New York Fashion Week may still be a few weeks away, but on Sunday night, CNN got a jump-start with its debut of “Halston,” a documentary on the life and death of Roy Halston Frowick, the fashion designer who helped shape the pillars of contemporary American fashion with his revolutionary designs from the 1960s through the ’80s.
The two-hour documentary tapped some of Halston’s closest colleagues, friends and family to give an inside look at the designer’s spectacular rise in the early 1970s and his tumultuous fall from his legendary studio at the sleek Olympic Towers building on Fifth Avenue. An ownership licensing deal of his namesake brand, signed with previous owner Simon Norton Inc. in 1973, prevented him from ever using his own name again, after he was banned from designing for the company in 1984.
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, the designer moved to New York in 1958 after establishing himself as a promising hat designer in Chicago. Under the mentorship of dressmaker Charles James, Halston found a job as a milliner at Bergdorf Goodman, outfitting Jackie Kennedy in her signature pillbox hat for President Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. He designed for most of those who attended Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball in 1966, before starting his own label in 1969.
In the CNN film, supermodels Pat Cleveland, Karen Bjornson and Alva Chinn talked about life as “Halstonettes,” the designer’s entourage of models who accompanied him to parties and press events, including a trip to China to introduce his silhouettes and silk-cutting techniques to a modernizing consumer. Liza Minnelli spoke of her instant kinship with the Midwest native, especially through their separate battles with drug addiction. The designer’s niece Lesley Frowick detailed Halston’s tumultuous last moments in his studio before being banned from designing for his own label in 1984. She also spoke of the last years of Halston’s life after being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1988; he succumbed to it in 1990, in San Francisco.
Revlon acquired the brand in 1986, shutting down the label’s ready-to-wear business shortly after the designer’s death. After toiling in licensing purgatory through the 1990s and 2000s, the brand was revived in 2007 when it was purchased by Hilco Consumer Capital in partnership with the Weinstein Company; designer Tamara Mellon and Rachel Zoe sat on the brand’s board. But the label has continued its routine of designer musical chairs; Marco Zanini spent only a year at Halston, as did Marios Schwab. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker helped launch the company’s contemporary take, Halston Heritage, which continues to possess retail traction, despite the original label being a flop. Earlier this year, Xcel Brands, Inc. acquired the trademarks to both Halston and Halston Heritage, with a licensing deal to dressmaking company Groupe JS International.
Click through to see archival images of the designer’s most prolific years.