Halston, Designer

Since he died in 1990, Halston’s name has had five different owners and at least six different designers. This fall, under its new owners (the Weinstein Company and Hilco Consumer Capital) and a new designer (Marco Zanini), the name responsible for minimalist luxury is getting perhaps its best shot yet at a real revival. Why is one name worth it? Harold Koda, the curator-in-chief of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, explains Halston’s underestimated brilliance.

LOOK: The common perception of Halston is that he spent the seventies and eighties on a banquette with his arms around Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger, made jersey dresses, took drugs, lost control of his business, and died far too young. But as a designer, why is he important? What would we not have today in our wardrobe if not for Halston?
HAROLD KODA: Minimalist luxury.

Define that.
Designs that are apparently simple but exceptionally refined in the consideration of details and material.

Is there one piece of his that exemplifies that?
It’s going to seem contradictory to say the Ultrasuede wrap coat, because Ultrasuede doesn’t appear to be a luxurious textile, but at the time it was novel. The luxury was that you could treat it any way you wanted. It was completely resistant to any kind of abuse. To me, luxury is not having to worry about how you looked, and you always looked kempt with that particular material and the cut of this coat. It has a kind of dash, depending on how you individualized it—whether you unbuttoned the cuff, put up the collar, tied the waist tie. And yet it was a simple trench coat. You could have a very active life and always look pristine.

So it’s the precursor to Prada.
And Jil Sander. Or you could pick any one of his cashmere evening dresses, which were knock-your-socks-off glamour in that they were body-hugging, made from a luxurious fiber, and would have a sportswear detail like a swimsuit back. And they would be paired with a tunic-length cardigan, all in the same heavyweight cashmere.

His friends and his world were rock and roll and entertainers, but very glamorous. Was he responding to what he saw as a need for a different kind of dressing, or were his designs about an ideal woman?
There was a time when designers weren’t participants in society, and he was the last generation that experienced the transition of the designer from glorified help to social amenity, a trophy placement at the table. Because he began as a milliner at Bergdorf’s hat salon, he got to know that life intimately. He witnessed through his clients the needs of that rarefied lifestyle. So by the time he became a clothing designer, it was intrinsic to him: what women like, what’s flattering to them, what kind of necklines. Those are issues that just became applied to the whole body.

His approach, because he was very much a modernist, was to take the simplest tack to the resolution of a problem. And so he had these templates of styles that prioritized comfort and ease and which were the background to the dazzling persona of the women he was dressing. That then became completely appropriate to everyone else. You didn’t have to be Martha Graham or Liza Minnelli or Lee Radziwill to feel equally beautified by a very functional approach to fashion.

So here’s a man thinking very seriously about design, and yet he’s at Studio 54 snorting coke. Isn’t that a paradox?
Hello, Eliot Spitzer? So, no. I think that somebody who works hard can also party hard. Also, it’s very difficult to sell simplicity. There’s no perceived value. It doesn’t have a lot of buttons or lots of seams. So how do you create value in something that is apparently undetailed?

He did it by putting it in the social context of his life. He gathered not only old-money and new-money society but also Broadway and Hollywood, which gave context to the clothes. Otherwise the public might have said, “Well, the sleeve is just a sleeve, the trench coat is just a shirtwaist dress.” [The window dresser] Victor Hugo, who was doing Halston’s windows, told me that Andy Warhol said to him, “The theme of Halston’s window should be the headlines and Broadway.” Meaning, that it should be responsive to contemporary life but have the glamour of theater.

And he’s perceived by and large …
As a party animal. But I think that was part of his strategy. He was a brilliant marketer.

I don’t think it was that unconscious. Look, he’s hanging out with Andy Warhol, the ultimate conceptualizer about business strategy. He knew. On some level, someone’s talking about approaches. When Halston moved into Olympic Tower and decorated it with spare gray minimalism and only phalaenopsis orchids and everybody wearing black, and the regimentation, all of that is very orchestrated. He was the first to have a posse that was an army—the Halstonettes—as opposed to a ragtag group of very attractive people.

The early designs are so straight; the lines are very lean. But as he gets later into his career—and his career wasn’t that long—it starts to go to hell …
It started to go to hell in the mid-eighties. In 1984, when Christian Lacroix appeared, and Women’s Wear Daily begins to endorse “nouvelle society” and all of the lush historicist styles—big sleeves, lavish materials, pattern, color—Halston is in a quandary, because that is completely antithetical to who he is as a designer. He is intrinsically a modernist.

So he does this whole series of petal dresses, and they’re like his other clothing. Well, this is the reason he is so underrated in the history of fashion. On the one hand, he’s given a great historical role for being a quintessentially American designer, with a sportswear-driven method to his designs. But what people don’t really see is that behind that was a really fascinating approach to construction. His resolutions to many of these simple dresses that look like nothing are, when you deconstruct them, not comparable to anything anyone else was doing. I don’t believe anybody else did what he did in terms of some of those dresses, ever before him.

Even Madeleine Vionnet?
No. Vionnet never did a single-seam spiral. She did it in a sleeve, but did she do it in a dress? No. Balenciaga did; he did a few, actually. But Halston did it with the minimalist aesthetic.

And in modern fabrics. Didn’t he work mostly with silk jersey?
He was known for charmeuse, too. You’d see a simple chemise, and if you undid it, it was the most original form. Because it looks just like anybody else’s chemise, except that the way the bias fell over the body was calculated so that it disclosed the things that were attractive about a woman and masked the things she’d want masked. The petal dresses were so antithetical to his aesthetic of the finished garment—the simple T dresses, and caftans, and wrap dresses, and sarongs, the ease of those—that it didn’t seem to fit into his approach as a designer. I don’t think he was really comfortable with it.

He purveyed a very American aesthetic. But he isn’t considered the genius that he should be, because that genius is masked by the final manifestation. It looks like anybody else’s clothes.

Halston, Designer