Who Was Roy Halston Frowick and What Was His Impact on Fashion?

Roy Halston Frowick, known around the world as Halston, was one of the most influential American fashion designers of the 20th century. He is one of the iconic ‘70s designers who defined the fashion of the era , with his elegant, streamlined, and sexy dresses that were staples during the disco era. He started his designing career as a milliner, but it was his dresses and his models – dubbed as the Halstonettes – who made him famous.

Halston was also known as much for his lavish lifestyle as he was for his designs. He and his gang of models and the celebrity friends were fixtures of the New York City party scene during the ‘70s and the ‘80s, especially at the famous Studio 54. His party-going inspired some of his most popular designs, including the halter dress that became a go-to look for party-going women of that era.

Learn about the life of Roy Halston Frowick and the legacy he left behind.

Early Life

Roy Halston Frowick was born on April 23, 1932, in Des Moines, Iowa, and became the second son of a Norwegian accountant and his stay-at-home wife. He loved to alter and make clothes for his mother and sister as a young boy. He studied at Indiana University and then at the Art Institute of Chicago. While attending the school in Chicago, he worked as a fashion merchandiser at the upscale chain department store Carson Pirie Scott. He began designing hats in his spare time.

Eventually, Halston started to sell his designs at Andre’ Basil’s hair salon at the Ambassador Hotel. In 1959, his personal relationship with Basil ended, and Halston moved to New York to take a design position with respected milliner Lily Dache, and then worked in the custom millinery salon of the prestigious fashion retailer Bergdorf Goodman. While he was there, he designed the iconic pillbox hat worn by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy for the 1961 presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

Professional Life and Success in Fashion

Halston’s hat design brought the fantastic to whimsy – he used all manner of flowers, jewels, and fringe to decorate bonnets, hoods, and coifs. Since becoming the designer of Jacqueline Kennedy’s iconic hat, his friends and clients soon included some of the most alluring and famous women around the world, including Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, and Diana Vreeland.

In 1966, Halston started designing women’s wear for Bergdorf Goodman, offering the perfect look for the international jet set of his era. His fashion was renowned for being sexy yet elegant. Two years later, he left the retailer to establish his own company, Halston Ltd., which catered to celebrities.

In December 1968, Halston showed his first namesake collection at 33 East 68th Street in New York City, and as his business grew, he took over an entire building, creating a retail boutique in 1972 that took up three floors of the building. Later on, Halston launched a ready-to-wear company, Halston Originals, with two partners and headquartered on New York’s Seventh Avenue.

In the fall of 1972, Halston introduced a simple shirtwaist dress made from Ultrasuede, a durable and beautiful fabric he became known for. He won the Coty American Fashion Critics “Winnie” awards for being the most influential fashion designer in 1971 and 1972. He created his most iconic design, the halter dress, two years later. It became an instant hit in the discotheques in America, giving women a narrow and elongated silhouette.

A beaded nylon evening caftan designed by Halston

In 1973, Halston sold his business to Norton Simon conglomerate for $16 million but continued as a principal designer. Later on, in 1982, he signed a contract to design an affordable clothing line for mass retailer J.C. Penney. Though such deals became common in the fashion industry, it was revolutionary and unprecedented in his time and caused severe damage in his career.

The Fall and Death of Halston

Halston’s increasing drug use and failure to meet deadlines undermined his success despite his big achievements. In 1984, he was fired from his own company and lost the right to design and sell under his own name. Since then, he tried unsuccessfully to buy back the company. However, he continued to design costumes for his friends Liza Minnelli and Martha Graham.

While negotiating a buyback with Revlon in 1988, Halston tested positive for HIV. In 1990, he eventually died of lung cancer and complications of AIDS in San Francisco, California.

Biggest Impact on Fashion

Halston was a highly influential fashion designer  who significantly impacted the industry. Here are some of his feats:

He was considered the first superstar designer in the United States.

Irresistible to the media and defined by his trademark designs, Halston became the first superstar fashion designer. He brought an unprecedented diversity of racial backgrounds and body shapes to the runway and became the first to build a fashion business in the United States to the level where designers become part of large conglomerates or become worth billions of dollars.

His fashions became a staple in American discos.

With his eminent social circle, Halston hung around Studio 54, a former disco nightclub in New York frequented by the rich and famous. His partying lifestyle influenced his approach to design, making him the quintessential designer of the glamorous disco fever generation. He gave birth to disco dressing in the form of sequined, glitzy, and shimmery dresses and outfits in the 1970s. Liza Minelli, Halston’s close friend and confidant, said, “His clothes danced with you!”

He popularized the halter dress and many other trademark fashions.

A Halston evening dress

A nightlife favorite among party-going American women, the halter dress was popularized and glamorized by Halston. He was known for his sexy, flattering silhouettes that shifted on the wearer’s body. His creations felt modern as they used innovative materials like Ultrasuede, which lends dresses a more refined and classy appeal.

Besides the halter dress, Halston was also responsible for popularizing caftans, matte jersey halter top dresses, strapless dresses, cashmere knits, one-shoulder dresses, asymmetrical necklines, and polyurethane in American fashion. When he tied a sweater around the shoulders of his models, the look was adopted by fashionable women everywhere.

He created a relaxed urban fashion for American women.

A tan ultrasuede Halston shirt dress

Besides disco fashion, Halston’s aesthetic chimed with the 70s social revolution, as it was the decade where radical women’s liberation of the ‘60s has become more widespread. To reflect the culture of the times, he created clothes that were simple, often cut on the bias, and framed the body of the wearer. As fitness culture grew, so did the popularity of his designs.

Women wanted to liberate their bodies and not put them in a corset or in big, structured clothing like the Europeans did in the ‘60s couture. Halston’s designs were simple, comfortable, yet elegant at the same time. His $200 Ultrasuede dress that was cut like a man’s shirt was a bestseller. His designs were about modern women at night and during the day, as the designer focused on elegance without restriction. At the same time, his clothes were often worn without bras, as they were often cutaways and halter necks that show skin.

He made minimalism and simplicity the new norm for fashion.

A cashmere Halston evening ensemble

The designer carved a name for himself in the fashion scene for his clean, minimal, and functional designs. His signature looks were spare, fluid, and often deceptively simple. Within the purity of his designs, there was sexiness and extreme femininity. The slink dresses and double-faced coats he designed maintained a clean, sensual line. He simplified fashion for modern lifestyles without sacrificing luxury and glamour.

His impact is clearly visible in the work of designers like Tom Ford, whose glamorous late ‘90s womenswear bears his influence. By making everyday outfits luxurious, he also became an early pioneer of athleisure.

He cultivated a group of models to become his “brand ambassadors.”

Halston’s most famous saying was, “You’re only as good as the people you dress.” The designer was not only notable for his fashions but also for his cultivated group of favorite models that became known as the Halstonettes – which included the likes of Pat Cleveland, Beverly Johnson, Lauren Hutton, Liza Minelli, Elsa Peretti, Anjelica Houston, Bianca Jagger, Marisa Berenson, and other top models of the 70s 

The group was known for diversity, as Halston tried to include models of every race in his shows, and he became one of the first major designers to do so. The Halstonettes did not only appear in his campaigns and the runway but also traveled with him, attended his galas, and acted as his muses.

All these famous women helped advertise his brand in a way that felt like a natural endorsement instead of something distant like a billboard or a magazine cover. He became famous through those models, equivalent to what we would call Instagram brand ambassadors.

He changed how fashion operated as a business and made designer clothing more accessible.

Halston’s business empire set a template for today’s ambitious designers. In 1973, he signed a deal with Norton Simon, which also owned Max Factor cosmetics, earning him a huge financial backing. In 1982, he also made a deal with J.C. Penney, the affordable department store where he shopped as a child. He stepped outside the norm, but people of their time like their boundaries. His deal transgressed the boundaries of exclusivity that high fashion brands fiercely protected.

Nowadays, collaborations between major designers and more affordable high-street brands like H&M were common, but it was major news during his time. That deal resulted in his label being booted out of high fashion stores like Bergdorf Goodman, which gave him a head start in the fashion industry.

He was one of the American designers who participated in the Battle of Versailles.

In 1973, a historic fashion show named the Battle of the Versailles pitted top American designs against legendary French names like Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan. Halston was one of the five American designers who helped break France’s global dominance in fashion, as he was joined by Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, and Bill Blass.