Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… Halston, flawed fashion genius

No one smoked cigarettes wearing a polo neck with more aplomb

Swellboy on… Halston, flawed fashion genius

Image: Brijesh Patel

October 07 2011
Nick Foulkes

I have just been to a premier of Ultrasuede, a documentary subtitled “In search of Halston”, by Whitney Sudler-Smith, and I urge you to see it, both for Halston and for Whitney.

I can only describe Whitney as some sort of bon chic bon genre Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, except that instead of dealing with American gun culture or American hamburger culture, he is more interested in the polo-necked, cigarette-smoke-wreathed, dark-glassed glamour of Halston. I have long been a fan of Halston; in my opinion, no one ever smoked a cigarette while wearing a black polo neck with more aplomb. As a fashion designer he may have done things differently and he undoubtedly could do clever things with a pair of scissors and a length of cloth, but more importantly Halston is shorthand for a sort of glamour that came of age in the 1970s.

In the film Whitney interviews a number of Halston intimates and Liza Minnelli urges him to look beyond the gossip. But isn’t it the gossip that made Halston?

I was once told that while there may not have been a lot of substance to Halston, there was a lot of substance abuse, and it is this that was the fatal flaw, the hamartia that made him into the fully-fledged tragic hero of Shakespearean proportions who ticked all the live-fast-and-die-(relatively)-young (but look fabulous while doing so) boxes. The archive TV clips that interstice Whitney’s highly amusing interviews show a man who is almost a parody of himself, drawling like Vincent Price given an haute couture makeover.

That Halston had genius is indisputable. As a young milliner at Bergdorf Goodman, he came to prominence as the maker of Jackie Kennedy’s pill box hat, but his creative gift really manifested itself in the masks he made for Truman Capote’s black and white ball.

Perhaps the most celebrated Halston creation of the night was the white mink rabbit mask worn by teenage starlet Candice Bergen. There is a pleasing irony to the fact that while Halston is no longer with us, that trivial piece of fancy dress is now a cherished part of the New York City collection. But while it looked great on the young actress, it was not intended for her at all but rather the exquisite Marisa Berenson who, in 1972, would be photographed for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar wearing Halston in front of a helicopter.

“Halston was a close friend at that time,” she told me when I was researching my book on costume balls. “He did my mask and my dress – a whole outfit where I was supposed to come as a rabbit: I had a long black velvet dress, ears and a rabbit face. Then I missed a fitting and he thought I wasn’t going to go.” So he gave the mask to someone else. “I was absolutely devastated. At the last minute he had to make me something completely new. I wore a turban and I turned from a rabbit into an Indian princess – extremely exotic. Halston always did wonderful things.” And it is the origami-like brilliance with which Halston could shape a length of cloth into a glamorous garment that defined his professional skills.

However, his looks and his moth-like attraction to the glamour of the beautiful people were his making and his undoing – after all, having come all the way from Iowa to New York, he was probably not in search of an early night and a cup of cocoa. It was at Studio 54, the famous New York discotheque that, as Shakespeare would not have put it, the wheels came off.

Survivors interviewed for this documentary were either too coy today, or too wasted back then, to give much of an account of the decadence, but there was clearly a lot of it and gradually the toll of late nights, impaired judgment and spiralling florists’ bills did for Halston as he sold out, tried and failed to follow Cardin into the mainstream and, rather like King Lear faced with the inhospitable Goneril and Regan, found himself marring a potential comeback by making exorbitant demands such as his own aeroplane. Alas Halston ended his days driving around San Francisco alone in a Rolls-Royce.

And while on the subject of “the Studio”, it is worth noting that at the height of disco in 1978, Studio 54 was almost the best nightclub in the world, but according to Billboard magazine the best boîte de nuit in the world was not in New York, nor was it in London or Paris; it was instead the Wigan Casino in northern England. Wigan was of course made famous by George Orwell for its pier and its poverty. I have not read the book for years, but I still remember the reverence paid to the “cream cracker” and the endless fun that Orwell had in tracing the passage of individual crumbs up and down his landlady’s tablecloth day after day.

The Casino was of course the all-night locus classicus of northern soul, and featured young men performing the sort of dancefloor acrobatics that would easily win them a place in the finals of Britain’s Got Talent. Just as Halston had his polo neck, his dark glasses, his cigarette and his ultrasuede jacket, so the young men of the Casino sported a uniform of sorts: vests (“wife-beaters” as I believe they are charmingly known in America) and leatherette bowling bags plastered with northern soul decals were de rigueur. But the key component of the northern soul look would appear to have been flared trousers so voluminous that they resembled the Oxford bags of the 1920s and ’30s.

It is one life’s great sadnesses that Halston never spent as much time at the Wigan Casino as at the Studio, as I feel that he would have done something absolutely wonderful with those Oxford bags.

See also

People, Halston