09.13.10

The Cursed Fashion House

Once, Halston was synonymous with iconic design and the sexiest women; then came mass-market and what some describe as "the curse." Kate Betts on a glamorous, but jinxed life in fashion.

Karen Elson, the alt-rock chanteuse, was blaring over the loudspeakers as the flame-haired wonder herself, in her alternate identity as model, came vamping down the runway in an electric blue fringe dress that was more Vegas lounge act than art-house cabaret.

But for all her spark, Elson wasn't even the top model in Tom Ford's ultra-exclusive fashion week show of his women's collection Sunday—a debut that was offered up to only 100 or so fashion editors and buyers in Ford's plush Madison Avenue menswear store.

Ford, like Halston in his day, understands the connection between fashion and the cultural moment. He knows how to read his audience. And he knows that fashion is, ultimately, about the cult of personality.

As top models like Daria Werbowy, Carolyn Murphy, and Chanel Iman sauntered through the cramped space, Ford stood at the front of the room, microphone in hand, narrating each passage—with a coterie of famous celebs, not in the audience, but on the runway. When his best friend Lisa Eisner, wearing a tall black feather headdress, shyly retreated to the back of the room, the designer gently nudged her: "Model the clothes, Lisa!" And when Beyoncé appeared in a gold sequined dress, Ford purred: "Now I'm really straight."

Ford gave the fashion insiders what they didn't know they wanted: an intimate and glamorous fashion moment—the kind that doesn't happen anymore, now that runway shows can be accessed by anyone with a bar code and a bit of moxie.

The presentation of fringed floor-length evening coats and flocked velvet gowns on what the designer called "some of the world's most inspirational women" harked back to another house, and other days, when Halston presented his coveted cashmere caftans and hooded tunics on models like Pat Cleveland, Jerry Hall, and Angelica Huston in his mirrored offices on the 22nd floor of the Olympic Towers.

Ford, like Halston in his day, understands the connection between fashion and the cultural moment. He knows how to read his audience. And he knows that fashion is, ultimately, about the cult of personality. People will obsess over skinny jeans or canvas handbags trimmed in python, but ultimately they are obsessing about the person who created those jeans and that bag, whether it's Phoebe Philo or Karl Lagerfeld, Jil Sander or Mickey Drexler.

Gallery: The History of Halston

Alternatively, they obsess about the celebrity they saw wearing those jeans or that handbag in the pages of US Weekly. Fashion is about obsession and connection. We don't need Ralph Lauren to tell us that when you buy a product you are buying a little piece of a dream. The most successful American designers—Lauren, Ford, Halston—give their customer a little bit of themselves and their world every time they sell something— whether it's a pair of aviator sunglasses, a polo shirt, or a sequined gown.

For Halston, who was born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa, that connection came early in his career. He started out as a milliner in Chicago in the 1950s, designing hats for Kim Novak and Deborah Kerr. He moved on to Bergdorf Goodman, where, as the in-house milliner, he created Jackie Kennedy's famous pill box hat. He also branched out to ready-to-wear, becoming the go-to designer for women like Liz Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Babe Paley, and Lauren Bacall. He made ultrasuede a household fabric and pioneered brand licensing, vertical production, and the vogue for potted orchid, eventually becoming as famous for his jet-setting lifestyle as for his popular shirtwaist dresses. In 1973 he sold the rights to his name to Norton Simon for $10 million. Elsa Peretti designed the "bean-shaped" Halston perfume bottle in 1975 and the following year, his "savage" swimsuit appeared on the cover of Time.

Halston's talent and ability to capture a moment in time seemed divine. But when he signed on with J.C. Penney to create a mass-market line in 1983, it was as if he had committed some kind of fashion hubris. From then on, Halston and his house appeared jinxed. Fashion insiders even began to talk about the "curse of Halston."

At the launch of the collaboration with J.C. Penney, the designer famously pronounced "Who needs cashmere?" But the $200 dresses and $49 shirts—although ahead of their time—proved a disaster. Stores like Bergdorf Goodman yanked his signature line from their shelves, and a year later Halston lost the right to his name and company. He died of AIDS-related causes in San Francisco in 1990.

Since then, the company has cycled through eight different owners and many designers, including Randolph Duke, Kevan Hall, Bradley Bayou, and Craig Natiello. The various owners have included the beauty company Marcella Borghese, Tropic Tex, a Halston license that specialized in selling T-shirts to mass-market retailers, and investment groups like Catterton, which bought the brand in the late 1990s and had previously focused on the food services business.

Then, out of the blue in March 2007, Harvey Weinstein invested in Halston—reportedly the fashion stylist Rachel Zoe convinced him it was a good idea—and brought in Jimmy Choo honcho Tamara Mellon as a partner. They installed Versace designer Marco Zanini, and relaunched with a splashy show at the Gagosian Gallery in February 2008. Liza Minnelli showed up wearing one of her vintage Halston pantsuits. But the collection was flat and Zanini was out after two seasons. He was replaced by a "team" that presumably had input from Zoe and Mellon. The following season they hosted another splashy presentation at the Museum of Modern Art, redecorating several galleries to resemble the interiors of Halston's Paul Rudolph-designed townhouse on East 63rd Street, with models in bright chiffon caftans lounging around on white leather couches a la Studio 54.

"In all successful collaborations like this, the designer channels the designer of the past and makes it look modern," says Paul Wilmot, who worked for Halston's fragrance company in the 1980s. "Nobody has been able to do that with Halston. There's just been a lot of looking back, and people don't need vintage."

When London darling Marios Schwab was hired in the spring of 2009, he promised to create a Halston brand image for the future, drawing inspiration not from the archives, but from hip fashion movies like The Eyes of Laura Mars. The fashion critics seemed happy with it, but Weinstein brought Sarah Jessica Parker on board as the president and chief creative officer of Halston Heritage, the brand’s secondary line. It was a risky move, particularly in light of Lindsay Lohan’s disastrously short run as the creative director of the house of Ungaro in Paris. Although Parker probably has more fashion clout than Lohan, given her star turn as the Manolo-savvy Carrie Bradshaw, Halston is a brand with its own history of fashion faux pas, or what fashion insiders now refer to as the “curse of Halston.”

Apart from wearing Halston on the red carpet, Parker has remained in the background at the brand. At the spring 2011 presentation Monday night in Chelsea, Schwab showed a critically successful collection of draped silk gowns and safari-inspired separates. But despite the few references to Halston's iconic minimalism, Schwab doesn't have much left to work with in terms of brand DNA.

The reason is quite simple: Tom Ford stealthily co-opted Halston’s DNA—right down to the plush gray carpets, the Cary Grant-smooth voice, and the aviator sunglasses—first at Gucci and now under his own name.

After all, it was the gray carpets, the Cary Grant-smooth voice, and the aviator sunglasses from another show that stuck in the mind. It seemed Tom Ford had inherited if not the curse, then at least the fashion DNA of Halston.

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Kate Betts is a contributing editor at Time magazine and until this year was also the editor of Time Style & Design, a special supplement to the magazine. Previously, Betts was the editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar and the fashion news director of Vogue. She is the author of the book Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style, due out February 2011.