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Halston: Still the Celebrity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Less than two years after Halston’s death, the retrospectives have begun.

The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York opened an exhibit of his work, “Halston: Absolute Modernism,” last week. And a biography that, by the author’s own admission, would have the designer “spinning in his urn” came out in September. The show celebrates the aesthetics of his design. The book by Stephen Gaines, “Simply Halston: The Untold Story,” romps through the dark side of his life.

The prevailing image of Halston is a man frozen in the flash of paparazzi cameras, dressed in ubiquitous dark glasses and black cashmere turtleneck sweater, draped across a Studio 54 banquette with attending stars and sycophants. Neither the exhibit nor the biography is likely to change his status as a “Hollywood Squares"-type celebrity, known more for his name than his accomplishments or talent.

Halston peaked in the mid ‘70s, becoming a fashion force on the backs of the upwardly social in New York City with his deceptively simple-looking bias-cut knit garments. Babe Paley and Jacqueline Onassis were among his customers. His vainglorious motto: “You are only as good as the people you dress.”

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It was the return of clean-lined silhouettes in the past several fashion seasons that prompted Richard Martin, executive director of the fashion institute, to re-examine Halston’s work.

“We were planning a modernist show and the remarkable austerity and simplicity of his clothes reminded us of contemporary design direction. When we got some of the first donations we were amazed, his clothes looked so fresh and exciting,” Martin says.

To emphasize the skill behind the simplicity, Martin mounted Halston’s patterns on the walls, displaying them as if they were oversize origami artworks. The single pattern piece for a sheath dress resembles a giant triangle, with no discernible armholes, top or bottom.

“I made American sportswear simple and easy to understand,” Halston once said. His simple-is-better philosophy was bringing in nearly $30 million in annual retail sales in 1973 when the huge conglomerate Norton Simon bought Halston Inc. and acquired the designer’s services.

Halston crashed in the ‘80s, and these are the years covered in excruciating detail by biographer Gaines. He tells of a crippling cocaine habit, of sex partners procured in subway stations, of Studio 54 partying with Steve Rubell, Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minelli.

The fall of the Halston house was inevitable, Gaines asserts, after the misbegotten JC Penney deal. In 1983, Halston was hired to design a mass-market line for the retail chain. Many of his tony accounts dropped his couture collection because of it. Two years later, the Halston Originals showroom closed and the designer retired to a self-imposed exile.

He died in March, 1990, of AIDS-related illnesses. Martin believes time and reflection will boost Halston into the pantheon of American design, “right up there with Claire McCardell.” Ensconced in fashion’s hall of fame with obscure names from the past will be the first designer who was as famous as the people he dressed.


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