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