This is a digitized version of an article from Fairchild’s WWD print archive, before the publication had an online component. This article appears as it was originally printed in the paper, it has not been edited or updated.
NEW YORK — Halston, who began his career as a milliner and became one of the best-known fashion designers in America, died Monday night at the Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center in San Francisco. He was 57.
The hospital said the cause of death was an AIDS-related cancer, Kaposi’s Sarcoma, involving the lungs.
He is survived by two brothers, Robert and Donald Frowick, and a sister, Sue Watkins. The three held a press conference at the hospital Tuesday afternoon and said Halston had been in and out of the hospital since December, residing with his sister in Santa Rosa, Calif., between hospital stays. They said he died peacefully, in his sleep.
His brother said Halston had bought a $200,000 black Rolls-Royce Corniche, and during his last months, the designer enjoyed riding along the California coastline. The automobile will be auctioned off and the proceeds will be donated to an AIDS-related charity.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.
Halston defined much of the Seventies, earning a reputation for clothes that were as simple and all-American as sportswear, but that also possessed a sense of great sophistication.
His career — and his mystique — spanned more than 30 years, with a loyal following of clients including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Babe Paley, Liza Minnelli and Martha Graham.
Bill Blass said, “Halston was really the first American designer to make an original American statement, particularly in a time when fashion was so derivative of European designs. It sounds corny, but he was the quintessential American designer.”
Blass said that among Halston’s hallmarks were chiffon, which he brought back into prominence, and Ultrasuede, which he made a household word across America.
Halston described his approach as “editing the mood of what’s happening.” He also said on many occasions, “A designer is only as good as the people he dresses.”
In an interview less than a year ago, Halston saw his work as “an experiment.” He said, “It was revolutionary in its day. I made the change from very structured clothes to a more casual look, and fashionable women picked up on it.”
He continued, “Whether it was cashmere, jersey or chiffon, it was about a total look. Clothes should be practical, glamorous, functional and spare. But mine weren’t always simple,” he reflected. “Some of the simplest looks were actually the most complicated.”
Lynn Manulis, president of Martha, Inc., said, “He was truly a modernist. We haven’t been able to replace that quality and spirit. He had a sense of modern dressing and he homed in on this concept of pairing down to minimalist chic. Halston was spontaneous combustion, a man of enormous charm who understood the woman of the Seventies better than anyone else.”
“His clothes are totally timeless,” said Ellin Saltzman, senior vice president and fashion director at R.H. Macy & Co., on Tuesday. Saltzman met Halston in the mid-Sixties, when he was designing hats for Bergdorf’s and she was an editor at Glamour magazine. She became a friend and a customer. “I still wear the cashmeres I bought from him in the Seventies,” she said.
At times, his adventures on the New York night scene made as many headlines as his fashion. He was a regular at Studio 54 during the rise of the Disco Age, always accompanies by an entourage of celebrities and “Halstonettes” — his merry band of devoted mannequins. There was often talk in those days of his drug-taking, which he consistently denied in interviews. And his temper was a legendary as his generosity.
Halston often referred to his roots in the Midwest when he described the practicality of his designs, as well as his interest in dressing a wide spectrum of consumers. His apparel ran the gamut from pricey, made-to-order and ready-to-wear to more mainstream knitwear and accessories.
He was born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa on April 23, 1932, the second of four children. His love of fashion, particularly hats, dates from his childhood. He attended Indiana University and the Chicago Art Institute. In 1953, he opened his own millinery salon at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago.
It was there he began developing his list of famous clientele, with Fran Allison (of TV’s “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”) Kim Novak and Gloria Swanson among his earliest customers.
The designer made the move to New York in 1958, where he worked for a year as a milliner for Lilly Dache before joining Bergdorf Goodman’s millinery salon.
The years at Bergdorf’s provided Halston with a wealth of experience and increasing publicity. He made news in 1961 with the pillbox hat he designed for First Lady Jackie Kennedy to wear her husband’s inauguration.
In 1966, he launched his own made-to-order and rtw business, Halston, Ltd., on Madison Avenue, catering to a list of private clients. His line included hats, scarves, furs, leather apparel, shoes, belts, jewelry and wigs.
Four years later, he established Halston international with Henry Pollack, Inc., as a means of reaching a wider segment of the population with better-price knitwear and accessories.
Halston launched his own retail boutique in 1972 on Madison Avenue. A second boutique opened in Chicago four years later. Nineteen-seventy-two also saw the opening of Halston Originals, a complete rtw business run in association with Ben Shaw, and a rainwear and outerwear collection known as Halston III.
Through the years, the Halston name grew with licensing deals for furs, luggage, lingerie, linens and cosmetics. He was also a pioneer in the unisex concept, including fur coats, argyle sweaters and leather jackets as part of his collections before officially launching a men’s wear line in 1975.
Halston popularized Ultrasuede, using it in apparel as well as in luggage. His Ultrasuede shirtdress became the hot status symbol that every Halston fan had to have.
The Ultrasuede Halston dress “was the biggest discovery and a huge success,” said Andrew Goodman, chairman of the executive committee at Bergdorf Goodman. “I remember they sold for $185 and we sold hundreds of them. Everybody else had turned down Ultrasuede. Seventh Avenue believed in playing it safe, but Halston had the sense enough to know what a huge success it was. He was an unusual character.”
As a milliner at Bergorf’s, Halston had the reputation as a pleasant fellow with an extraordinary talent and a rare sense of showmanship. “Vogue would call us for a photo session they were doing and would need a certain kind of hat. He’d make it in 15 or 20 minutes,” Goodman said.
In 1973, Halston and Partners Shaw and Guido DeNatale, and Jerry Uchin sold the business to Norton Simon, Inc. Sources at the time estimated the price at $11 million to $12 million. The sale included the Halston business, with the designer and partners remaining as executives. The new company was called Halston Enterprises. To this day, Halston’s attorney, Malcolm Lewin, maintains the designer never sold the Halston trademark.
In 1978, after 2.5 years of negotiating and nine months of construction, Halston moved into his spectacular mirror-filled Olympic Towers headquarters, 21 floors above Fifth Avenue, further removing him from the more mundane world of SA.
By 1983, volume at Halston Enterprises was estimated at $150 million, including $40 million in cosmetics.
That same year, however, his Midas-like career headed on a downward spiral, when he signed for what at the time seemed a bonanza: a pact with J.C. Penney to produce a line of lower-priced apparel. While the deal was forecast to bring in sales of $1 billion over five years, better-price department and specialty stores began to cancel their business with Halston’s rtw and cosmetics lines, with Bergdorf Goodman leading the pack.
“It was the first major program we had with an international designer,” said William R. Howell, chairman and chief executive officer of J.C. Penney Co., which still carries some exclusive Halston items, mostly in accessories. “While it obviously didn’t become the ultimate program one hopes for, it certainly brought the attention of the world to J.C. Penney and told the story of how the company was changing.
“While he cherished his exclusive clientele, he did talk about his heritage in Iowa and said to me personally, ‘I always wanted to dress America.’ He was willing to do it, and most importantly, he was excited about it. According to our research, he had one of the highest recognizable names in the industry among middle- and upper-middle-income American women.”
Also in 1983, Norton Simon was purchased by Esmark, Inc., which was soon bought by the Beatrice Foods conglomerate.
A year later, Halston was back in the news, talking about the fight that was to dominate the rest of his life — the battle to buy back his made-to-order and rtw business from Halston Enterprises. In 1984, he was feeling most optimistic about his chances of regaining his firm, but after two years of difficult negotiations that included reports of the designer being locked out of the firm’s showroom, the company was sold to its present owner, Revlon, Inc.
Halston sporadically continued the negotiations with Revlon and remained optimistic about the chances of getting his company back, although he never succeeded.
On Tuesday, a Revlon spokesman said the Halston made-to-order business will continue, and licensees owned by Halston Enterprises will also continue, particularly the men’s and women’s fragrances.
During these later years, Halston kept busy by designing costumes for the benefit dance performances at the Martha Graham Dance School, which he had done for several years.
Halston designed his last collection in 1984, but the cleancut American look that was indelibly Halston continued to inspire SA. Indeed, many of the fall ’89 collections looked like an homage to the designer.
Oscar de la Renta, who considered Halston a close friend, said, “When I first came to America in 1965 and began working on Seventh Avenue, he used to do all my hats. He was the most influential designer of the Seventies and remains an inspiration to American designers today. He will be missed.”
“He was such a special American designer,” said Donna Karan. “He set so many trends and was one of the most influential designers of the 1960s and 1970s. He made an incredible contribution.”
Calvin Klen, through a spokesman, said, “I am saddened to learn of Halston’s passing away. I was always a great admirer of the way he dressed some of the most glamorous women of the world, and I think his contributions to style and clothes will long be remembered.”
From Italy, Valentino said he remembered Halston in the Sixties “when he was a young hat maker in Rome at one of my shows.” He said, “Then I met him again in the Seventies, and he was the talk of New York — Studio, Fire Island, Rolls Royce, total black or total white — a great designer and the greatest start in New York.”
Giorgio Armani said, “Although I did not know him personally, from his appearance and photographs, he looked elegant. He was the American designer who best understood simplicity and elegance for the American woman.”
In Paris, Karl Lagerfeld said, “Halston was an American designer who didn’t try to design European couture, but he also didn’t just do blue jeans. He was the first one of the new generation of designers to create a true American style, and the fact that he stopped working made room for people like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. He did some rather fabulous things, especially his minimalistic look. Normal Norell, for instance, was never known in Europe the way Halston was.”
Don Friese, who had been vice president and general manager of Halston Enterprises from 1975 to 1983, said, “I think our industry has lost one of the greatest talents it had. To me, he was such a perfectionist and probably had the greatest taste level of anyone in this industry or any industry.”
“He started something that was so pure. His clothes were a form of architecture and nobody’s been able to capture it. It’s a great loss.”
Michael Lichtenstein, executive vice president of Jan & David, who was managing director of Halston Enterprises from 1974 to 1983, said, “The thing that stands out is the work; the work remains.”
Martha Graham, who had a very close relationship with Halston, said through Ron Protas, associate artistic director for her dance company,” Halston was one of my closest and dearest friends. At a time when I was at my lowest ebb, he stood by me, and his support of my school and dance company, they would not exist today/
“His loss leaves me bereft.”
Liza Minnelli related through her press agent, “I am really, really saddened. I lost my best friend.”
Halston, who had moved from New York to California and was looking for a home in San Francisco, sold his New York townhouse in January. His Montauk, N.Y. home was sold in mid-1989.