Halston in his orchid-filled Olympic Tower office, 1978. (Photo: Darleen Rubin / Condé Nast Archive)
The appearance of orchids at Rodarte, crafted into ethereal crowns and jewelry by florist Joseph Free, got me thinking about fashion’s ongoing obsession with these exotic flowers. Victorians were mad about these hothouse blooms, which in later decades were prized by debs and society types who wore them as corsages. “Lady Lavery always wears orchids,” Vogue definitively informed its readers in 1927. A decade later, the magazine would publish a story called “Orchids on His Budget,” directed at prom-goers. Always a sign of status—orchids have a reputation as the divas of the horticulture world—they came into their own in the louche 1970s, replacing the earthy, humble daisy, the symbol of flower power.
Orchids are, to put it bluntly, sex symbols. As Anthony West, H. G. Wells’s son, wrote in a 1970 Vogue article illustrated with Irving Penn’s orchid portraits: “Most of the remarkable things orchids do are connected with sex. The orchids are, indeed, specialists in reproductive techniques, and they have raised their performances to a level of refinement and elegance reached by few other flowers.”
Halston, the superstar designer and Studio 54 habitué whose career flourished in the sex-mad ’70s, made the flower his signature, filling his spare Olympic Tower offices with pots of the blooms. “It looked so rich at Halston’s,” Andy Warhol would confide in his diary, “so many orchids, so cool, the girl running around with their brand-new luggage.” Among the Warhol crowd, orchids were used to woo and as consolation gifts after petty quarrels.
Halston, who employed a gardener to tend the plants he grew in the greenhouse on top of his uptown lair, celebrated friends’ birthdays, according to an interview Bob Colacello gave The New York Times, by sending orchids “and little bottles of cocaine. You have to remember that was then, and then was pretty wild.”
Halston’s biographer, Steven Gaines, has suggested that the designer acquired his taste for orchids from his mentor, the irascible Charles James, but they became the Midwestern designer’s trademark—and widespread. “Up until Halston,” decorator Jeffrey Bilhuber told Vogue in 1998, “orchids were treated like champagne, something very occasional and limited. But Halston made them seem like not a rarity but a necessity. They looked just amazing-sensuous without being romantic, and floral without being flowery.”
If white orchids emphasized Halston’s minimalism—“He had a burgundy Gae Aulenti table that he loved to have filled with lots of white phalaenopsis,” says floral designer Renny Reynolds who supplied them—Yves Saint Laurent used them to communicate exoticism, when, in 1978, he threw an unforgettable bash to launch his blockbuster Opium perfume for which Reynolds created with an “orchid forest” of bamboo poles and 5,000 cattleyas, “which Sister Parish,” Reynolds recounts, “wryly referred to as ‘bosom orchids,’ referring, of course to their customary use of as a corsage.”
Fast-forward to Fall 2016, when Rodarte presented a collection that was a romantic, vaguely gothic take on Art Nouveau that recalled “a child’s take on glamour,” as Maya Singer wrote in her review, while at the same time showing the designers’ new, orchidaceous maturity, symbolized in part by their flower of choice.
Eric’s cover for Vogue’s Debutantes issue features Boivin’s diamond-and-sapphire orchid bracelet (Illustration: Eric, Vogue, November 15, 1939)
Inspired by a vase found in a second-hand shop, Elsa Peretti designed this vase necklace for Giorgio di Sant’Angelo in 1969. She’d work closely with Halston, who introduced her to the top brass at Tiffany & Co. (Photo: Courtesy of Tiffany and Co. 198)
Halston and his orchids, 1973 (Photo: Pierre Schermann/ Condé Nast Archive)
Yves Saint Laurent and Alva Chinn at his Opium launch blowout, 1978 (Photo: John Bright/ Condé Nast Archive)
Grace Jones at the Opium launch party, 1978 (Photo: Tony Palmieri / Condé Nast Archive)
Halston in his Paul Rudolph–designed townhouse, 1978 (Photo: Darleen Rubin / Condé Nast Archive)
Halston with Karen Bjornson in the Olympic Tower, 1982 (Photo: Thomas Iannaccone / Condé Nast Archive)
Rodarte Fall 2016 (Photos, from left: Marcus Tondo / Indigital.tv; Sonny Vandevelde / Indigital.tv)