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Fifth Time’s a Charm? Halston Taps Bayou

NEW YORK — For the fifth time in five years, Halston has named a new designer to help revive the iconic American label, but according to executives behind the brand, the latest name to take on its weighty mantle has something that his...

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NEW YORK — For the fifth time in five years, Halston has named a new designer to help revive the iconic American label, but according to executives behind the brand, the latest name to take on its weighty mantle has something that his predecessors have lacked: a personality big enough to match the legacy.

Bradley Bayou, a 46-year-old strapping designer from Los Angeles, signed an agreement with Halston LLC on Wednesday to become its new creative director and will introduce his first collection for Halston for fall 2003.

A Texas native who gave up a career in real estate development (he renovated houses there) and moved to California to become a painter in the Eighties, Bayou first got into the fashion business by creating handpainted vests that were a big hit at stores like Neiman Marcus, Fred Segal and Barneys New York in 1989. In the past decade, he has designed signature custom and ready-to-wear collections both in New York and Los Angeles, and developed a strong red-carpet reputation by designing dresses for stars including Halle Berry, Kate Hudson and, most recently, Oprah Winfrey, who wore one of his designs to the Emmy Awards.

But he is probably better known to American audiences as the oversized host of Lifetime’s how-to show “Operation Style,” or for his frequent appearances on daytime TV programs like “Regis & Kelly” and “The View,” where he engages in bickering banter with the shows’ hosts, once catching the set on fire while demonstrating how to make candles. With a telegenic philosophy devoted to making ordinary people look and live their best at a reasonable price, bottled in a 6-foot, 3-inch buffed body, Bayou is part Hal Rubenstein, part Bob Vila.

“I’m just a really low-key, down-to-earth person,” Bayou said. “I like people and I want to help people look better. I don’t want to be around negative people. I call them energy vampires — it could be what they say or how they act. Life is too short to be negative.”

Considering more than two-dozen designers have approached Halston executives in the past year about taking the reins of the fabled collection, Bayou’s choice as creative director reflects the company’s ambition to rebuild its connections to Hollywood and entertainment events as a means to help restore its credibility as a designer resource. Since the brand was relaunched in 1997, Halston has hit several notable peaks under the successive tenures of Randolph Duke, Kevan Hall and Craig Natiello, and recent collections designed quietly by Piyawat Pattanapuckdee, a former assistant. But the designers’ dramatic departures, erratic behavior and scandalous reports of staff abuse, alcohol problems and even a botched penile enhancement have also threatened to lend an air of disrespectability to Halston, which the company is working to prevent.

James J. Ammeen, chief executive officer of Halston LLC, has initiated several steps in the past two years to rebuild the brand’s reputation. Among them, the firm has eliminated more than 10 licenses that were signed during the initial relaunch and that focused on the moderate and better sportswear categories. Now, the company’s focus is on the Halston Signature collection and a handful of key licensees, such as eyewear, lingerie and its international program.

“There’s been an assumption that we were out looking for a new designer for a long time, but that wasn’t the case,” Ammeen said. “We’ve been listening. A lot of designers and creative people have come to us, but we’ve been very careful and selective because we did not want to get into something that we did not feel was the right situation.”

Ammeen and Bayou were introduced through the consulting firm AntsnPants, based in Philadelphia and Chicago, and one of its founders, Fred Siegal.

Going forward, Ammeen anticipates there will be new opportunities to extend the brand in such areas as home furnishings, which was once a major business for Halston, given Bayou’s experience with lifestyle decorating through his TV programs. In a typical episode of “Operation Style,” for example, the designer helps ordinary people complete a task like redecorating a room, plan a wedding or throw a dinner party on a tight budget.

As part of the Halston deal, Bayou will cease to produce his signature collection, but will focus the work of his Los Angeles studio on the design of the Halston by Bradley Bayou collection there. After showing rtw collections in New York, with 7th on Sixth runway shows and the related hoopla, Bayou had restructured his company and moved back to Los Angeles about five years ago. When James Galanos retired, he hired several of his seamstresses and pattern makers and also opened a store at the corner of Melrose and Robertson that has helped attract a celebrity clientele and has developed into a roughly $1 million business. One of the first stars he dressed was Geena Davis, whose stylist happened to stop by the store, Bayou said.

The Halston collection has continued to maintain a presence in stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom and has a volume of less than $10 million, but the distribution might become more selective in the initial seasons of Bayou’s design, since the company expects to move much of its production to Bayou’s existing West Coast operations. Those facilities will be expanded to handle additional orders.

“The idea is to make Halston exciting and young again,” Ammeen said. “We want to make it affordable again as well, but that is something that will also have to happen over time. Retailers want Halston and need Halston right now because it is a uniquely American brand. The timing is right for Halston to re-emerge.”

By focusing on the signature collection and working with a designer that already has an established media personality, Halston expects to shrug off some of the problems that plagued its earlier designers. Despite the interest of several other designers in working for Halston, Ammeen said he resisted hiring a new creative director for a period to avoid risking further pitfalls for the label.

“Bradley is different because he has successfully managed his own business,” Ammeen said. “He’s a designer who can really design, but he’s also got his feet on the ground. He has proven he has staying power and he has an unusual ability to project a personality to the brand. That was lacking in the past. You can have a designer who can make good clothes, but you still need to have a real personality.”

Bayou has plenty of that. Asked what inspired him to become a designer, he recalled watching an episode of MTV’s “House of Style,” where hostess Cindy Crawford made a remark that vests were going to be big.

“I thought, I can do better than that,” he said, and handpainted a vest from a vintage shop, which attracted several fans, including a buyer for Fred Segal. Within a month, he had orders from Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys, and then a buyer from Neiman Marcus offered him an order if he would create a women’s collection. After staging several runway shows, he also participated in a Department of Commerce program to promote fashion that required him to make TV appearances, and he quickly learned the power of the media spotlight.

“In a lot of ways, I address the needs of real people,” Bayou said. “You don’t have to be a millionaire or be a movie star to have style. What I do on television is translate style to a mass audience, and that’s what we’re going to do at Halston. I feel that everybody has a good quality about them, and what I do to help them is talk about how they feel comfortable. That can be through color, shape, style, material or anything.”

Bayou’s California mentality could be a helpful asset as he approaches the Halston collection, considering the successive designer departures have raised the stakes for anyone trying to make a meaningful comeback with the label. He plans to make that transition slowly, and pointed out that, for now, he has no intentions to stage a runway show in New York. Instead, he hopes to focus on building a direct relationship with consumers.

And the job is also appropriate, Bayou said, considering Halston has been his constant design idol, although he only saw the late designer once in person. It was at Studio 54 in 1978, where Halston and entourage sat on a couch, and Bayou stationed himself behind it to appear as if he were part of that group.

“Everything I do, there’s some Halston in it,” he said. “I’m not going to literally translate what he did. I might bring back some materials, like jersey and Ultrasuede, but what I really like about Halston was that he dressed an enormous variety of women’s body types. He had clients who were waif thin as well as very overweight, and he still made them look great.”

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