ken should erase what people thought of the label, rethink the whole thing, go entirely in another direction and create something new.

Naeem Khan with Halston,
Photo Courtesy Halston Press

Naeem apprenticed for Halston from 1978 – 81. He appeared in the “Halston” documentary and has known Ken for about 30 years, beginning with his appointment at Neiman Marcus. He agrees that Ken is highly talented and a great merchandiser with a great retail background, and he should be able to put together something that is very salable and chic.

Halston’s shoes are big to fill, and so many people have tried, Naeem observes. “So far, the designers at the helm keep taking Halston’s old things and fine-tuning it or not even fine-tuning it. I just feel you can’t do that”.

“Halston is dead, the women who wore Halston are dead, and the brand is dead. To resurrect Halston, you need God”

Naeem Khan

As a prime example of what Ken should do, Naeem brings up Lanvin under Alber Elbaz. When Alber took over Lanvin, he came up with a new concept. It had nothing to do with what the founding designer began or what others continued. Khan believes Ken needs to create a new vision for Halston rather than rehashing Halston’s old designs.

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Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

3 Comments
  1. Great article, Marilyn! Can’t wait to see what Ken brings to the line. As for Naeem Khan’s comment, I couldn’t agree less.

  2. Very exciting. KD will bring the excitement and style to so many people who don’t know Halston. I hope he is able to keep the RTW high end luxe. The idea of home and accessories is genius. KD can do it if he has the support of Xcel.

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