In the expansive fashion studio at Central Saint Martins, Michael Halpern is sifting through the references that inspired his inaugural A/W16 womenswear collection, shown at London Fashion Week this past February as part of Central Saint Martins’ MA Fashion graduation show. On an A4 print-out, the bleached blonde model Donna Jordan – dressed in a diamanté adorned silk slip – exhales cigarette smoke from a provocative crimson-lined mouth, her eyelids a shimmering pale blue dubbed ‘Disco Marilyn’. Jordan was once muse to both Antonio Lopez and later Karl Lagerfeld, during his early tenure at Chloé in 1970, and her blend of glamour and loucheness, elegance and frivolity reflects Halpern’s own aesthetic: an effusive fusion of tawdry disco and couture-salon sophistication.
"I just kind of lopped the lengths off," says the American designer, referring to a powder blue double duchess satin mini-skirt and bustier with an asymmetric train, conceptualised as a disjointed dress and styled with sequined flares. "The material is such a classic 1950s Dior thing, but putting it in a new context made it really different for me." From draping to hand pleating, corsetry to plissé, Halpern honed the techniques of classic construction working at J. Mendel and Oscar de la Renta after graduating from Parsons School of Design in 2010. "At J. Mendel I learnt how to sew from machinists that have a totally no-bullshit attitude," he explains. "They don’t care about fashion or designers, they care about getting something done beautifully and that’s it."
When talking through the design elements in his debut collection, ‘horrible’ is Halpern’s favoured (and most surprising) adjective. Focusing on visual dichotomies, opulent pastel silks are juxtaposed against glittering fishnet body suits, the fabric heated and peeled to reveal a ghostly gold imprint. Cheap sequin chains sourced from Shepherd’s Bush Market are machine stitched alongside intricately hand-sewn paillettes in optical and colour-burst patterns, and a bustier so expertly boned that it stands upright on a cutting table is hand-appliqued with black sequins against a layer of roughly scissored tulle. "You have to make a lot of really ugly shit to make something beautiful," Halpern explains, his fascination with bad taste echoing that of Christopher Kane, whose 2006 Central Saint Martins’s M.A Fashion collection featured body-hugging dresses in saccharine frilled lace and Swarovski crystal necklaces.
"You have to make a lot of really ugly shit to make something beautiful" – Michael Halpern
Halpern’s initial toiles took inspiration from horse diving, a violent attraction popularised in the U.S. in the late nineteenth century which starred leotard-clad female riders nose-diving from up to 60 feet into a swimming pool – while straddling a horse. "It was such a scary and dramatic sport, and that’s how I was feeling at the beginning of the MA course," he explains. Halpern’s early designs include a toile of a bustier in blood-red silk and collaged sketches featuring carmine sequins. "Somewhere along the way, there was a seismic change in how I was looking at the collection. As much as it's about design, the programme is also so much about finding yourself – and I realised it wasn’t about the brutal violence I looked at originally, but the showmanship of the sport, and the fact that I love glamour."
The kaleidoscopic gloss of the paillettes in Halpern’s debut collection recall hazy disco-ball reflections in hedonistic 70s nightclubs, from Studio 54 in New York to Le Sept and Le Palace in Paris, where the models Pat Cleveland, Loulou de La Falaise and Donna Jordan partied excessively in outré ensembles. "My mother used to be at Studio 54 wearing sequins," Halpern explains. "I think there’s a level of fearlessness that’s been lost with just wearing a nice dress… Why wasn’t I born in the 70s? I don’t get it. God is playing some horrible trick on me because I should have been there. She is fucking with me!"
Shown at Soho’s Brewer Street Car Park, the joyfulness of Halpern’s prismatic partywear brought a lift to a season charged with debate regarding today’s fashion system, and the commercial relevance of the catwalk show. "I remember watching these early Christian Lacroix runway shows, and the models were having fun with the clothes, people in the crowd were cheering, and everyone was laughing and smiling," Halpern says. "I was scared that people would think I was too silly and not conceptual enough, but our course leader Fabio Piras and tutor Julie Verhoeven – well, they can see right through you when you’re giving bullshit, and see what is in your head even before you can."
From a thigh-size tear in the leg of a black sequinned flare, to the imperfect machine stitching inside an undulating polo-neck, Halpern’s designs are imbued with a level of refreshing 'undoneness', calling to mind hedonistic women sullying opulent silk with a cigarette burn, or splitting couture-worthy corsetry on a night out. "There’s something nice about having a naïveté when you're creating glamour, and not necessarily creating it in the right or the perfect way," Halpern explains, pointing to the lining of a corset with an intentionally exposed dart, and to cluster of pink-circled sequins outlining a sultry knicker shape. "I think that can bring something equally as interesting as something like the inside of an Atelier Versace corset, which is probably like seeing one of the wonders of the world."
In a fashion season of fragility, where perfection within an industry is of utmost gravitas (be it the precision of fashion week scheduling or the flawless finish of a bag produced for retail consumption before it has even shown on a runway), Halpern’s undone exuberance aligns wonderfully with his own post-debut optimism. "With my designs you get all of these sequins, and when they move they kind of shine," Halpern enthuses, awash with blossoming ideas for his S/S17 collection and glowing emails from design house stalwarts. "I want my friends to be sneaking a beer into a bar wearing a pair of sparkling trousers, or wearing a tiny mini dress, and I want them to feel perfect."