The rise and fall of Halston, the man who redefined American fashion
There is a scene in “Halston,” a new documentary about the enigmatic fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick, in which his former assistant Tom Fallon recounts a story that still shocks — even half a century on.
Halston, who made hats for New York’s high society in the early 1960s before becoming a household name, was invited to a grand meal at a client’s house in Long Island. As they sat down to eat, two men remained standing, refusing to be seated unless Halston and another diner — whom they attacked with homophobic insults — were removed.
“Tom,” Fallon recalls Halston saying to him, “I just need you to understand that you and I could not hope to be anything more than trained fa**ot poodles to jump through the hoops of these rich people.”
But Halston would prove his own pessimism wrong in almost every way. Over the next two decades, he rose to become perhaps the single most influential figure in the history of American fashion.
The documentary tells the story of how Halston redefined the role of the American fashion star. Irresistible to the media and defined by trademark designs, he mixed high fashion with low, as well as producing a perfume range, diffusion line and licensed brand extensions bearing his name.
At the dawn of the 1960s, old rules were already being broken — and Halston would do as much as anyone in fashion to usher in the radical changes that followed. By the 1970s, he had created a style that spoke to the freedom and youthful energy of the disco generation, becoming the decade’s “quintessential designer,” says Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York.
But “Halston” also shows how, in his megalomaniacal desire to “dress all of America,” the designer came undone at the hands of the fashion and business powers he couldn’t bend to his will — and at the hands of his own vices (Halston reportedly spent thousands of dollars a week on cocaine at the height of his power).
Mears tells CNN that America’s first superstar fashion designer — one who brought an unprecedented diversity of racial backgrounds and body shapes to the runway — offered a “cautionary tale.”
“He was the great shooting star of fashion in the 1970s and early 1980s, but he burned out very quickly too,” says Mears, who curated the designer’s work in the 2015 Museum at FIT exhibition, “Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the ’70s.”
“The things that we see today — designers becoming part of large conglomerates or growing their companies so that they’re worth billions of dollars — (were) probably made easier because of Halston’s pioneering efforts. He was the first to really build a business in the United States to that level, and he was the first to really crash and burn.”