In honor of what would have been Halston’s 90th birthday, friends, family and fashion types celebrated the designer’s life and lasting influence on Sunday afternoon at the National Arts Club in Manhattan.
Organized by his niece Lesley Frowick, the “With Love, Halston ❤️“ event featured a dozen personal testimonials, a Halston-inspired student fashion show, a live auction, a birthday cake and a Champagne toast. Ralph Rucci, Naeem Khan, and Yeohlee Teng were a few of the designers on hand, and models Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Karen Bjornson and Debbie Dickinson paid tribute to Halston, who died in 1990. Born Roy Halston Frowick, he reached global acclaim with one name. Before the program got underway, a few attendees criticized Netflix’s portrayal of the designer in its series, which starred Ewan McGregor.
Another designer, Jeffrey Banks, acted as emcee. Photographers Chris Makos, Paul Solberg and Dustin Pittman stopped in, as did Harold Koda; James LaForce; Steven Stipelman; Ken Downing; David Yurman; Sybil Kleinrock; Lisa Silhanek; Frowick’s, sister Brook Frowick Drummond; Tony Spinelli; Steve Gold; Robert D’Loren; David Croland, and, fittingly, Studio 54 deejay Robbie Leslie and its keeper of the guest list Myra Scheer, since Tuesday marks the 45th anniversary of the opening of the famed nightclub, which is almost synonymous with Halston. While there were a good amount of remember-when moments, speakers also spun the clock forward to highlight how his design aesthetic can be seen today.
Fashion writer Marylou Luther noted how Halston was the first American designer to have a South Coast Plaza boutique, to diversify the runway with Black models and a plus-size model and to make comfort a fashion condition. Referring to the comfort aspect of his designs, “He once said, ‘The most important elements of fashion are comfort and sex,’” Luther said.
She also noted how he was the first American minimalist (“even minimizing his name”). As the first designer to sell to a mass merchant, J.C. Penney, Luther acknowledged, “While the results were disastrous, they testified to his fearlessness and far-sightedness.”
Other firsts included being the first American to show on the Great Wall of China with an entourage of models and celebrities that he called his corps de ballet. “Today we would call them influencers,” Luther said. “He was the first designer to travel twice yearly to Paris as a guest at the haute couture shows thanks to his [earlier] role as hat designer for Bergdorf Goodman.”
From Luther’s perspective, Halston “deserves credit for putting America on the map for international fashion. Before Halston, there was Paris, London, Rome, followed by Milan. After New York and the groundbreaking Halston-engineered Versailles show [in 1973 that the Americans dominated] gyrating to the music were some of the great models, who are here [today],” Luther said.
Koda noted how Halston “manifested an idea over the body” that involved being able to twist patterns “into a very simple silhouette that just caressed the body but exuded a sexual element.” What may have worked against that primary contribution as a designer was that Halston created an image of New York in the 1970s that was so sophisticated and so glamorous that that lifestyle has come to be what we think of him. “In fact, it’s both of those things because without that I don’t think that many of his simple dresses would have exuded the aura of privilege, wealth and sophistication as it did without the context of the lifestyle.”
Cleveland, one of the models who participated in the Versailles showdown between American and European designers, described the event in great detail. “It was kind of scary. Liza [Minnelli] didn’t want to go out on the stage. She said, ‘I can’t go out.’ I said, ‘There’s a rainbow — get out there,’” Cleveland said, singing and moving for effect. “We were walking down the Hall of Mirrors. Givenchy was there and the princess [Grace of Monaco]. All the girls were plucking the feathers off of the back of Josephine Baker’s dress. She didn’t know. She said, ‘Oh, you girls are so cute.’ And they were taking souvenirs.”
Recalling the party afterward, Cleveland said, “Karen [Bjornson] was like a Cinderella and Alva was just so sexy with that one feather coming over with a breast out. That got a lot of attention. All of us were just alive in Paris and the cherubs were dancing on the ceiling, and the candlelight, the royals and the jewels sparkling. Oh, la, la — we had a good time.”
Recalling a job interview with Halston, Rucci said how his teeth chattered as he walked toward the designer, despite the fact that it was July and he was sporting a black turtleneck (to be in line with Halston’s style). “He had those damn mirrored sunglasses on, which made me so intimidated,” Rucci said.
After reviewing his portfolio, Halston asked what the pattern for a particular dress looked like. Rucci cited the huge X-shaped sculpture by Ronald Bladen. “That’s how I got my job,” Rucci said. “…I think of Halston every day of my life, and Elsa [Peretti].”
Other speakers described the designer’s multidimensional thinking, including how he sometimes created origami-type paper designs of what he had envisioned. Fred Rottman, who managed Halston’s work room and wrote a book about the designer, recalled studying under Charles James prior to joining Halston. Rottman said, “Charles James used to say, ‘Halston copied this and that,’ which was totally not true. What Halston did was take some concepts of Charles James and relax them in such a brilliant way. This man understood that the world had changed and that women were not dressing for what’s-the-length-of-the-skirt-this-year, the look of the year or dressing for their husbands. Women had come into their own. They were out in the workplace and they wanted to dress in a different way. He just totally got it. When you look at today’s fashion, it’s an enormous evolution to his work.”
Khan described coming to America at the age of 18 and going with his father, who worked in the family business of embroidery, to meet Halston at Olympic Towers. Speaking on his father’s behalf, Khan said that the designer asked what his plans were and then suggested he change them to work for the designer instead of going to school. “My father said, ‘No, we have child labor in India, but I don’t believe that we have it in America,’” Khan said, adding that Halston later handed him a copy of Life magazine with the designer on the cover and said, “‘You will want to work for me.’”
After convincing his mother that the job prospect was a sound one, Khan said that he applied for a green card as a professional artist that was later canceled by Indian government officials based on his young age. When Khan called Halston to explain what happened, the designer responded, “‘How dare they.’ I don’t know who he called, but they came to deliver the card to my house,’” Khan said. “He was really like a father to me. He taught me how to live, how to entertain, conduct yourself with friends, family…he loved to laugh. He was a great man. I loved him and I am who I am because of him.”
Audrey Schilt also described how Halston opened up doors for her early in her career. He once introduced her to Salvador Dali as a great artist. “I didn’t know what to say,” she said over laughter, remembering a meek thank you. “And Jacqueline Kennedy; I sketched Jacqueline Kennedy. She was chewing gum and I had to draw her mouth. I was meeting all these big celebrities and Halston was bigger than life,” she said. “I was making so much money that I didn’t go to work for him because he wanted me to work five days a week. I only wanted to do three.”
Croland wrapped up the reminiscences by reading a letter that he had written about meeting Halston and cleverly impersonating the designer.
Afterward, students from the Fashion Institute of Technology staged a Halston-inspired runway show using sustainable Ultrasuede. The nonprofit With Love Halston had teamed with FIT to launch the Halston Challenge. Blake Dewitt won the top prize and Enoch Kim and Yuri Ikegaya finished second and third, respectively.
Tens of thousands of dollars were raised for the With Love Halston scholarship fund, according to Frowick.
In his remarks, Xcel Brands chairman and chief executive officer D’Loren said Sunday’s event was only the beginning, with others to come. A Halston Challenge is in the works at Marangoni Miami and Drexel University. The next installment sounded appropriate, based on advice Frowick had said that Halston had once given her: “‘If you ever feel overwhelmed, take on another project.’”