Halston lived the American Dream – then fell victim to it. Born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1932, Halston arrived in Chicago at the age of 20, opening a hat business the following year, with a clientele that included actresses such as Kim Novak, Gloria Swanson, and Deborah Kerr. In 1957, he began using the name Halston professionally and moved to New York, skyrocketing to fame when he designed the famous pillbox hat Jacqueline Kennedy wore to the 1961 Presidential inauguration.
By the end of the decade, hats had fallen out of fashion but Halston continued his ascent, designing clothes and opening his first eponymous boutique on Madison Avenue in 1968. The following year Halston launched his first ready-to-wear line, adopting the chic minimalist silhouette that would become the hallmark of disco style. Celebrities including Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, and Babe Paley flocked to Halston in droves, driving the worth of Halston’s line to $30 million. He sold his line in 1973, expanding to become a brand long before this kind of thing was done, stamping his name upon fragrance, luggage, menswear, and handbags, all while retaining creative control.
The 1970s belonged to Halston as he defined decadence with a delicious blend of sex, glamour, and luxury. A fixture on the club scene, Halston brought the edge of night to the daytime world with “The Halstonettes,” a term fashion journalist André Leon Talley used to describe the jet-setting squad of supermodels who appeared together in Halston ads, editorials, and events including Pat Cleveland, Beverly Johnson, Angelica Huston, Karen Bjornson, and Alva Chinn.
But like any mortal flying too close to the sun, Halston’s fall was harrowing. After signing a six-year, billion-dollar licensing deal with JC Penney in 1983 to produce Halston III, a line of affordable products starting at $24, high-end retailers retaliated, dropping his ready-to-wear line. That same year, Halston lost control over his namesake company and then, in 1984, he was banned from creating designs for Halston Enterprises. He barely made it through the decade, testing positive for HIV in 1988, before dying on 26 March 1990 at the age of 57.
“Fashion is brutal,” says photographer Dustin Pittman, who knew Halston from the early 1970s. “People don’t realise the only designer still living from the American side at the Battle of Versailles is Stephen Burrows. That’s it. Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston, and Anne Klein are all dead. Fashion goes up and down – a lot of designers go bankrupt.”
In 1991, American journalist Stephen Gaines penned Simply Halston: The Untold Story, the biography that inspired Ryan Murphy’s new five-part Netflix biopic series about the designer’s life starring Ewan McGregor in the title role. In a statement released on 10 May 2021, Halston’s family derided the show as “an inaccurate, fictionalised account”, much in the same way the Versace family described Ryan Murphy’s 2018 American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace as a “work of fiction.”
Invariably, myth looms larger than fact, becoming a through line that shapes the historical record. To provide balance, we speak to Halston’s friends, colleagues and associates to provide insight into the character of a man who was larger than life.
Photographer Christopher Makos apprenticed with Man Ray in Paris before arriving in New York during the mid-1970s and quickly becoming an integral part of Andy Warhol’s Factory. With the 1977 publication of White Trash, Makos made a name for himself as the first photographer to record the convergence of the uptown and downtown worlds.
“I met Halston through Andy Warhol. My first impression was that he was such a sweet guy but very different from the way I perceived Andy. I don’t mean to say Halston wasn’t inclusive but the world of fashion was much more erudite and effete by nature. To create magic and illusion you have to be arrogant and have attitude – it’s just the way it is. It’s a different mindset. In the era that I knew him, Halston was on the Upper East Side and I was living in the West Village, so it was a very different mindset. That said, once I got to know him, I could see behind the curtain. People are much more real [then] and it’s easier to deal with.
“I didn’t mean to preface it like Halston was untouchable. Everybody, whether it’s an actor or actress, we have to create who we are – and especially someone like Roy Frowick coming from the Midwest, that doesn’t sell fashion, same as Ralph Lifschitz [Ralph Lauren]. At that time, everyone had to reinvent themselves.
“In the Ryan Murphy series, they said that Halston bought the house in Montauk; he didn’t buy that house. It was Warhol’s house that Halston rented for a time. I have a picture of Halston lounging at Andy’s place and he was just like one of the guys. He was just trying to enjoy himself and getting through his life. The times I saw him were when he wasn’t being Halston, the dress designer, he was just being Roy on the beach. But no one ever called him ‘Roy’ that I know. Halston was the person he needed to be when he needed to be, but when he was with his friends he didn’t put on airs. He maybe played into it a little bit but he wasn’t that person all the time. Same as Andy when he was around close friends. It’s hard to keep that going all the time.”
Peter Wise is an American artist, author of Surf (Glitterati), and director of the Christopher Makos studio/archive. His work is found in various public and private collections, including Mead Art Gallery, Amherst College, and the Estée Lauder Corporate Collection.
“I was working at an orchid shop next door to Halston on 68th Street. He called me on a Monday and asked if I wanted to do something for him. I said sure. He said, ‘I’m hosting a Charles James benefit at the Brooklyn Museum so I need flowers for the reception and then flowers for 50 tables at the dinner.’ It was baptism by fire and I passed the test. From then on I started working with him as an independent contractor. Back then, the only place you could get good orchids were at greenhouses in Long Island, California, or Florida. It was a very limited supply and Halston liked it the best.
“The common perception of Halston was that he was very egocentric, which he was but at the same time he was very generous. He was a big patron of Martha Graham. He did costumes for her dance company for Perséphone in 1987 and dressed her for free. I met her once while delivering orchids from Halston to her. I went up to her apartment, and she was lying on the couch in her Blackglama mink coat and nothing else. I told that to Halston and he said, ‘Oh she was being very coy wasn’t she!’ She was being seductive in her 90-year-old way.
“A day or two after Thanksgiving in 1982 I was at the Olympic Towers putting flowering orchids around and Halston showed up out of nowhere with a couple of nephews and nieces in tow. He showed them the view of Central Park, and said, ‘That’s the Children’s Zoo, where they keep all the children.’ [Laughs.]. The children were dismissed, then Halston looked at what I was doing and said, ‘That looks really good but we can make it better.’ For the next hour and a half, he and I schlepped orchids around. It was very hands-on, typically Halston. He was very collaborative. He respected other people and liked to work with them. It was very intimate and I was lucky to have that experience with him.”
Meryl Meisler is an American photographer and author of three books including the new book, New York Paradise Lost: Disco Era Bushwick (Parallel Pictures Press). An exhibition of the same name opens June 3 at ClampArt in New York.
“Today, you’d have a hard time getting within inches of a celebrity’s face with a camera, let alone be in the same space. Back in the 1970s, people were very receptive. It was snobby, but it was open. People were out to be photographed. There were a lot of paparazzi at the clubs but I was not one so people were more open to me. Believe it or not, I’m not a celebrity person, but I saw Halston and Steve Rubbell hanging out at Hurrah during their Easter Monday party. They could have been any two friends, just frat brothers hanging out, drinking, smoking, and chatting. I asked if I could take a photograph and they said yes. Of course I knew how they were, but they were very gracious, just as casual as could be, having a great time with each other. They looked very comfy and cosy together.
“Hurrah was on the Upper West Side and a lot of celebrities hung out there. That night, photographer Peter Beard was with French actress and model Carol Bouquet, and Mark Benecke, the doorman from Studio 54, was talking to a trans friend of mine named Alexis. You’d think it was the night off from Studio 54 the way they were all hanging out at Hurrah. It was a small, intimate party with all these big shots. Halston and I were at a lot of the same parties together, but this is the only time I photographed him. Halston was ‘The Designer’. He was a one-name person like Cher and Prince. People really liked him as a person. They would stick by him. He was also a man out about town. He was distinguished but friendly.”
Dustin Pittman is an American photographer who has been documenting the art, music, fashion, and downtown scenes since the late 1960s. Andy Warhol characterised Pittman as “one of the most creative photographers in the world”.
“I met Halston early in 1971 or ’72, while I was hanging out with fashion designer Ronald Kolodzie, ‘Lemon Boy’ Richard Gallo, and Phillip, Ronald’s lover. Before the Madison Avenue store and the Olympic Towers, the scene in New York was real easy to get around in the clubs, meeting people, just hanging out. I slid in and out of Halston’s life. He wasn’t the legendary Halston yet. He was very sexy, very focused, and incredibly talented like the people I gravitated to like Stephen Burrows, Fernando Sánchez, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo.
“In September 1980, W magazine sent me to the airport to photograph Halston and the Halstonettes before they travelled to China to do an event at the Great Wall of China and meet the new Premier. There were no paparazzi at the airport. I walked out to the tarmac and Halston said, ‘Dustin, why don’t you come?’ I was this close to getting on the plane. I said, ‘Fuck I’ve only got my cameras and film.’ I should have gone but I had other obligations.
“Looking back at it now, those were golden moments. The late 60s, 70s, and early 80s, there was so much money flowing. When they talk about the $250,000 Halston spent on orchids, that’s a drop in the bucket. When Halston built the Olympic Towers, he designed that from scratch. What they show of it in the Netflix series is nice, but it was 100,000 times grander than that. There were mirrors from wall to ceiling and we used to call it ‘the fishbowl’ because it was like being inside an aquarium. It was like the scene in The Ten Commandments when Charlton Heston opens the curtain and says, ‘Father I’ve built you a city. ‘When Halston opened the curtain, you saw the spires of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Every time I go by St. Patrick’s I look up at the spires and think of Halston. I know I should think of God but instead I think of the God of Fashion.”