Designer Profiles: Halston

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The original minimalist of Americana fashion

Halston was an iconic American clothing designer who rose to international fame in the 1970s. His minimalist, clean designs, often made of cashmere or Ultrasuede, were a new phenomenon in the mid-1970s. He created relaxed urban lifestyle clothing for women that was much loved however it was the sexy, yet elegant dresses he designed that became a staple for disco lovers and redefined American fashion.

Halston Designs

Roy Halston Frowick was born on April 23, 1932, in Des Moines, Iowa. The son of a Norwegian-American accountant and his wife, he later dropped his first and last names, preferring the moniker. As a boy, Halston loved to alter and make clothes for his mother and sister. He studied at Indiana University and then at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked as a window dresser to supplement his tuition.

Becoming a fashion designer

It was early in 1953, whilst still attending night courses at the Art Institute, that Hatston began a business designing and making women’s hats. Halston’s hat designs married the fantastic to the whimsy; he used all manner of jewels, flowers, and fringe to decorate hoods, bonnets, and coifs. His first customer was radio actress and comedian Fran Allison. That initial yet truly significant supportive buyer gave Halston the proof of concept and confidence to further garner a well-known clientele including Kim Novak, Gloria Swanson, Deborah Kerr, and Hedda Hopper, then subsequently led him to open a store on Chicago's Magnificent Mile in 1957. He also worked as a fashion merchandiser at the upscale chain department store Carson Pirie Scott. Within a year, Halston was hired to serve as Head Milliner for the luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman.

Halston's first big break came when the Chicago Daily News ran a brief story on his hats. However, it was in 1961 when he rose to fame after Jacqueline Kennedy wore a pillbox hat of his design to the inauguration of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Halston’s friends and clients soon included some of the most alluring and well-known women in the world, including Rita Hayworth, Liza Minnelli, Marlene Dietrich, and Diana Vreeland.

Halston Hats

In the late 1960s, Halston made the transition to women's clothing, opening a boutique on Madison Avenue in New York and he started a ready-to-wear line that offered the perfect look for the international jet set of his era. His line was renowned for sexy, yet elegant pieces. In the fall of 1972, he introduced a simple shirtwaist dress made from “Ultra suede,” a fabric that was washable, durable, and beautiful. Two years later, he introduced to the world his most iconic design, the halter dress. It was an instant hit in America’s discotheques, giving women a narrow, elongated silhouette. Halston’s trademark sunglasses, worn both day and night, completed the look.

Roy Halston Frowick, best known as Halston, was known as the first designer to fully license himself as a brand onto itself; his influence went beyond style to reshape the business of fashion. Through a licensing agreement with JC Penney, he created designs that were accessible to women at a variety of income levels. He also became influential in uniform design, changing the entire feel of Braniff International Airways’ staff uniforms.

Unfortunately, despite his achievements or perhaps due to the pressure of such acclaimed wealth and fame, Halston developed a drug problem and his work efforts and high standards began to slip. Ultimately his failure to meet deadlines undermined his success. In 1984, he was fired from his own company and lost the right to design and sell clothes under his own name. However, he continued to design costumes for his friends Liza Minnelli and Martha Graham. He was a long-time and central figure in the nightlife scene of New York’s Studio 54 disco. After two decades of dressing the jet-set, Halston was diagnosed with AIDS and sadly in 1990, he died of lung cancer and complications of AIDS in San Francisco, California. In 2021 a Netflix biographical miniseries “Halston” was streamed based on the life of the famous designer starring Ewan McGregor.

Ewan McGregor playing Halston

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