THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN FASHION ICON – HALSTON

With the recently released NETFLIX series, HALSTON – the KHACHILIFE editorial team thought it would be good to shed some insight into his illustrious past and tumultuous career. 

Here is his story. 

Roy Halston Frowick was born on April 23, 1932, in Des Moines, Iowa, the second son of Norwegian-American accountant James Edward Frowick and his stay-at-home wife Hallie Mae (née Holmes). Halston developed an early interest in sewing from his grandmother and he began creating hats and altering clothes for his mother and sister. He grew up in Des Moines, and moved to Evansville, Indiana, at the age of 14. He graduated from Benjamin Bosse High School in 1950. And then briefly attended Indiana University before enrolling at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1952, Halston moved to Chicago, where he enrolled in a night course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and he worked as a window dresser. In 1953, he opened his own hat business. His first customer was radio actress and comedian Fran Allison. Halston’s hats were also bought by Kim Novak, Gloria Swanson, Deborah Kerr, and Hedda Hopper.

Halston’s first big break came when the Chicago Daily News ran a brief story on his hats. In 1957, he opened his first shop, the Boulevard Salon, on North Michigan Avenue. It was at this point that he began to use his middle name to trade under. During his childhood, he had been referred to as Halston to distinguish between himself and his uncle Roy. Halston moved to New York City in late 1957, first working for milliner Lilly Daché. Within a year, he had been named the co-designer at Daché, became acquainted with several fashion editors and publishers, and left Daché’s studio to become head milliner for department store Bergdorf Goodman in their customer milliner salon.

Halston achieved great fame after designing the pillbox hat worn by Jacqueline Kennedy to her husband’s presidential inauguration in 1961, and when he moved to designing women’s wear, Newsweek dubbed him “the premier fashion designer of all America”. When hats fell out of fashion, Halston moved on to designing clothing, made possible by Estelle Marsh, a millionaire from Amarillo, Texas. Mrs. Marsh was his sole financial backer during this critical time of development. He opened his first boutique on Madison Avenue in 1968. The collection that year included a dark jade velvet wedding gown for advertising executive Mary Wells Lawrence. Lawrence was married to the CEO of Braniff International Airways, Harding Lawrence. She would be instrumental in bringing Halston to Braniff in 1976 to design Braniff’s hostess, pilot, ticket agent, and ground personnel uniforms. He was asked by the U.S. Olympic Committee to design the Pan American Games and U.S. Olympic Team’s uniforms in 1976. He also designed the uniforms for the Girl Scouts, the New York Police Department, and the Avis Rent a Car System.

Halston launched his first ready-to-wear line, Halston Limited, in 1969. Halston’s design was usually simple, minimalist yet sophisticated, glamorous and comfortable at the same time. Halston liked to use soft, luxurious fabric like silk and chiffon. He later told Vogue that he got rid of “…all of the extra details that didn’t work—bows that didn’t tie, buttons that didn’t button, zippers that didn’t zip, wrap dresses that didn’t wrap. I’ve always hated things that don’t work.”

Halston changed the fitted silhouette and showed the female body shape by allowing the natural flow of the fabric to create its own shape. Halston said “Pants give women the freedom to move around they’ve never had before. They don’t have to worry about getting into low furniture or low sportscars. Pants will be with us for many years to come—probably forever if you can make that statement in fashion.”

Halston’s boutique drew celebrity clients like Greta Garbo, Babe Paley, Anjelica Huston, Gene Tierney, Lauren Bacall, Margaux Hemingway, Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli (both Jagger and Minnelli would become very close friends). From 1968 to 1973, his line earned an estimated $30 million. In 1973, Halston sold his line to Norton Simon, Inc. for $16 million but remained its principal designer. This afforded him creative control with near unlimited financial backing. In 1975, Max Factor released Halston’s first namesake fragrance for women. By 1977, sales from the perfume had generated $85 million. Throughout the 1970s, Halston had expanded his line to include menswear, luggage, handbags, lingerie and bedding. Vogue later noted that Halston was responsible for popularizing caftans, which he made for Jacqueline Kennedy; matte jersey halter top dresses; and polyurethane in American fashion.

As Halston’s popularity and fame grew, those he worked with also became well known. His favored models included Pat Cleveland, Anjelica Huston, Heidi Goldberg, Karen Bjornson, Beverly Johnson, Nancy North, Chris Royer, Alva Chinn, Connie Cook, and Pat Ast. This entourage of models were eventually dubbed “The Halstonettes” by fashion journalist André Leon Talley. The Halstonettes appeared together in editorials and ads for Halston clothing and cosmetics and appeared at many Halston-related events. The troupe often travelled with Halston, attended his galas, acted as his muses, and reflected ethnic diversity. 

Halston was one of the first major designers to hire models of different races to walk in his shows and appear in his ads.

In 1983, Halston signed a six-year licensing deal worth a reported $1 billion with retail chain JCPenney. The line, called Halston III, consisted of affordable clothing, accessories, cosmetics and perfumes ranging from $24 to $200. At the time, the move was considered controversial, as no other high-end designer had ever licensed their designs to a mid-priced chain retail store. While Halston was excited about the deal and felt that it would only expand his brand, the deal damaged his image with high-end fashion retailers who felt that his name had been “cheapened”. Bergdorf Goodman at the time dropped his Halston Limited line from their store shortly after plans for Halston III were announced.

In 1983, Halston Limited, which was owned by Norton Simon, Inc., was acquired by Esmark Inc. After the acquisition, Halston began to lose control over his namesake company and grew frustrated. As the label changed hands (it would be owned by Playtex International, Beatrice Foods and four other companies), Halston continued to lose control and, by 1984, was banned from creating designs for Halston Enterprises. He attempted to buy back his company through protracted negotiations. Halston Enterprises was eventually acquired by Revlon in 1986. Halston was paid a salary by Revlon but had stopped designing clothing for the company. He continued designing for family and friends, most notably Liza Minnelli and Martha Graham. After his contract with Revlon expired, he was in talks to sign a new contract with the company but stopped negotiations after he learned that Revlon planned to continue the line without his input. The line continued on with various designers until 1990, when Revlon discontinued the clothing portion of the line but continued selling Halston perfumes.

In his personal life, Halston’s on-again off-again lover was Venezuelan-born artist Victor Hugo. The two met while Hugo was working as a makeup artist in 1972. The two began a relationship and Hugo lived on and off in Halston’s home. Halston soon hired Hugo to work as his window dresser. Their on-and-off relationship lasted a little over ten years.

In 1988, Halston tested positive for HIV. After his health began to fail, he moved to San Francisco, where he was cared for by his family. On March 26, 1990, he died of Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-defining illness, at the Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center in San Francisco. 

Kate Shelton
Kate has led a diverse career in both the arts and business management. From dancing with the prestigious National Ballet of Canada to earning a Bachelor of Arts degree at Ryerson to then taking on the entrepreneurial role of running a small business, Kate’s wide range of experience has allowed her to develop a keen eye for art and design. As an avid Crossfitter, Kate has a true appreciation for leading an active, healthy lifestyle. She currently lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband and their wonderful son.