Halston, the fashion industry icon who lived up to his self-assessment as “the great American designer dream,” has died after an 18-month battle with AIDS. He was 57.
The award-winning designer, whose full name was Roy Halston Frowick, died in his sleep Monday night at Pacific Presbyterian Hospital in San Francisco, according to nursing supervisor David Rein. Robert Frowick, the designer’s brother, said death came as a result of AIDS and Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer.
Halston, who designed for the masses as well as the rich and famous, first achieved international notice in 1961 when he created First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s signature pillbox hat for her husband’s inauguration.
His patrons included Mrs. William S. (Babe) Paley, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Diana Vreeland, Gloria Swanson, Deborah Kerr, Lauren Bacall, Martha Graham and Barbara Sinatra.
When he designed a special line for the every-woman’s chain of J. C. Penney a decade ago, New York’s tony Bergdorf Goodman, his first retail champion, dropped him in disgust. But Halston was unfazed.
“I love J. C. Penney,” said the middle-American designer who was born in Iowa and raised in Indiana. “I’ve always wanted to entertain a larger public, and J. C. Penney sells to half the American people.”
A four-time winner of the Coty fashion award, Halston was elected to the Fashion Hall of Fame in 1974.
Halston developed a reputation for subtlety of line, achieved by intricate bias cutting and stitching, and suppleness of fabric, from double-faced wool, cashmere and silk matte jerseys to the new synthetic Ultrasuede whose use he pioneered in a much-copied shirtwaist dress in 1972.
Times fashion editor Mary Rourke said Halston “showed his uncluttered clothes on models with scrubbed looking faces and shiny, sleek hair, in strong contrast to the more elaborate, formal look of European fashion designers.”
The one-time milliner became known for his sweater dresses, halter tops, cowl-necked pajamas, and spare, elegant coats and jackets in such classic colors as red, fuchsia and purple. His distinctly American style was considered influential on such currently popular designers as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan.
“What makes a designer famous is that his clothes are recognizable,” Halston once said. “They don’t look like someone else’s. That’s what makes you famous--your signature.”
He designed that signature so indelibly in the 1960s and ‘70s that lesser artists hired by Revlon Inc. last year were able to present a new custom-made line using Halston’s name and look--without Halston.
In perhaps the fashion industry’s most Byzantine business arrangement, one of its foremost designers had sold the right to design under his own name and to control what constituted fashion under that label.
Born in Des Moines, Roy Halston Frowick grew up in Evansville, Ind., and attended Indiana University and the Chicago Art Institute.
He began designing hats while in college and started a millinery business in Chicago in 1953. His first client was the late Fran Allison of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” quickly followed by Swanson, Kerr, Kim Novak and Hedda Hopper.
In 1958, after a brief stint with New York milliner Lilly Dache, Halston was hired by Bergdorf’s to design hats, and soon was designing its ready-to-wear clothing as well. In 1968, with the loyal patronage of Mrs. Paley, wife of the CBS founder, Halston’s meteoric career skyrocketed when he opened his own couture house.
But the seeds of Halston’s demise as arbiter of American fashion and even of his own fashion house began only five years after that, when he sold the name to the Norton Simon Inc. conglomerate for $16 million.
The deal allowed Norton Simon to use Halston’s name on things he did not design and required him to seek permission to use his name on anything. The arrangement worked well for about 10 years because of Halston’s close personal friendship with the conglomerate’s chairman, David J. Mahoney.
Through their combined efforts, Halston marketed a profitable perfume line that reportedly made $80 million a year. The designer not only approved of the line, but worked hard personally to promote it.
The J. C. Penney contract for affordable Halston sportswear was also worked out during that period.
The flamboyant designer proved adept at marketing. In one typical well-publicized event, he flew two dozen “Halstonette” models, including his friend Bianca Jagger, to the Great Wall of China to show the Chinese how silk could be used in Western fashion.
Halston, the person, clearly enjoyed having Halston, the company, in the hands of a major conglomerate.
“It’s like having a Renaissance patron,” he said at the time.
But problems began in 1983 when Norton Simon was taken over by Esmark, owner of Playtex, and Mahoney was ousted. Seen as temperamental and extravagant and rumored to be using drugs, Halston himself was thrown out in 1984.
The company changed hands five times, ending up under Revlon Inc. Halston was, in effect, paid not to design until 1988, when Revlon let his employment contract lapse entirely.
Revlon reportedly was trying to negotiate a new contract last year when news of the planned showing of the new Halston line, sans Halston, reached the designer. Angry, he broke off negotiations.
Rumors were rife at that time that Halston had been ill. But he vehemently insisted in an interview last August with Newsweek that his health was perfect.
Customarily garbed in his self-designed signature uniform of black turtleneck sweater, slacks and blazer, Halston in his heyday dictated not only American fashion but what was hot on the nightclub social scene as well. He and his coterie were frequently found dancing all night at New York’s Studio 54.
Halston’s antics on the party scene were chronicled last year in the published diaries of the late pop artist Andy Warhol. A Warhol portrait of Halston was a focus piece in the designer’s Manhattan townhouse.
“Lifestyles change. People don’t go out to nightclubs the way they used to,” he told Newsweek last year, discussing his toned-down behavior in the late 1980s. “A lot of the socializing I did with clients was related to business. I had to do it then. Now I don’t.”
Even his dramatic black costume, he said, was business related: “It’s traditional in fashion that the vendeur wears black so as not to compete with the client or the clothes.”
Halston’s brother released a statement saying that the family “thanks all those from around the world who have been communicating thoughtful wishes to him. America has lost a true patriot and its greatest designer.”
Pat Ast, a Los Angeles-based actress who was one of Halston’s models in the early ‘70s, remembered him Tuesday as “the king of fashion. And that made him king of New York in the ‘70s. He played Pygmalion to my Eliza. He made me important. He made everyone he touched feel that way.”
Halston, who had moved to the West Coast after his health began failing, is survived by two brothers and a sister.