It was September 1978 at Studio 54. Roy Halston Frowick joined Yves Saint Laurent to celebrate the launch of YSL’s “Opium” perfume in the United States.
Surrounded by partygoers, Saint Laurent, in a dapper classic tuxedo, sat next to a tan-skinned Halston, who had casually accessorized a black cashmere turtleneck with a plain white scarf.
They each embodied the aesthetic they are so famously known for: Halston, simple and elegant, and Saint Laurent for his iconic translations of a man’s tuxedo. Yet it’s one of the few moments the two designers were ever captured together on film.
It’s a surprising realization considering the two are the most legendary designers from the 1970s. Halston dominated the American couture market; Saint Laurent stood atop his Parisian empire.
And while there may only be a few instances when the pair crossed paths publically, a new exhibition at the Museum at FIT is comparing their designs and the ways in which they similarly fashioned a time of major cultural change.
Yves Saint Laurent Halston: Fashioning the 70s, focuses on menswear, exoticism, and historical influences as inspirations, bringing together more than 80 ensembles and 20 accessories once worn by celebrity clients and designer muses such as Lauren Bacall, Marina Schiano, Aimée de Heeren, Mary Russell, and Tina Chow.
Various poised mannequins stand in clusters as though they are admiring the other’s outfits, or gossiping about the latest scandals in their lives.
Splashes of color pop from renaissance and Asian inspired dresses stand in contrast to the sharp edges of a women’s tuxedo, all designed by Yves Saint Laurent. Groups of monochromatic and playfully feminine looks designed by Halston balance the theatrical flare.
“We knew that we were going to have clean minimalism and more literal translations of menswear and exoticism from Halston,” Patricia Mears, the museum’s deputy director, told The Daily Beast. “But we didn’t know that [Halston and Saint Laurent] were going to be doing certain garments with a very similar eye to things.”
For instance, few printed pieces ever came from the House of Halston. Out of the hundreds of frocks in the museum’s archives (FIT has the most compressive Halston collection), less than a dozen exist. And almost all of them fall in line with the exuberant works of Yves Saint Laurent.
A dark blue Halston dress bares striking resemblance to an earlier dated purple Saint Laurent. Both are decorated in wispy floral designs, but the Halston is subtly more simplistic as was typical with the designer’s personal aesthetic.
In another instance, both designed pajama sets with pops of bright colors and floral patterns distinctive to the vibrant fashions of the 1970s. Again, almost identical prints are used in pink spring dresses only a few seasons apart.
“A lot of people wanted to copy [European designs] for an American market,” Mears said. “But you can see how [Halston and Saint Laurent] approached things very differently.”
Two nude-colored capes, for instance, take opposing approaches to a very basic element. Halston’s minimalist design can easily transition from day-to-night. Saint Laurent’s is “truly a more fantasy oriented approach to the same idea,” says Mears. The monochromatic look is theatrical, resembling a medieval costume with its black hood and decorative tassels.
The same goes with collections inspired by exotic places. “They are immediately more decorative in that interpretation,” exhibition curator Emma McClendon said of Saint Laurent’s designs from his “China” and “Russia” collections. “They are very recognizable to a western audience through pattern, textiles, and accessories.”
Halston’s designs reflect Eastern shapes and styling, but are neutral in color and were crafted with very clean lines.
It’s surprising because “neither designers really went to these places,” according to Mears. Saint Laurent was born in North Africa, but never visited China or Russia, two places which were focal points for multiple collections.
Halston only visited China once, under the invitation of the government to show his collection. But, he wasn’t there to do research, Mears explained, “he was going there to present his clothes so the government could figure out how to start its own clothing industry.”
After all, the two designers emerged at a time when fashion houses were becoming conglomerates, licensing out their names for a slew of other products like bed linens and carpeting. “Halston and Yves Saint Laurent were really the two designers that defined that structure,” McClendon stated. Today, it’s helped turn the fashion business into a billion dollar industry.
But their houses had become more than just haute couture for the über elite—the introduction of ready-to-wear completely transformed the marketplace.
During the 1960s, women in France had three choices when it came to fashion: make your own, visit a local dressmaker, or purchase couture. “It wasn’t until Saint Laurent, who made ready-to-wear shopping chic and covetable that we see this shift,” Mears explains. The United States already had a huge industry for it, being “decades ahead of everyone else.”
It was “a place Saint Laurent could experiment,” McClendon explained. “He could work with more unconventional dressing—exoticism and menswear—and he could work with these influences that weren’t quite couture and really develop the looks before he moved them into couture.”
A particularly humorous experiment for Halston led to one of his more ironic pieces—the ultra-suede trench coat.
As legend has it, Halston was attending a dinner party in Paris where Japanese designer Issey Miyake was also in attendance.
Miyake had designed a look out of the ultra-suede fabric, which Halston understood to be water resistant, a miscommunication. The fabric is actually the opposite—Miyake meant machine-washable. The ironic trench coat that he originally created was then developed into an ultra-suede shirtdress, another iteration of menswear, and instantly sold by the thousands.
“We forget about the construction and innovation of Halston,” Mears expressed, “but the quality of what he came up with really makes him a complete stand out as one of the greatest designers in modern fashion history,” along with Saint Laurent.
Still, one thing is apparent when viewing the many looks on display: many of the garments were designed years apart from each other—Saint Laurent was most likely ahead of Halston in creating the majority of styles.
But, when bringing the two together in context of how they were navigating the trends and fashion business of Europe and American respectively, the exhibition successfully defines the impressions they made through their designs.
And a lasting impression it has been. Decades later the fashion industry (and those who watch it) keep looking back to these two designers.
“Everything is an ode to Saint Laurent, the colors of the 70s, or referencing Halston,” Mears said of recent industry literature and reviews. “So there must have been something in that cultural environment linking these two designers.” Mears and McLendon may have just discovered what.