Halston and his High-Low Collaboration

Posted by Reem
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Halston III for JCPenney Ad, 1983.

At a Coachella pool party this year, it was announced that Alexander Wang would be the first American designer to collaborate with Swedish international retailer, H&M. Wang would be the 18th high-end designer to work with the fast-fashion giant since their first collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004.

However, long before H&M, Halston also collaborated with a major retailer to bring his fashions to the masses. The designer had built his career step by step, starting as a milliner at Bergdorf Goodman in 1961 and he became a household name after designing the pillbox hat Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration. In 1966, Halston opened a boutique inside Bergdorfs. In 1975, the Halston fragrance was launched under Max Factor garnering $85 million in sales within two years. Roy Halston Frowick was a Studio 54 favourite by the late seventies and the darling of the jet set. He was known world-wide as the all-American designer so it was a natural extension to attempt to bring his aesthetic to the masses. Riding high on the success of the 1970s, in 1983, Halston partnered with JCPenney through the Norton Smith Company to make his brand of easy glamour more accessible. He had once had dreams of becoming a great couturier but the appeal of dressing everyone in America was a greater carrot and he jumped in with both feet.

He launched his Halston III line for the department store, a decision that ultimately and irreparably damaged his business. The mainstream connotation attached to his brand caused Bergdorf Goodman's and Martha's (one of the most exclusive boutiques in the country at the time) to drop Halston’s main line. They felt that the exclusivity of his brand had been tarnished by the move. At this point in retail history this was new and advante garde decision and it went against everything the rules of high end retail was based on. This initially seemed to be balanced out by the popularity of the Halston III line. In the summer of 1983 it was a complete and absolute triumph. The press loved it, the clothes were very well made and everything with the Halston name on it flew out of the store.

This success was short-lived, Halston had a growing addiction to drugs and that made him erratic. He was also a perfectionist and the people around him lived in fear of his wrath if things did not meet his approval. In the meantime, the business was changing hands and being sold to one large corporation after another and he became more and more adamant about approving every licensed design personally which constantly slowed the process. His perfectionism may have kept his designing integrity intact, but it made running the business ever more difficult. By 1984 the company was under the control of Esmark, Inc and the Halston brand was by then just a small fish in a large corporate pond. By October of 1984, Halston was asked to leave the offices and in a double tragedy was also no longer able to design, create or sell items under his own name. The next few years of his life were spent traveling ad fighting to buy back his name. Even that came to an end though - in 1988 he was diagnosed with AIDS and died from complications in 1990.

As we all know, the great American designer is now revered by the fashion community and remembered for his innovations, his fabulous friends and celebrity designer status. Even Bergdorf Goodman’s blog now boasts that Halston was America’s first fashion superstar despite their abrupt dismissal of him back in the day.

While collaborations since have proved profitable and done the opposite of Halston's sad tale and actually caused a designers profile to rise, there still remains the possibility that, like Halston, it is the designer who stands to lose the most if a collaboration is not handled just right. Despite the allure of instant publicity and potential high profits some designers still heed Halston's cautionary tale. For example. both Forbes and The Cut report that Marc Jacobs has referenced Halston's branding mistake and what it cost him as the reason why he has no immediate plans to do any type of collaboration of any kind with his brand.

From a vintage point of view there is a certain irony that due to Halston's absolute perfectionist streak that the clothing from this diffusion line was so well made that many pieces of it are far more valuable now then their modest pricing at the time. One must admire him for that despite the cost to both himself and his company.

(L) Halston III, 1983. (R) Halston III, Harper's Bazaar, December 1984.


(L-R) Halston III for JCPenney, A crepe suit ($200) and a wool coat ($190.) (As per WWD Archive) / Halston III for JCPenney holiday show, 1984. / Halston III for JCPenney, A marabou jacket (approx $150) and an ostrich-trimmed velvet jacket ( $110) and skirt ($70). (as per WWD Archive).


1980s Halston III ad.


(L) Halston III for JCPenney ad in Mademoiselle magazine, September 1983. (R) Halston III for JCPenney Ad, 1980s.


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