Roy Halston, Rise and Fall

Katherine Shark
14 min readMay 20, 2020


Roy Halston was the American designer who epitomized 1970s glamour fashion, and arguably represented the dichotomy between French and American fashion industries and their place in public consciousness in his elevated, minimalist yet functional and accessible ethos, as opposed to more elite and less practical French haute couture. Roy’s contemporary, Yves Saint Laurent, is a household name even for those who aren’t particularly immersed in the world of fashion. The artistry and innovation of Saint Laurent is common knowledge — his le smoking outfits, his safari dress, his Rive Gauche store. Roy Halston, working at the same time, was just as well known, dressing the celebrities of Studio 54, partying with Warhol, and creating Jackie Kennedy’s iconic inauguration pillbox hat. However, Halston is not immortalized in the public consciousness in the same way as Yves Saint Laurent, because his career ended in a degree of disgrace, ultimately losing the rights to his name and brand to Norton Simon Inc. Halstons’ true Achilles heel would be his inability to either restrict his workload–to be able to function independently–or to relinquish a measure of control to others to work on a wider range of projects. He wanted to do everything, and to do everything himself.

A large part of Halston’s innovation was rooted in technical details — cutting dresses on the bias, use of stretch and knit fabrics to create a certain level of movement and drape, and creating deceptively simplistic single-piece patterns for garments. Halstons’ designs were characterized by movement — his work allowed the body of the wearer to take precedence over the garment, with an almost sportswear ethos in approaching his glamorous, neoclassical gowns. Halston’s “Ultrasuede” shirtdress became one of the best-selling dresses of all time. His garments used construction and surface design to balance the simple fabrics and cuts used. As one of his favorite models Karne Bjornsen said, “you were free in [his] clothes.”

Karne Bjornsen wearing a silk satin spiral cut, single pattern piece gown, 1976.
A single pattern piece silk sarong dress, with the pattern for it displayed on the wall behind it.

Halston also worked with Elsa Peretti, a model turned jewelry designer, to create organic, subtle jewelry and objects to pair with his garments. Peretti created small cases, cuff bracelets, and designed the bottle for his perfume, which became an immediate bestseller. Elsa Peretti’s designs completed Halston’s flowing, almost sinewy garments. Halston himself said that in his work he strived for ““function and ease … simple Action Clothes that women can breathe in, work in, play in… Dresses are not going to have feathers and fuss in the future…we’ll go on simplifying…everything uncluttered…this is a tailor’s world, not a dressmaker’s world.”

Elsa Peretti’s perfume bottle design, as a standard bottle and pendant necklace.

Roy Halston’s largest achievement was perhaps helping to establish American fashion as on par with French fashion. His work drew upon a lineage of American designers and was worn by the most influential Americans of his time — from Jackie Kennedy to Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor to Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger and Katherine Hepburn. Halston’s work was inextricably tied to the Studio 54 set — his clothes defined disco nightclub style, with his gold lamé, swirling bias-cut jersey, and the way his clothes allowed and responded to the movement of the wearer. As Liza Minnelli said, “his clothes danced with you.” Halston’s work allowed him to become close friends with the core of the Studio 54 set, and even threw Bianca Jagger’s famous birthday party in 1977, where she rode in on a white horse.

Bianca Jagger riding into Studio 54 at her birthday party in 1977, wearing a red Halston dress.
An ad for Halston by his close friend, Andy Warhol.
Joe Eula (a close friend of Halston) illustration of Halston fitting Lauren Bacall

Halston said of himself, “I made Americans believe in American style, and that was a very important thing for them. And the American mood of not only style but life on every level … when you talk about a designer’s name or his label or his standard or his signature, it really is only as good as the product, and the product itself must sell itself.” He wasn’t just boasting — Halston’s work built upon a legacy of American designers and helped solidify the concept of a uniquely American style, able to compete in the global industry. Halston’s work was influenced by his American predecessors — Claire McCardell’s simple construction and use of wool jersey to create beautifully crafted, modern sportswear can be seen in Halston’s work. Norman Norell was instrumental in creating the idea of ready to wear clothing that could also be luxurious, a joy to wear, and accommodating to a broad range of customers, an idea that Halston took to the next level.

Halston fitting a model.

Halston’s original idol and first collaborator was the seminal American designer, Charles James. Charles James was one of the first designers to be recognized by French couture as a legitimate artist, on their own level, in the 1940s and 1950s. Halston sponsored a retrospective of James’ work in 1969, saying, “Charles James has always been one of my heroes.” Halston afterwards announced he was hiring James to work in his showroom, as “an engineer of fashion,” to assist him — picking up James’ catchphrase, “you’re only as good as the people you dress.” However, James was notoriously difficult to work with, often delivering designs late if at all, borrowing dresses back from clients and renting them out to other clients, working and re-working and over-working miniscule details for months. The two showed a collaborative collection in June 1970, but it was a flop — James’ work was stiff and heavy, weighing down Halstons’. Women’s Wear Daily quipped, “in the soft seventies, who wants engineered clothes?”.

Though the show was a flop, it allowed Halston to realize that his potential was equal, if not greater than, his hero. Halston and James parted ways, and while James spent the rest of his life disparaging and criticizing him, Halston moved on to eventually eclipse James as a designer. By 1972, Newsweek cited Halston as “simply the premier fashion designer of all America.”

On November 28, 1973, Halston participated in the divertissement à Versailles, Halston was invited, along with 4 other American designers (Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta, and Anne Klein) to showcase work at Versailles in order to fundraise for its restoration. While the official event structure was that the five French designers — Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Marc Bohan for Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, and of course Yves Saint Laurent — invited the Americans as their “guests,” the reality was that it was a competition. American fashion was for the first time pitted against French fashion as equal. The Americans, with the help of remarkable models (many of them black women, such as Pat Cleveland), blew away the traditional, pretentious French show with simplicity and energy. Halston, while showcasing some of his more flamboyant designs, worn by models such as Elsa Peretti and China Machado, still radiated a more restrained elegance, which were well received in contrast with the elaborate French couture shown.

Halston’s show at Versaille, 1973.
Halston, Joe Eula (illustrator), Oscar de la Renta, and Bill Blass in Paris before the Battle of Versaille.

On August 1, 1975, Esquire published an article titled, Will Halston Take Over the World?, which succinctly sums up Halston’s grip on the decade.

Roy Halston posing in his Olympic Tower office, with St. Patrick’s Cathedral below him.

Halston’s success as a couturier came in part from his ability to control his own image. He began to always appear surrounded in a cloud of models, known as the “Halstonettes,” all wearing his designs, wherever he went. He asked his staff to dress in all black to serve as “a backdrop for the clothes.” His office was precisely manicured with countless mirrors and glass surfaces, red accents, (Halston’s use of red accents can be seen across his work — from his garments, his office, and even his home) and crisp orchids . Halston himself always appeared head to toe in black, with a white sports coat and immense sunglasses.

Halston and the Halstonettes.
Halston and the Halstonettes.

In 1979, Halston was invited to tour a recently opened China, as a gesture of goodwill and the start of friendlier public relations between China and the U.S. Halston took with him twenty-eight people, many of them models, to tour the sights. Typical of Halston’s control down to the smallest detail, the group rode in identical limousines, had wardrobes set for every day in a restricted palette of red, black, beige, and cream, and wore matching sunglasses. They visited the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, and Beijing, as well as some of the factories where the silk used to produce Halston’s clothes were made, showing the workers the final product. The trip was a success in terms of the series of beautiful photos produced, but the models were “miserable” after weeks of Halston’s nitpicking and precision.

Halston and his group at the Great Wall of China..

Yves Saint Laurent brought his designs to a more accessible audience with the creation of Rive Gauche in 1966, creating a more affordable and accessible line for buyers. This is an important factor in how he became so influential- because middle-class people were actually able to wear his clothing, as opposed to being exclusive to the elite, his designs reached a wider audience and became revolutionary, and worked to cement his influence in the public eye. Yves Saint Laurent also had an important ally — Pierre Bergé organized a repurchase of the clothing section of the YSL company in 1972, allowing Yves Saint Laurent to solidify his right to design under his own name, no matter what happened in the future in terms of licenses. This financial freedom was key in allowing Yves Saint Laurent to succeed.

Halston was attempting a similar transition with his 1983 partnership with JCPenney to create “Halston III,” trying to spread his influence to a wider audience and allow more people to wear his clothes. The same move, which brought Yves Saint Laurent fame, was Halston’s downfall, because Halston allowed the rights to his name and brand to be signed away to a larger conglomerate, rather than creating the label as a subsection of his own house.

Halston’s partnership with JCPenney was a gamble — it had the potential to solidify his legacy in the American consciousness, but signing over the rights to his name and brand was a risk that didn’t pay off. Some critics claim that his partnership with JCPenney ruined his brand because it cheapened it, which feels like an unfair criticism — Mary Quant had a partnership with JCPenney in 1962, which didn’t negatively affect her brand status (though she wasn’t a haute couture designer, arguably Halston’s work wasn’t traditional haute couture and was already focused on accessibility). Halston’s reputation as a public figure and as a designer wasn’t necessarily incompatible with creating a commercial line — his work already was based in a simpler, more accessible form of couture, and his numerous licenses had turned his brand into a household name. What truly brought Halston’s downfall was his increasingly difficult temperament and inability to delegate in order to work efficiently.

Yves Saint Laurent was also wise to restrain his collaborative work and more accessible creations to one outlet, and not over-extending himself or his creative energy on a multitude of projects. Halston had, at one point, over 30 different contracts and collaborations, from uniforms for the 1976 U.S. Olympic team to suitcases to Girl Scout leader outfits, and he was insistent on designing every single one of them himself. While his dedication was admirable, his inability to either delegate or curate meant that he was unable to manage this multitude of projects efficiently, and with time, this degraded Halston’s relationship to his friends and partners.

In addition, Halstons’ precise vision and eye for detail was a strength when focused on a limited range of projects, and initially enabled him to craft the public persona that brought him fame. But it made working with others near impossible, ultimately undercutting Halston’s ability to succeed when it became imperative for him to work on a team. He was unable to relinquish even a fraction of his authority and unwilling to concede any of the trappings of stardom he was accustomed to (a beautifully lit workplace in the Olympic Tower, orchids and mirrors everywhere) in order to fit a budget.

Halston and Liza Minnelli in the Olympic Tower.

As time passed, Halston’s already notorious temper grew shorter. Halston faced difficulty translating his desire for perfection into less expensive garments, and was unable to keep on assistants or junior designers for any length of time. Halston wanted everything to be precisely as he wanted it — even if that meant wasting time and money, having staff stay late into the evening, and refusing to accept any help from assistant designers. Ironically, many of these traits were the downfall of his predecessor, Charles James.

As Halston’s work became rockier and rockier, and his control over his company shrank, he lashed out with increasing frequency, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Even his loyal friend and collaborator, Elsa Peretti, was unable to continue working with him, finding his demand for constant work, and constant perfection, too much. In 1983, Norton Simon Industries, Halston’s parent company, sold to Esmark, and in 1984 it went to Beatrice Foods. The constant shifting and turmoil created instability, and Halston’s productivity and temper dropped lower and lower. Since he had sold the rights to his name, Beatrice Foods had the power to oust Halston, and eventually they did so, shutting him out of the Olympic Tower office in 1985. Beatrice Foods passed Halston the company on to Revlon, who put John David Ridge, Halston’s former assistant designer, in charge. Ridge released his first collection for the house in 1989 — the press noted the shift in atmosphere in the house with Halston’s absence, but concluded that “While it did not meet the highest Halston standards, the show was by no means an embarrassment.”

The Halston house lives on to this day, undergoing several more changes of ownership and iterations of lines and creative directors (notably, Sarah Jessica Parker had a short stint as creative director at Halston Heritage, as she is a fan of the brand, but left in 2011). It’s no longer the emblematic American house it once was, but its Heritage line still honors Halston’s legacy.

Roy Halston, though one of the greatest stars of his time and one of the designers who defined modern American fashion, is lost to the public consciousness. His downfall, through his inability to curate his work and to work on a team, meant that his legacy would not survive in the same way as his contemporaries, such as Yves Saint Laurent. However, his influence still continues — Halston paved the way for other designers to use commercial partnerships to make their work more accessible, from Isaac Mizrahi, Zac Posen, and Proenza Schouler. Halston’s work as a designer can be seen reflected in the work of Calvin Klein, Jil Sanders, and Tom Ford’s work. Though he was unable to survive in the larger cultural memory the way Yves Saint Laurent did, Roy Halston’s work continues to influence American fashion to this day, through his innovation in simplicity and glamour.


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