After a Fashion

Remembering Halston on the 10th anniversary of his death.

HALSTON REVISITED If you're under 40 (and a distressing number of people are), you may only know the name Halston from the perfume counter or from the HalstonAndyLizaBiancaStudio54 phenomenon. But we all know all about that. As a designer, Halston changed the face of American fashion. Perhaps he has been so tragically overlooked because he came to glory in the Seventies -- a decade considered to be a low point of fashion history. But Halston was not the perpetrator of the Seventies fashion crimes. Mass-market variations on his designs are to blame. Halston's work was pure and simple, to the point that many in the fashion business did not even deign to call him a designer. They called him a "stylist," a word reserved for those whose work is not quite original.

They were wrong. He came of age in the Fifties -- a time when adornment of the female was at its zenith. He had a passion for creating little hats, and the hats caught the attention of the chic ladies in Chicago. Achieving a modicum of fame and respect, he was offered a job in New York by the legendary milliner Lily Dache, and it wasn't long before Halston became Mr. Halston, head milliner at Bergdorf-Goodman, replacing Adolfo, who went on to his own couture career. Then, as now, Bergdorf was one of sacred temples of fashion, and Halston dressed the heads of the most stylish women in the world: Babe Paley, Jackie Kennedy, and the Duchess of Windsor. Magazine covers had Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, and Elizabeth Taylor in his hats. The hats inevitably led to clothes.

Halston left Bergdorf in 1968 and opened a glamorous and exotic showroom in a building on East 68th & Madison Avenue, which became his couture headquarters. He was legendary for closing down the showroom at lunch and locking the doors while he and his privileged guests enjoyed good food, wine, and marijuana. While the couture business was extremely profitable, he would only be able to achieve a certain amount of success, making one dress at a time for one client at a time. In 1972, with the financing offered by a wealthy client, he opened the first freestanding Halston boutique on the ground floor of the building he worked in. The boutique immediately became a destination for the ladies who lunch, and his sense of simplicity and contrast became a hallmark of the times in which he was designing. With a financial partner, he also opened Halston Originals, his ready-to-wear operation. In his first RTW collection, he showed a very basic little shirt dress that buttoned up the front and had a belt. It was in a miraculous new fabric called Ultrasuede, and he sold zillions of them. Though Halston did not invent the fabric, his name will be inextricably linked to it for all eternity. He also began the rage for caftans, but his were amazing confections of spiraling diaphanous fabrics sewn with a single seam. He moved into cashmere and matte jersey, developing styles with revolutionary flexibility. He sold Halston Originals to a huge corporation, beginning, in essence, the destruction of the Halston name.

Success, for Halston, like so many others, had its share of pitfalls, and the excesses of the Seventies and Eighties took their toll. The drug use was out of control, and the tales of his sexual escapades were mythical (don't ask about the Crisco handprints on the Ultrasuede walls of his bedroom ... ). As the mainstay of his income, Halston Originals was sold repeatedly to other corporations, with Halston losing more and more control along the way creatively and personally. Eventually he was fired from the company that he created and was never again able to design under his own name. It was a tragedy he would never recover from.

Halston died 10 years ago of AIDS, on March 26, 1990, at the age of 57. R.I.P.

IT'S SHOWTIME Yes, I regularly gripe about how I hate fashion shows in nightclubs, but the Club DeVille Spring Fashion Extravaganza 2000 is an obvious exception. With the club's outdoor arena providing a dramatic backdrop for this twice-yearly event, we will be treated to the newest looks from Blackmail, Blue Velvet, By George, Pink Moon, Shiki, Therapy, and Vintage Kat. The show will be held on Wednesday, April 26, 8pm. General admission tix are $10; doors open at 7pm. VIP tix are $20; doors open at 6pm. All proceeds benefit Caritas. Veteran show goers know that this is one of the most reliably inventive and entertaining shows in town, and always benefits a worthy charity. Be there or, yes, be Cher.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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