By Karen S. Schneider Alex Connock Cathy Nolan
April 09, 1990 12:00 PM

The scourge of AIDS brings tragedy wherever it strikes, but nowhere, it seems, has its sweep been more ravaging than in the world of fashion. It is a particularly cruel irony that the pain and ugliness of the disease have bored to the heart of an industry committed to the image of perfection and beauty. In the past five years, many of fashion’s most exciting talents—designers, photographers, makeup artists and others—have fallen, one after another, in a grim procession that is leaving the community increasingly barren—and hardened. And so even the passing of the latest victim, Halston, American fashion’s first real superstar, evoked less shock than a kind of sorrowful resignation. “My first reaction was, ‘Oh, God, not another,’ ” says Patricia Pastor, a former assistant to the late Perry Ellis. “It’s gotten to the point where every time you open the paper, you read that another friend you were just chatting with at a party a few months ago has died.”

Despite the mounting losses, public acknowledgment remains, for the most part, taboo; AIDS-related illnesses and deaths are often shrouded by what many insiders call a conspiracy of silence. Behind the discreet lies and evasions, there is a growing sense of panic and fear that with each new death, it will become harder for the industry to recover. “There’s a finite fund of talent in any generation,” says Holly Brubach, fashion writer for the New Yorker. “There is an assumption that if a great designer dies, someone else will step in to replace him. But if AIDS keeps up as it has, we are going to be living in impoverished times. Each time a person of great talent dies, the landscape gets a little more drab.” Adds Vincent Larouche, an American designer based in Paris: “It’s not just a question of numbers. Even if just one person dies in a company, it’s a broken link in the chain that the whole creative process depends on. It’s tragic. It has a terrible effect on everyone.”

While the specter of AIDS has haunted the industry for nearly a decade, its first crushing blow came in 1986 with the death of Perry Ellis. Charismatic and handsome, the popular designer and exuberant father of an 18-month-old daughter seemed the embodiment of vitality. Indeed, with his sporty, elegant styles, he had taken his profitable Perry Ellis International firm to the pinnacle of success. When he succumbed to AIDS at age 46, the public, which had accepted his wholesome image, was startled. Still, the official company line was that Ellis had died of viral encephalitis, despite the fact that his companion and president of the company, Laughlin Barker, 37, had died of AIDS four months earlier. Even now, after the AIDS-related death last month of Barker’s successor, Robert McDonald, 45, who shared a New York City home with Ellis for 15 years, the real cause of Ellis’s death has not been formally acknowledged.

With Willi Smith’s death in 1987, the industry was delivered its second major blow. The 39-year-old designer of hip, street-smart WilliWear was the first black American to beat the color barrier and find national success. Thanks largely to his sister, actress and former model Toukie Smith, the cause of Willi’s death, unlike Ellis’s, was not masked by deception. “People die of AIDS,” says Toukie, who still seeks to fight the stigma of the disease with her openness. “It’s life—real and basic. It’s not a sin.”

As the AIDS plague swept on—claiming both young stars and established talents, designers as well as their colleagues on the business side of fashion—there were those who embraced Toukie’s frankness. Among those whose friends and family acknowledged AIDS were the Barcelona-born, New York-based designer Angel Estrada, who died in September 1989 at age 31, and the up-and-coming Antony Moorcroft, 29, who had been nominated for the California Designer of the Year Award shortly before the disease claimed his life last October. Nor was AIDS concealed after the death of John Duka, the former New York Times style columnist who later co-founded one of New York’s hottest fashion-oriented public relations firms and had once planned to write a biography of Halston. Two other openly declared deaths from AIDS were those of legendary makeup artist Way Bandy and musician Keith Avedon (cousin of photographer Richard), who composed the music for Calvin Klein’s steamy Obsession advertisements.

Even as the general public became aware of the deadly concentration of AIDS and homosexuality within the fashion industry, associates of some stricken designers felt compelled to observe the taboo. Though rumors persist that Italian-born designer Giorgio di Sant’Angelo and New York’s Isaia—known for their sexy, stretchy dresses—had AIDS, the official word after their deaths last year was no. And friends of Mississippi-born, Paris-based designer Patrick Kelly, who died in January, also deny widely believed rumors of AIDS.

Compassion and respect for privacy account for some of the collective quiet. “It’s not right that just because someone has AIDS he should be forced to become a public spokesperson,” says Pastor. Another factor, she concedes, is hard business sense. From heads of billion-dollar conglomerates to individual designers struggling to keep their small showrooms afloat, the industry’s leaders are apprehensive that news reports of an AIDS-related death and the implications of homosexuality will hurt the bottom line. “After Perry died, we did store shows in the South,” Pastor recalls. “Two women walked up to our representative and said, ‘We don’t approve of what Mr. Ellis did and we would never buy his clothes.’ ” Many industry insiders, including Pastor herself, believe that sort of reaction is rare. “Still,” she argues, “companies have to be realistic about how what could be perceived as bad press will affect business.”

Discrimination, the ultimate affront, even afflicts those who are untouched by AIDS. Undermined by the atmosphere of phobia and suspicion, many young male designers have already found it difficult to get the financial backing without which business survival is virtually impossible. Insurance companies, too, are shying away from young men whom they categorically consider a high risk; already, many firms now require AIDS tests before they agree to provide coverage. “It’s hard to stay calm and not to panic,” says Larouche, who is launching his own company. “If you’re thin or coughing, people automatically think you have AIDS. You say to yourself, ‘I better eat or people will think I’m dying.’ ”

Ironically, the scare that has toughened the odds for young men has boosted the chances of talented young female designers. “Backers are looking toward women now because they think they’re not such a threat,” says Marilyn Harding, a vice president of the New York-based industry publication the Tobé Report. “Ten years ago, those opportunities would have gone to a man.” To the dismay of many in the industry, ability is overlooked in the search for low-risk investments. The result, says Pastor, is an immeasurable loss of creativity and “an overall market of uninspiring clothes.”

Perhaps appropriately, Halston’s death may mark the beginning of change. “AIDS is a disaster for us, because we’ve lost so many tremendously talented people, and I shudder to think how many more we may lose,” says New York designer Carolyne Roehm, head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “Ours has been an industry that does not seem to have made an organized effort to battle AIDS.” To fight the apathy, the CFDA is now planning one of the industry’s first large-scale benefits to raise funds for AIDS research. Meanwhile, in the face of fear and sorrow, it’s business as usual. “You try not to think about it—or at least to have a here-and-now attitude,” says Larouche. “The show must go on. You’ve got to keep pushing the fantasy—that’s what fashion is all about.”

—Karen S. Schneider, Alex Connock in New York City and Cathy Nolan in Paris