The Curse of Halston

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.

Leonard McCombe, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Leonard McCombe, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Jackie's Milliner

Born in Iowa in 1932, Roy Halston Frowick learned to sew from his mother and got his start in the fashion business as a milliner. His first big break came when Jacqueline Kennedy wore one of his pillbox hats to her husband’s presidential inauguration in 1961. Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Babe Paley and Elizabeth Taylor would go on to wear his designs, but Halston himself struggled personally and professionally for much of his life.

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Emperor of Studio 54

If only Halston had been as good at running a business as he was at designing clothes and hanging out at nightclubs. His chic, minimalist, “Ultrasuede” dresses were a hit with the fashion set, and he became the “ Emperor of Studio 54,” falling in with Andy Warhol and getting into drugs. In 1972, Newsweek named him the “best designer in America.” But his business faltered in the year that followed, as he refused to hire assistants and often failed to meet deadlines. In 1973, he was forced to sell the rights to his own name to Norton Simon Industries.

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The End of Halston

Even as Halston’s style was defining a generation, his business was slipping away from him. He refused to allow his name on anything he didn’t design himself—a restriction that severely limited his line through the 1970s. In 1983, his bosses at Norton Simon Industries asked Halston to design a down-market line for J.C. Penney, and he obliged. But the decision had drastic consequences, leading Bergdorf Goodman to drop his line. His business relations deteriorated from there. The following year, his bosses locked him out of the office after a tantrum; in 1984, he was fired for good. He lived the rest of his short life in self-imposed exile and died in 1990 of complications from AIDS.

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Duke Takes Charge

After Halston, a quick succession of designers—five total in 13 years—have tried to restore the brand to its former glory. The first of these was Randolph Duke, who took over as head designer in 1997 after stints at Jantzen and Anne Cole and lasted just a year in the post. "I design the sort of modern clothing I think Halston would be making today, if he were alive,” he told an interviewer shortly after taking over. “And he wouldn't still be doing Ultrasuede. He'd be into microfibres.”

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Quick Succession

Next up was Kevan Hall, a designer from Detroit who told Ebony magazine that when he first came East, “I wasn’t part of the fabric of the New York fashion world.” In this and every other way, Hall bore little resemblance to the original Halston. He was a family man, spending his free time with his children, instead of swinging from the chandeliers with Bianca Jagger. He lasted two years. His successor, Craig Natiello, lasted another two years, and then the brand fell into dormancy.

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Weinstein Comes In

In 2008, media mogul Harvey Weinstein teamed with Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon to revive Halston, purchasing the company for $22 million, with a significant investment from private equity firm Hilco Consumer Capital. Weinstein lured hotshot 35-year-old designer Marco Zanini away from Versace and brought on celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe as an adviser. “I like his effect of stripping down and stripping down a garment of anything that isn’t necessary without it becoming boring,” Mr. Zanini said of the original designer, shortly after joining Halston. He was fired after a year on the job.

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Halston Today

The latest brave souls to try to measure up are British design darling Marios Schwab, who joined the Halston label as creative director in 2009, and the actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who became the face of Halston last fall and joined Halston Heritage as its designer in January of this year. "It's a dream--to bring your creative force to a different brand. I love Halston,” Schwab told Vogue. We share a very similar frame of simplicity and elegance as well as the technical approach. I've been an admirer for a long time."

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Dresses in the Halston Spring 2011 presentation were arranged around the room by color; red dresses on one side, white on the other. We spent a few moments circumambulating the designs before we realized the models themselves were separated by color too: Asian-American models were in one corner in ivory; African-American models in another corner in black. We promptly found Marios Schwab to ask about what he intended by this segregation: “They all look like arrangements of flowers,” Schwab said, citing the “wild orchid flower” as the inspiration for his collection. “You have the white section, the black section, the coral section. I love the way it looks with the different skin tones.”