Halston, The Greatest Fashion Trailblazer you’ve never heard of

Today it’s no secret that designers have to be an all-round personal brand as opposed to just a clothing one. They have to present themselves in a way that exemplifies what their brands stands for. This can be viewed through the influencers of our generation, who cultivate a wide-reaching online presence and brand. The man who was largely responsible for today’s culture of self-branding was Halston. Halston set the benchmark for what it entailed being a true star designer. His creation of an entire lifestyle brand ensured his swift rise to the top. But his sudden departure from the public eye and early death meant that he became relatively unknown. Without Halston, the entire fashion industry would be a different place today. He was truly one of the original influencers.  

Roy Halston Frowick was born and raised in Iowa. His first notable position in fashion was as a resident milliner at Bergdorf Goodmans in New York City. Whilst in this position Halston created the pillbox hat that Jackie Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration. This was one of the items that became synonymous with her time as the First Lady and was widely adopted in popular fashion throughout the world. After leaving Bergdorf’s in the late 1960s, Halston started his own collection. This catered to an entirely different audience than the pillbox-hat-wearing crowd. Halston became closely associated with a group frequenting the legendary Studio 54 Nightclub, and was a notable creator of 70s glamour.  

His designs utilised the then-new materials of ultra-suede and polyester. Women had more freedom than they’d ever had in selecting clothing and Halston fully embraced this. His designs were seen on some of the most important cultural figures of the time, including Cher, Bianca Jagger, Liza Minelli and Elizabeth Taylor. Halston was also responsible for popularising Anjelica Huston, who became one of his fixture models; these models were coined the “Halstonettes,” by journalist André Leon Talley. Models during this period were simply mannequins, Halston ensured they were able to express their personalities. This made way for the supermodels of the 80s and 90s. Halston embraced people of colour, different body types, and was unashamed about his sexuality — all virtually unheard of in the fashion industry at the time. Halston wasn’t simply a clothing designer. He was a larger-than-life character who created an entire lifestyle range than influenced the cultural landscape of the US throughout the 1970s.  

The change in his brand from high-end exclusivity to mass market came in 1980 when Halston designed a collection for JCPenney, one of the most common shops throughout the United States at the time. A collaboration between a high-end designer and a mass-market retailer had never been carried out before Halston’s collection. Today they’re commonplace — think of Stella McCartney for Adidas or Dolce and Gabbana for Smeg kitchenware. Halston had big plans; he wanted to dress every individual in America. Eliminating the exclusivity of his clothing that came from the previously high prices was a backfire. The Halston label was kicked out of many high-end retailers, including Bergdorf’s where Halston had started his career. 

Halston’s rise to the top was prominent, but so too was his downfall. He is relatively unknown today; sadly, his legacy hasn’t continued the way it has for his contemporaries such as Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein. Halston’s tale is one of a less accepting age. As an openly gay man, he was widely ridiculed and rejected by the financiers responsible for the continuation of his brand. Halston’s brand was slowly taken over by his financiers and he was pushed out by the late 1980s. He was no longer the creative head behind his namesake brand. Although the Halston brand continues to exist it is no longer recognisable with the era of glamour it instated.   

Halston died in 1990 from complications related to HIV/AIDS at the age of 57. Although Halston himself is not widely known or recognised as one of the leading influences in fashion, the way in which creatives, models, and influencers present themselves is solely due to him. His artistic and economic motivation created a new pathway for designers. Halston’s openness and acceptance of different kinds of people is something the fashion industry still needs to catch up on. Although his story is relatively unknown, it is one that undoubtedly paved the way for many others.  

As Halston frequently stated, “life is like a picture”. The way you dress is the way in which you want the world to see you. Take risks, be bold, and find who you are.  

By Lily Mirfin