Halston: the Bergdorf Years

by Patricia Meyers

Patricia Meyers recollects Fashion's first superstar

12 16 2010

Halston crowns the great Carol Channing, 1964Halston crowned the great Carol Channing in 1964
Photo: © Betteman / Corbis

Halston was America’s first fashion super star—one name was enough—like Cher or Liberace. One letter was enough for Vreeland, who called him H. (Andy Warhol sometimes called him “the Big H.”) And he was big—the biggest designer America had yet produced. One of the most important designers in the history of twentieth-century fashion, he was a ground-breaking craftsman, a pioneering business man, a genius of promotion and a compellingly glamorous figure who dominated the era of the sexy seventies.

Known as a modernist, he fully advocated a ‘minimalist’ aesthetic, crafting a clean, pared-down silhouette devoid of superfluous trimmings and engineered judiciously with as few closures as possible. The best of his designs were cut from single pattern pieces in simple geometric forms, ranging from circles to rectangles to parallelograms, which were then draped and folded on the bias. Garments were rendered in the most luxurious fabrics (multi-plied cashmere, slinky silk charmeuse or tie-dyed silk chiffons) and executed by hand, so that each of his high fashion creations was the epitome of contemporary luxury. Importantly, Halston’s clothes were extremely comfortable and easy to wear and transport, making them ideal for a burgeoning group of stars, socialites and international travelers jealously referred to as the “jet set.”

Roy Halston Frowick, born on April 23, 1932 in Des Moines, Iowa, was a precocious talent who exhibited a keen interest in sewing as a young child. In 1952, Roy abandoned the University of Indiana and headed for Chicago where, a year later, he began working as a milliner for the celebrated hair stylist André Basil. But destiny called and “Fro,” as he was known then, moved to New York and by 1958 he was working for Lilly Daché, the grand dame of American millinery. Within a year Frowick, re-christened Halston, acquired the position of head milliner for Bergdorf Goodman.
Famed for its venerable in-house custom design salon dating back to the early twentieth century, Bergdorf Goodman boasted the most enviable clientele in the country and so Halston gained an instant clientele of the world’s most discriminating and glamorous women. Among these were stars like Sophia Loren and Carol Channing, as well as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, for whom he designed the famed “pillbox” hat worn at her husband’s presidential inauguration.

As a milliner, Halston started at the top—literally—designing for the head. Although it might seem ironic that a designer best known for his streamlined modernist attire began his career as a hat maker, this was not only a time-honored career path in couture but a savvy one. Since the birth of modern haute couture in the nineteenth century, the milliner sat at the apex of the creative fashion pyramid of the house. Modistes, as they are called in French, commanded both more respect and earned more money than their clothing design counterparts. Couturiers like Jeanne Lanvin, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and Charles James began their careers as milliners before making a transition into fashion design.

Halston knew that as a creator of that most conspicuous of fashion accessories, his name would always be mentioned in the fashion pages, and so created sensational headgear. Bergdorf Goodman gave him the latitude to craft such hats as an inverted, cracked egg, space age caps à la 2001: A Space Odyssey, and headbands and scarf-like chapeaux meant to balance on top of the period’s extravagant bouffant and beehive hairdos laced with enormous wigs and falls.

From the early to mid-sixties, Halston’s Bergdorf Goodman-sponsored millinery, both wacky and winsome, was continually on the covers and in the fashion pages of leading publications like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue and his tenure on 57th Street allowed him to hone his extraordinary talent for courting the press. Not only was he charming, but Halston catered personally to the needs and whims of leading fashion editors. Special last-minute requests from Polly Mellen and Diana Vreeland were greeted with enthusiasm and delivered punctually. He aimed to please fashion’s divas. Vreeland recalled: “He was probably the greatest hatmaker in the world. I’d say to him, ‘H., I had a dream about a hat last night,’ and I’d go about describing it, and then, by God, he’d give it to me line by line.”

Halston charmed them all, including the notoriously difficult head of Women’s Wear Daily, John Fairchild. It didn’t hurt that Halston was tall and handsome. The artist Andy Warhol said the milliner was “so handsome, he looked like a movie star.” In 1962 he won the coveted Coty Fashion Critics Award.

Both Halston’s eye and his fame benefited from the fact that Bergdorf Goodman always sent him to view the exclusive, bi-annual Paris haute couture shows. He absorbed every detail, every cut and seam in the creations of Chanel, Hubert de Givenchy, the young Yves Saint Laurent and his favorite, Cristobal Balenciaga. Such eager attention to details would serve him well as a fashion designer in the years to come.

In 1966, Halston’s biggest break came when Bergdorf Goodman agreed to back the now famous designer’s move into the world of ready-to-wear clothing. The company gave Halston a considerably larger atelier, several fitters and seamstresses, access to the Delman shoe salon to design a complementary line of footwear and a boutique of his own on the second floor of the store. Halston’s debut fashion show presented only an eighteen-piece, interchangeable wardrobe, but the presentation was so fresh and novel—there was music, and the models walked down the runway swinging and smiling with a modern ease—that it generated tremendous excitement. At that time, fashion shows were quiet, serious affairs, and there is little doubt that Halston’s fledgling effort transformed not only the way women dress, but also how fashion houses present their collections to this day.

Although he correctly predicted this seismic shift in fashion, Halston had to endure a bumpy road before his ascent to stardom was secure. Crucial moments are often fraught with tension, and mediocre initial reviews and modest sales did not make up for the considerable expenditures incurred on his behalf by Bergdorf Goodman. A year-and-a-half after the debut collection, Halston resigned, only to re-emerge just three months later with his own company, Halston Limited, on April 25, 1968, two days after his thirty-sixth birthday.

In retrospect, it seems simply that Halston’s time had come. The formative years at Bergdorf Goodman were pivotal in preparing him to become one of the most innovative and important fashion designers in the world. His work is still revered by designers and the public alike. His influence is everywhere. And, as it happens, his actual designs continue to be sold at Bergdorf Goodman, where it all began, with the Halston Heritage Collection.

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