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Halston (Roy Halston Frowick)

halston’s hats wear fashion

B. April 23, 1932

D. March 26, 1990

Birthplace: Des Moines, Iowa

Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics Award, 1962, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1974
Halston Retrospective , Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City, New York, 1991

Halston’s presence seemed larger than life. From the time he left Evansville, Indiana, where he grew up, he radiated an aura of glamor. He became known for his millinery designs in the 1950s and 1960s, his elegant streamlined women’s clothes in the 1970s, and an extensive array of licensed goods in the 1980s. But Halston was more than a designer; he cultivated personal relationships with his celebrity clients, a strategy which made him into a star. By hanging out at Studio 57 and throwing his own outrageous parties, Halston appeared in the society and gossip columns as often as in fashion magazines.

Halston’s beginnings barely hinted at his future success. He was the middle child of a Des Moines, Iowa, family. His family moved around the Midwest during his youth, ending up in Evansville when he was eleven. After enrolling in Indiana University for a semester in 1952, he moved to Chicago where he began designing almost immediately.

While attending a night course at the Art Institute, he worked as a fashion merchandiser at Carson Pirie Scott. Soon he met André Basil, a hairdresser who owned a prestigious salon at the Ambassador Hotel. Although Basil was twenty-five years older than Halston, the two moved in together. Basil set up a display of Halston’s hats in his salon. When Basil opened his Boulevard Salon at 900 North Michigan Avenue, he devoted half of the space to Halston’s hats. By 1959 their personal relationship had eroded, and Halston moved to New York upon accepting a design position with Lily Daché.

His move to New York opened new opportunities. Later in 1959 he began designing hats for Bergdorf Goodman, and within two years his name began appearing on the hats. He acquired many notable clients including Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich, Diana Vreeland, Mrs. William (Babe) Paley, and Mrs. Henry Ford II. Many of his designs bordered on the fantastic; he used mirrors, fringe, jewels, and flowers to decorate hoods, bonnets, coifs, and helmets. His innovative scarf hat was a much-copied design of the 1960s, and Jacqueline Kennedy made his pillbox hat famous.

It was only a matter of time before Halston would expand into clothing. Bergdorf Goodman offered him an opportunity to design clothes in 1966, and his first ready-to-wear collection was sold in the Halston boutique at the store. This arrangement was short lived. He left Bergdorf Goodman in 1967, and it closed the boutique upon his departure.

Halston wasted no time in developing his own business venture. In 1968 he created a corporation, Halston, Ltd., to sell hats. It capitalized on different markets by offering lower-priced, mass-market hats sold through better department stores as well as more expensive, made-to-order hats sold at Bonwit Teller and Neiman Marcus. By the end of the year, he had introduced a ready-to-wear collection. The garments featured simple construction and few closures. The pajama skirt and wrap dress were the most popular pieces.

During the early 1970s, Halston made his mark on the ready-to-wear scene. Although he already had a small in-store boutique at Bloomingdale’s, he opened his own women’s boutique in 1972. The first two floors featured ready-to-wear clothing at two different price points, and the third floor offered custom-made garments. That same year he teamed with Ben Shaw to start Halston Originals, a successful ready-to-wear manufacturing venture with a product which was sold in high-end department stores.

In his fall collection of 1972, he introduced model #704, a simple shirtwaist dress made from ultrasuede, a fabric which would become synonymous with Halston. This washable, wrinkleless, durable dress sold 78,000 copies. It was initially offered at $185, but demand elevated the price to $360. Taking advantage of the success of this dress, Halston made ultrasuede a fixture in his collections, and he signed licensing agreements for a variety of ultrasuede goods including handbags, shoes, boots, belts, and bed covers.

In 1973 Norton Simon purchased all of Halston’s companies, his trademark, and his exclusive design services for approximately $12 million. The ownership of the company changed five times before being purchased by Revlon in 1986. Halston continued as the chief designer for the company until 1984. His drug-abuse problem had caused increasingly erratic behavior which led to his firing.

Halston had been part of the party scene since he moved to Chicago in the 1950s. When disco emerged in the 1970s he found himself in the middle of it. He frequented the hottest clubs, socialized with celebrities, embraced the most popular drugs, and designed clothes that were in tune with the streamlined decadence of the era. He created some of his most memorable designs during the 1970s. When he introduced his halter dress in 1974, it became a staple on the dance floor. Also, he was known for his caftans, cashmere sweater sets, shirtwaist dresses, strapless dresses, and asymmetrical necklines. All of his designs were simple and unconstructed. He usually worked in solid colors and soft knitwear. His narrow, elongated silhouettes skimmed over the body and flattered young and old figures alike. Halston’s trademark sunglasses, worn both day and night, completed the look.

Halston did not limit himself to designing fashion. During the 1970s he developed uniforms for Braniff flight attendants, Girl Scout troop leaders, American athletes in the PanAm Games, and the 1976 Winter Olympics team. He continued designing dancewear for Martha Graham even after he stopped designing for Halston.

Halston’s reputation as a designer to the elite of the 1970s was dramatically transformed in the 1980s when J.C. Penney purchased the rights to the Halston III line in 1982. Unwilling to be associated with a mass-market retailer, Bergdorf Goodman dropped the main Halston line. Although the deal with J.C. Penney undermined the upscale image of Halston, the clothes received positive reviews and high sales. The in-store boutiques featuring women’s sportswear and dress lines opened in the fall of 1983. During the next two years, menswear, furnishings, and children’s wear were added.

The perfume Halston was another of the company’s lucrative undertakings. Within two years of being introduced in 1975, Halston was the second biggest selling scent in history. The teardrop-shaped bottle was the creation of jewelry designer Elsa Peretti. By the 1980s, the perfume had lost its cachet due to excessive licensing of the Halston name and indiscriminate distribution.

Halston’s name graced a wide variety of goods spanning disparate price points. The goods ranged from ultrasuede luggage by Hartmann to scarves by Daniel La Foret. For example, the company signed licensing agreements for cosmetics and the men’s fragrances 1-12 and Z-14. The Halston name appeared on loungewear, sportswear, beachwear, menswear, sleepwear, and underwear.

Accessories constituted another profitable type of licensed goods. Kayser Roth manufactured hosiery, A.C. Bang produced gloves and furs, and Bausch and Lomb offered eyeglass frames. Belts, wallets, hats, wigs, and shoes were produced by various licensees. Consumers could buy Halston towels and sheets by Fieldcrest, Halston patterns by McCall’s, and Halston rugs by Karstan. In 1977 Halston himself formed a company that worked with H.B. Accessories to produce handbags and leather goods.

Halston’s life was cut short; he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, and he passed away two years later. In 1990 Revlon closed Halston Enterprises, Inc. Halston International, which owned the Halston trademark for all products except cosmetics and fragrances, remained. In 1997 the company relaunched the brand with Halston Lifestyle, a moderate line. By 1999 while Halston Lifestyle was being phased out, three additional lines were added: Halston was a bridge line, Halston Designer offered less expensive designer clothes, and Halston Signature featured the most expensive garments. Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue carried the lines. At the same time, the company expanded its licensees which numbered more than twenty by 2000. The popularity of 1970s fashion and the timeless quality of Halston’s designs have restored the legacy and endurance of the Halston name.

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