Twenty-nine years after the designer's death, a new documentary explores the rise and fall of a great American fashion designer

By Colleen Kratofil
May 31, 2019 11:00 AM
Marty Lederhandler/AP/REX/Shutterstock

In the late 1970s, Halston was the most popular fashion designer in America. His colorful caftans and ultrasuede shirtdresses were seen on the who’s who of Hollywood, including Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall and Liza Minnelli. He soon became as popular as his in-demand designs, thanks to public appearances and his glitzy arrivals to Studio 54 alongside friends Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol. But for as flashy and fabulous as his life was in the ’70s, it all came to a halt in 1984 after he lost the right to design under his own name. 

So how did Halston fall so far so fast? A new documentary, Halston, (playing in select theaters), explores the designer’s rise to superstardom and the swift and shocking demise of America’s first international fashion star.

“I felt like there was incomplete picture of Halston,” director Frédéric Tcheng tells PEOPLE. “I wanted to discover the Halston beyond Studio 54 and behind the sunglasses.” 

First Lady Jackie Kennedy with President John F. Kennedy at his inauguration in 1961.
Leonard McCombe/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Born Roy Halston Frowick, he began his career as a milliner and gained fame for designing the pillbox hat Jacqueline Kennedy wore to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 presidential Inauguration. “He was so proud to be designing for the first lady,” niece Lesley Frowick tells PEOPLE.

He launched his own clothing collection in 1968 that became an instant success thanks to the ways his zipperless, comfortable clothes were a stark contrast to the flamboyant looks of the ’60s. “He was so modern, so exactly right for that moment,” model and friend Pat Cleveland tells PEOPLE. “[His clothes] didn’t look like anything else anyone had done.”

After launching his namesake label, “everyone was clamoring to have a Halston,” Frowick says. And soon enough everyone could thanks to his unprecedented decision to sell his brand—and the rights to his name—to conglomerate Norton Simon in 1973. He created a bestselling perfume, as well as a line of cosmetics, luggage, rugs and sheets, becoming a household name. 

Halston, 1973
©️Estate of Charles Tracy Halston

“I think that he understood marketing better than most people even do today,” says model Alva Chinn. “He certainly was ahead of his time in terms of marketing.”

Halston made TV appearances, starred in advertisements and was always surrounded by a handful of “Halstonettes” a group of models who ruled his runways and accompanied him everywhere.

"Halstonettes" Pat Cleveland, Chris Royer, Alva Chinn and Karen Bjornson in 1980
Dustin Pittman

“We traveled together and we were like a little family,” says Cleveland, who was a part of the “Halstonettes.” “Halston was always watching out for us. He was so protective, like a big brother.”

RELATED: Watch the Exclusive Trailer for the Glamorous Halston Documentary About Late Designer

As his workload increased (he designed uniforms for Girl Scouts, Avis, Braniff Airways and the U.S. Olympic teams), he let loose in the drug-fueled, impossible-to-get-into club, Studio 54. “He would dress everyone up and take them over there,” says Cleveland, referring to his famous friends like Minnelli, Taylor and Jagger.

Halston with close friend Bianca Jagger and her husband, Mick at Studio 54 in 1977.
Robin Platzer/Twin Images/Getty

“He was kind of shy, people don’t know that, but he didn’t like to show up to a place alone, he certainly could, but he made a splashier entrance with a whole bunch of beautiful models wearing his glittering clothes,” says Frowick about his glamorous entourage.

  • For more on Halston’s life and legacy pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.

In 1982, at the height of his fame, he became the first high-end designer to go mass market by designing a line for J.C. Penney called Halston III. His first collection was well received, but it tarnished his high-end line. Bergdorf Goodman and other prestigious stores dropped his brand, claiming that the J.C. Penney collection diminished the elegance of his label.

“He knows who he is and where he came from. I guess he just wanted to dress his mom,” says Cleveland about the designer’s Midwest upbringing. “He just wanted to give ladies a chance to feel glamorous, chic and modern — then that was the fall.”

And he fell hard into a downward spiral. “He would come in at 1:00 p.m.,” says Ridge, adding that Halston “was not the least bit discreet” about his cocaine addiction. “He would disappear into his bathroom every half hour or so. He always looked like he had just eaten a powdered doughnut.”

He explains that the working relationship between Halston and J.C. Penney also wasn’t set up for success. “They weren’t really communicating,” says Ridge. “They were just two different worlds that had no idea how the other world worked.”

Halston began turning in his design work later and later to J.C. Penney which resulted in an explosive showdown with the new executives from Esmark who owned his company. He was kicked out but his brand continued without him, and he never designed professionally again.

Halston moved to San Francisco when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, which he kept secret, telling only those closest to him. He moved to be closer to family and without his on-and-off-again boyfriend of 12 years, artist Victor Hugo, who Frowick says Halston “mostly tried to keep out of his life.” Adding, “He tolerated him, but he was trouble.”

His niece was by his side when he died on March 26, 1990, at age 57. “”He didn’t want people to feel sorry for him; he wanted them to remember him as this vital, healthy person,” she says. “He was trying to just fade away gracefully.”

Today designers have hugely successful mass-market brands with chain stores like H&M and Target thanks to Halston’s trail-blazing ways. “I think he would be very proud of what he did,” says model Karen Bjornson. “He opened the doors for so many designers.”

When asked what he would think of high-low fashion today, Frowicks says: “He would probably be laughing and saying, ‘I told you so, but you just weren’t ready.’”

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