Missteps

07.13.11

Halston's Fashion Faux Pas

With Harvey Weinstein reportedly out and Sarah Jessica Parker walking away, the legendary brand suddenly seems imperiled. Jacob Bernstein on how Halston lost its shirt.

In early September, a smattering of fashionistas piled into a gallery in west Chelsea to view the spring collection of Marios Schwab for Halston. Fashion journalists Cathy Horyn and Suzy Menkes were there, notepads out. So was the starlet Alexis Bledel. Cameras went snap-snap-snap as investor Harvey Weinstein walked into the room, and things went practically haywire at the entrance of Sarah Jessica Parker, who’d taken a high-profile role at the firm, designing its “heritage collection,” a line of cheaper clothes.

But today, the future of the label seems totally in doubt. The CEO who was running the company at the time? Gone. The movie mogul who’d been so bullish on his investment? Reportedly, tapped out. The movie star and fashion maven who’d made all those flashbulbs pop? Sayonara.

The fashion world found this out Wednesday when a Vogue profile of Parker appeared online, and buried the news of her Halston departure halfway into the piece.

As one fashion-industry insider put it upon hearing rumors Wednesday that the label was about to close up and liquidate: “It wouldn’t surprise me. There doesn’t seem to be any plan, Harvey is out, Sarah is gone. What are they going to do?”

It might be shocking, were it not for the fact that the whole attempt to revive the label was misguided from the start.

To be sure, numerous brands have staged successful comebacks after the deaths of their namesake founders. One has only to look to Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel or Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga for proof of that. More recently, Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen stunned the fashion world with a remarkably self-assured collection that convinced even the most cynical observers that McQueen’s house might have life left in it after its founder's suicide.

But Halston is a different beast, and much of what it represented when it became the ultimate example of '70s glamour has since been coopted by numerous other fashion brands. In the mid-'90s, Tom Ford shot to design fame at Gucci with a pitch-perfect homage to Halston—simple white jersey dresses, perfect-fitting white shirts tucked into black velvet hip-huggers. Over the years, the influence of Halston on Gucci’s designs became somewhat less literal (Ford even left the building), but Gucci’s place in the fashion food chain is still basically the one once occupied by the brand it’s referenced so repeatedly.

Much of what Halston represented in the '70s has since been coopted by numerous other fashion brands.

Meanwhile, the erosion of Halston continued unabated as a slew of American designers tried and failed to reinvent it under less-than-stable management. Add to that a significant shift in fashion after 9/11, a time when even upmarket consumers began looking for less flashy clothes.

Then, in 2007, Harvey Weinstein—recently liberated from his stint at Miramax films and flush with cash from a slew of new investors—purchased the design firm in partnership with Hilco Consumer Capital, a private-equity firm. He’d been advised on the deal by Tamara Mellon, the jet-setting Brit who revived Jimmy Choo (another brand that took Halston’s sexed-up-glamour ethos and helped chip away at the original’s armor).

The deciding factor in the acquisition, Weinstein told The New York Times,  was "the iconic nature of the Halston brand" and “seeing how far ahead of his time Halston the man was.” He had some reason to feel confident: The red carpet had emerged in the previous decade as one of the fashion business’s best promotional vehicles. And Weinstein had access to all sorts of actresses who might wear Halston’s gowns while doing the step-and-repeat. They even took aboard Rachel Zoe, a prominent stylist among the starlet set, whose clients include Cameron Diaz and (at one point) Lindsay Lohan. Weinstein brought her on as a consultant.

But it turned out none of that was really enough. For one, Zoe’s celebrity work and her show on Bravo meant that her attention was fractured. Second, her association with a slew of starlets heading to and from rehab (and a disastrous interview with The New York Times Magazine in which she declared herself to be more influential than Anna Wintour) did little to help give her and the brand an upmarket reputation. Meanwhile, the global recession took hold, squeezing out scores of less established brands as retailers cut orders left and right.

Poor reviews for Halston’s then-designer, Marco Zanini, didn’t make things any easier. (He was replaced in 2009 by Marios Schwab, whose early collections have drawn OK but not rapturous reviews. Zoe’s consulting stint was short lived as well, too.)

The addition of Sarah Jessica Parker in January 2010 provided a publicity boost, but it came at a point when the fashion business was doing a reappraisal of the celebrity-as-fashion-designer. Justin Timberlake’s clothing line William Rast had largely failed to turn into a bonanza. Beyoncé’s House of Darion was underperforming as well. A line by Jennifer Lopez had shuttered.

Faced with limited financing, and what several sources said was poor company management, the venture failed to pick up steam, with Parker quietly cutting her losses along with Weinstein, whose official break with the brand is reportedly imminent.

Still, some say it’s still too soon to write the obituary on the brand. Says Kevan Hall, one of the many designers tapped over the years to try to reinvigorate Halston: “You’ve got this incredible iconic brand that fashion people remember—the brand DNA is strong. It’s just a question of whose hands it's in, who’s the design director, and who’s in place managing the brand.”