The storied New York design house Halston once dressed celebrities the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli. Its founder, Roy Halston, partied with Andy Warhol at Studio 54 and designed Jackie Kennedy's famous pillbox hat.
But after decades of corporate turmoil, the label that once epitomized 1970s glamour in the Big Apple is getting a West Coast makeover — along with at least half a dozen stores and a fresh runway collection next year.
"I think L.A. is a hidden secret for fashion," said Chief Executive Ben Malka, 51, who took over the company last year and moved it to Southern California. "Fashion comes from music and cinema. We can go back to the beginning of cinematic history and look at the Oscars and see how clothing has evolved. So we are right in the hub. We just have to make the world know."
So far, this reinvented Halston remains mostly tucked behind a security gate and several guards in a studio and office complex in downtown Los Angeles. Amid blown-up sketches of Roy Halston's signature designs, a team of 120 designers, executives and patternmakers is working to put the pizazz back into the brand that faded along with discotheques.
At the helm is Malka, who took over after retiring as president of Los Angeles clothier BCBG Max Azria Group Inc. He acquired majority ownership of Halston for an undisclosed sum. Private equity firms Hilco Consumer Capital and Genuity Capital also have a share, he said. One of his first moves was to separate the Halston runway and contemporary sides of the business, moving the Halston Heritage line to Los Angeles while leaving the runway collection in New York.
Malka started by hiring a whole new crop of employees from top to bottom and crafting a four-year plan that covers such things as distribution targets and the fonts on company e-mails. His wife, Anita Jansens-Malka, is in charge of handbags and accessories, and former BCBG alumnus Marie Mazelis was brought on as chief creative officer.
An aggressive growth strategy calls for the opening of 50 to 100 stand-alone Halston Heritage stores nationwide in the next three years. As many as a dozen will open next year, including a shop in the Beverly Center and one on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. The first runway show is set for fall 2013 in New York.
Walking through Halston's 30,000-square-foot offices in L.A., Malka said he wants to preserve what he called the "DNA of the label," saving the sleek minimalism of the past while modernizing it for the 21st century woman.
Every owner that has taken over since Halston sold the company in the 1970s has failed in its attempt to refresh the brand, said Hitha Prabhakar, a New York retail analyst. She has followed the parade of owners that has included Norton Simon Industries, Beatrice Foods and Revlon.
Filmmaker Harvey Weinstein even took a crack at making over the brand in 2007 with actress Sarah Jessica Parker as president and chief creative officer.
"There was a lot of internal turmoil," Prabhakar said. "Everyone was not on the same page in terms of where to take the brand. Is it going to relaunch with celebrities and be like the glory days of the '70s, or was it better to do brand extensions and try to make money?"
It didn't work, and by 2011 Malka took control of the Halston legacy, which got its start in the 1950s.
Roy Halston Frowick was born in Iowa, moved to New York in 1957 and began his career as a hat maker. He captured worldwide attention after he created the pillbox hat worn by John F. Kennedy's wife at his inauguration.
He later honed a luxe minimalist aesthetic channeled through his Ultrasuede shirtwaist dresses, jersey halter frocks and cat suits. It has influenced the designs of fashion heavyweights such as Calvin Klein, Tom Ford and Donna Karan.
A savvy marketer, he once flew Bianca Jagger and a flock of "Halstonette" models to the Great Wall of China to show how traditional Chinese silk can be incorporated into modern Western style. He also appeared in an episode of the television series "The Love Boat" along with designers Gloria Vanderbilt, Geoffrey Beene and Bob Mackie.
Mackie, who once dressed Cher and Judy Garland, in an interview recalled how Halston personally had a dramatic flair to go along with his designs.
"He was very theatrical, and he was constantly publicizing himself," Mackie said. "He would go out with a whole coterie of girls dressed up in his clothes. He wasn't always someone you would want to spend the evening with because it was all about him."
Things deteriorated for Halston after he went mass market by agreeing to a deal with J. C. Penney Co. to design low-priced clothing. It was decades before high-end designers partnering with H&M; and Target became the norm, and the move was a disaster. Bergdorf Goodman and other luxe retailers promptly dropped his line.
Halston later tried unsuccessfully to buy back the company and the rights to his name. He died in 1990 of AIDS-related cancer.
Mackie said he has been unimpressed by the work of a revolving door of owners, creative directors and designers who followed Halston.
"These are people trying to hang on to a name and trying to make money off of it," he said. "It has nothing to do with the feeling of the way it was designed and the classic beauty and simplicity Halston had going."
In Los Angeles, Malka agreed that it is great design and not simply the Halston name that will revive the brand. "People took over the brand and went back to the archives and they stayed in 1970s disco," Malka said. "They took Halston's original designs and sort of played off the designs and stayed there."
Longtime fashion watchers say that bringing a label so heavily associated with New York to L.A. can be a good jolt to its image and business.
Multiple attempts to revive the Halston brand in New York "was a rehash of past glories," said Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Assn. "The brand will now be able to establish itself as a legacy name with a new image — not based on old visions of Studio 54 but on current Hollywood glamour."
The Halston Heritage line, now available at department stores and boutiques, is priced from $100 to $900 with some coats and dresses going for several thousand dollars. Handbags range from $300 to $800. The runway collection, still a year away, will be far higher: on par with other luxury couture prices, Malka said.
Prabhakar said that it's hard to gauge how well Halston Heritage is doing financially because the private company does not disclose sales figures. Judging from online retailers that carry the Halston Heritage line, she said, the summer collection doesn't look like a blockbuster. "It doesn't look like they moved a lot of merchandise."
"For so long, Halston has depended on that Studio 54, Bianca Jagger cachet," she said. "But there is a new generation out there who barely knows who Bianca Jagger is. So the problem is: How does it translate to the generation on Twitter?"