KEVAN WHO?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago this month, when Los Angeles designer Kevan Hall was named the new top designer at Halston, the response was summed up by an incredulous Neiman Marcus executive who asked, "Who is Kevan Hall?"

The New York-centric fashion world was in a tizzy. Designer Randolph Duke, credited with reviving the Halston line, had left the company and sued for breach of contract. Hall was being described in the trade journals as "Duke's assistant" and outside the journals in even less flattering terms.

Women's Wear Daily reported the appointment as if it were a hot political scandal. Retailers and fashion aficionados were furious that the name of one of America's greatest designers, Halston, was once again in danger of being besmirched. After all, attempts before Duke to revive the once-glorious line had failed miserably.

Amid all the hand-wringing, Hall was given the seemingly impossible task of presenting a spring collection in a few short months.

Any doubts were hushed after Hall's November show and another in February. Soon after, his chic, simple gowns in neutral colors began appearing at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman in New York with price tags ranging from $2,000 to $7,000.

Hall may well be the designer to take Halston into the next millennium, offering luxurious style without the previous decades' excesses and indulgences.

"He's channeling Halston!" raved Andre Leon Talley, editor at large at Vogue.

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Hall is admittedly anything but a clone of designer Halston. He grew up in Detroit, the youngest of three children to Angeline, a homemaker, and Curtis Hall, the owner of a construction and landscaping business. His brother, actor and director Vondie Curtis-Hall, plays Dr. Dennis Hancock on TV's "Chicago Hope." His sister, Sherry Hall, works at an interior design store in Detroit.

Since 1980, Hall has been married to his college sweetheart, Debbie, whom he met his first day at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles. They have two children--Asia, 9 and Evan, 4--and a "traditional house in the Valley." The Halls belong to West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

Halston spent many holiday weekends partying away in his beach house, rented from Andy Warhol. Most three-day weekends, Hall leaves his Manhattan apartment to fly home to his family to sit in the backyard and watch the kids swim. Jokes Debbie Hall, "To some people it would seem pretty boring."

Still, Kevan Hall is no backwater suburbanite who designs by fluke. His mother had a great love of fashion that she shared with her youngest child.

"We always shopped at Saks," he says. "I had a cashmere coat at age 7. Every Sunday, we were dressed for church, and I mean we were dressed."

Fashion was so much a part of his life that Hall remembers being incredibly moved as a teenager by the 1970s Ballet Russe collection of Yves Saint Laurent.

"It was the greatest collection of our time," he says.

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The grown-up Hall is still meticulous about his appearance, from his carefully manicured dreadlocks (two or three locks are highlighted) to his Cartier trinity wedding band.

When he meets for lunch, it's at the Ivy. When he goes vintage shopping for Halston, it's to Lily, a Beverly Hills collection shop that owns half a million museum-quality pieces.

Still, at the fundamental core of this aesthetic being is a solid family man. He admits over lunch his biggest ambition: to be the kind of father to his children that his dad was to him.

"My father is such a wonderful, wonderful man," Hall says, his soft voice softening even more. Curtis Hall's lesson to his children was: "Just focus. Live your life with integrity, and treat people with respect."

Hall regains his professional voice to state that another pressing goal is to make Halston once again an indispensable luxury brand. And he is quickly learning that this will require more than fine designs. This spring, he stayed too long at the Paris fabric shows instead of camping out in Hollywood to woo stars into wearing his gowns for the Academy Awards. The only high-profile woman he dressed was Hollywood producer and activist Irena Medavoy. "I'll do things differently this year," he says.

Hall is also trying to build a Halston archive because the business had been sold so many times that all samples and drawings have been lost.

A few weeks later, Hall says, "One of my ambitions, life ambitions, is to really make my place, to establish my place in fashion history."

Is that possible under the name of another man?

"Yes," Hall replies.

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Hall is a 20-year veteran of the fashion business, having started as an assistant to L.A. sportswear designer Harriet Selwyn. For 11 years, he had his own business in Los Angeles, a line of evening wear called Kevan Hall Couture. His wife was his fit model and merchandising partner. The designer says, "I literally carried the collection on my back to stores in San Francisco."

The line was sold at Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, I. Magnin and Fred Hayman in Beverly Hills. Hall's customers included Dana Delany, Natalie Cole and Ethel Bradley, the wife of then-Mayor Tom Bradley.

"He was an important small resource for I. Magnin," says Constance White, fashion director of the new Talk magazine, who covered Hall's L.A. line while at Women's Wear Daily.

But as the heady '80s of big spending wound down and specialty chains began to fold or consolidate, the market for luxury gowns shrank. Finally, in 1995, rather than compromise his line, Hall closed Kevan Hall Couture and began consulting for other companies.

Halston, meanwhile, had ceased to exist as a clothing line (see accompanying story). That changed in 1996 when Tropic Tex International relaunched Halston clothing with sportswear designer Randolph Duke at the creative helm.

And in 1997, Duke, a classmate and friend from design school, asked Hall to lead Halston's luxury line, the Signature Collection. Actress Minnie Driver renewed Halston glory in a red dress she wore to the Academy Awards in 1998.

Despite the Halston high profile, the company was wrought with production and delivery problems and personality conflicts. (Although Duke publicly received credit for the Driver dress, it was widely reported that there was much private disagreement over whether he or Hall actually designed it.) After one year of commuting between New York and Los Angeles, Hall quit in March 1998 shortly before the Oscars.

A few months after his departure, the Halston sportswear division was closed, the Halston name was sold again, and Duke left the company. His breach-of-contract suit was settled out of court this spring with the parties agreeing not to discuss the case.

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Hall, many say, is one person who can marry couture sensibilities with modern designs--and modern women.

He understands that while Halston might have designed for celebrities, socialites and partygoers, women's roles have since changed dramatically.

"Who is the Liza, the Betty Ford and the Elizabeth Taylor today?" Hall asks. "I think it's kind of a different woman."

To Hall, today's Halston woman is accomplished actress Christine Lahti, interior designer Barbara Barrie, Medavoy and women like Hall's wife, Debbie, and her friends, who have left careers to raise children.

"This customer has the same tastes coast to coast. She reads the magazines, but she is not a victim of fashion," Hall says.

Halston's next goal for Hall is to dress that same customer during the day.

A month ago, Halston introduced lingerie, priced $75 to $400. Women's suits and footwear will be introduced in the fall. Next spring, coats and men's suits. And hats will appear in stores this fall as a tribute to Halston's beginnings as a milliner. He is credited with perfecting the pillbox hat worn by Jackie Kennedy--another dear friend of his.

"There's a need for modern glamour in the market, more so now than every before," says Halston Newco President and CEO Nicholas DeMarco. True glamour, says DeMarco, comes from a woman who is proud of her body, but not willing to compromise it with a revealing outfit.

"In order to make a woman look more glamorous," he says, "you don't show skin, but you put her into a dress and she becomes a woman."

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Debbie Hall has a theory about her husband's understanding of women.

"He's surrounded by women. I voice my opinion. His mother voices her opinion. And he does listen, whereas some men might not listen," she says.

Hall has another side that gives DeMarco confidence. "Kevan has qualities of stability and creativity, and those are great traits in a designer. You can build a business around Kevan."

Hall appears to have won over his skeptics with his first collections. Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, says Hall has the ability "of an Oscar [de la Renta], a Bill [Blass]. I think he has a place right up there with the important names of the evening wear marketplace."

Kaner was the one quoted in Women's Wear Daily asking that prescient question, "Who is Kevan Hall?"

After the designer's November show, Kaner went backstage to tell him, "I may not have heard of you before, but I'm certainly going to hear about you in the future."

Then, she says, she called up all her friends to tell them the same.

Admits Hall, "For me, that was a moment."

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Barbara Thomas can be reached by e-mail at barbara.thomas@latimes.com.

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