Dissertation research for my topic, Diane Von Furstenberg, has taken me on a colorful journey of the American fashion industry of the 1970s. With many thanks to Rebecca for lending me several books on the period, I’ve been lucky enough to encounter the gregarious and charming Roy Halston Frowick (April 23, 1932 – March 26, 1990). Halston (pronounced Hal-stone), as he became widely known when he rose to international fame in the 70s, is recognized as the creator of luxury American fashion, whose groundbreaking designs have influenced the aesthetic of the modern “American Look.” First known for his innovation in millinery (his hats graced the covers of Vogue), Halston used his signature materials of jersey, cashmere and suede to reinvent the jumpsuit, shirtdress and caftan.
Although Halston is constantly associated with the Studio 54 crowd and glamorous women of the era, it is his business ventures as a leading designer of made-to-measure who tried to break into the ready-to-wear clothing market that fascinate me. His career provides one of the first case studies of a designer who tried to design for the couture consumer and mass-market simultaneously.
Halston was born in the mid-west (De Moines, Iowa) to a humble family. After a somewhat difficult childhood, and a brief flirtation with higher education (he only completed one semester at Indiana University), he moved to Chicago in 1952 where he opened a small business in the preeminent Ambassador hotel as a milliner. Not long afterwards, in 1957 Halston moved to New York City where he worked his way up to become head milliner at Bergdorf Goodman. This opportunity provided an introduction him to society’s most well known and powerful, including none other than Jackie Kennedy, for whom Halston famously designed the pillbox hat.
After he left Bergdorf’s in 1968 to start his own business, he continued with millinery, reluctant to transition into ready-to-wear immediately. Interestingly, at this moment Halston began to explore with the idea of selling to both the up and down markets. He designed two separate lines: Halston USA, a lower-priced mass-market line, and Halston Ltd a higher-priced collection to be made in his custom workroom and sold at the high end department stores of the day, Neiman-Marcus and Bonwit Teller. When Halston USA sold over $200,000 in 1968 dollars wholesale in its first six weeks alone, Halston said, “And when you consider that the millinery market is dying on the vine, [it] said something to me.”
In September of ‘68 Halston announced the formation of his own ready-to-wear business with dresses priced at about $150, coats and suits, $200; officially cementing his transition from milliner to dress-maker (not unlike Chanel). His plan was to keep the line exclusive by restricting sales to one store in each major city, but keep it current in by sending new merchandise every six to eight weeks, which was perhaps an overly ambitious plan. Halston used the mass-market model to sustain his custom order business throughout the 70s– his ultimate aspiration was to become America’s couturier and open his own “house”. However, sadly, the tensions of balancing his brand’s exclusivity and profits ultimately overwhelmed the business itself.
In 1983, Halston signed a six-year licensing deal, worth a reported $1 billion, with J. C. Penney. The line, called Halston III, consisted of affordable clothing, accessories, cosmetics and perfumes ranging from $24 to $200. However, the move was extraordinarily controversial at the time, as no other high end designer had ever licensed their designs to a mid-priced chain retail store, and Bergdorf Goodman wasted no time dropping Halston Limited shortly after plans for Halston III were announced.
While Halston felt that the deal would only expand his brand, it in fact had damaged his image with retailers who felt that his name had been “cheapened”. As modern retailers such as Michael Kors struggle with the exact same issue, it is fascinating to see how, in fashion especially, history always seems destined to repeat itself.