American fashion history: How Halston defined the 70s

In a new series here at WGSN Insider we are going to be looking at notable designers in America’s fashion history and particularly how New York’s 7th avenue became a creative hub, producing some of the most prominent labels. 

This week we’re focusing on fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick.

Designer Roy Halston Frowick and Model Pat Cleveland- credit: Ron Galella/WireImage

Designer Roy Halston Frowick and Model Pat Cleveland- credit: Ron Galella/WireImage

Iconic 1970s fashion designer Halston is considered by many to be America’s greatest designer. Though he passed away in 1990, and underwent a number of battles to win back the right to use his name, his label defined the disco era of the seventies and he was one of the earliest American designers to build a personal brand. Here’s his story.


Halston came to New York in 1957, and started work as a milliner before setting up his business in 1968. Under the support of Eleanor Lambert, who kickstarted New York Fashion Week, Halston’s business grew and by the 1970s he had launched his owned ready-to-wear line. The secret to his success? “His designs bridged the generation gap. Women over 30 could wear them without looking as if they were trying to recapture a lost youth, and teenagers could wear them without looking inappropriately sophisticated. – The Washington Post. 


In order to build his brand and take his fashion appeal to the next level, Halston sold his company to Norton Simon Industries in 1973, this was a huge licensing deal at the time, for $16 million. However, it also meant that he handed over the right to use his name to Norton. Professionally, he was flourishing though, with money in the bank and huge fame, thanks to the fact that his designs were being worn by notable names like Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger (at the height of studio 54 fame).

Bianca Jagger

Bianca Jagger

“Halston was the perfect designer for the anti-fashion 1970s. He took the demand for simpler, real-life clothes and made high art out of it. He had a pared-down, almost modernist sensibility…His clothes followed the shape of a woman’s body without being tight.”- Grace Mirabella, In and Out of Vogue….

One of the key moments in his career came in November 28, 1973 when he joined fellow American designers Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows and Anne Klein in The Battle of Versailles, a fashion showdown against hugely established French designers-  Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior.

“The French were the star attractions; the Americans were the chorus girls. But in this case, it was the chorus girls, their stomach knotted with fear as they prepared to take the stage, who stole the show,”- Robin Givhan, The Battle of Versailles.


In the 1980s Halston signed another deal this time with the J C Penney Company. It was an agreement to design more affordable clothes, the problem was that the higher end stores carrying his collection at the time didn’t feel that the brand could do both high-end and affordable, so they dropped him (this was long before the age of designer’s having lower-priced capsule lines/collaborations with brands like Target and H&M). Then in 1984, Halston himself brought back his company from Norton Simon and the rights to his name.

“I have acquired back all the ready-to-wear aspects above the Penney price level,” he explained. “I feel great. It’s like a new frontier,”- Washington Post, Halston Buys Back His Company.

Shortly afterwards in 1990, he passed away. And while it seemed then that the line was destined to lie in the fashion hall of fame, new owners emerged in the 2000s.

2000s to date. 

In New York Fashion Week of February 2008, consumers saw the hotly anticipated relaunch of iconic 1970s label Halston. Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who acquired the brand in 2007, hired Tamara Mellon of Jimmy Choo fame, Marco Zanini and Hollywood celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe, to help reinvent one of the greatest brands in fashion history. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker also briefly served as the President and Chief Creative Officer of the company.
In 2010 documentary filmmaker Whitney Sudler-Smith showcased her film about the brand at the Tribeca Film Festival. The movie was called Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston. 
Then in 2011, the business changed hands again, and a more affordable Halston heritage line was created and is run by Ben Malka (The former President of BCBG Max Azria Group) based in Los Angeles, complete with an e-commerce business,which launched in 2013. The website sells Halston Heritage ready-to-wear, dresses, evening gowns and handbags.


Key shapes that defined the Halston brand:
  • Challenging aesthetic stereotypes of the time, he popularised the legendary ultra-suede shirt dress, a straight-cut woven shirtdress and the red carpet jersey dress.
  • His floating chiffon dresses and kaftans adorned the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, while his constructed safari suits and tailored jersey dresses made him one of the original luxe-sportswear designers.
  • “His ultra-suede shirt dress, which came on the market in the early 70s, became one of the most successful dresses ever made”, Grace Mirabella, former Vogue Magazine editor and author of the memoir ‘In and Out of Vogue’.


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