How Not To Bring a Label Back From the Dead

Halston’s spring collection

What is it about the legacy of Halston that trips up every designer who has tried to revive his name? His deceptively simple, minimalist aesthetic might be a part of it. Working with an absence of embellishment and a lean silhouette that rarely varied, Halston’s clothes were masterful studies in cut, color, and texture. He could make a lavish gown using only one seam, flatter a variety of complexions with his powdery palette, and juxtapose airy chiffon with gutsy Ultrasuede (a signature fabric), only to make each more beautiful. But it’s not impossible to reinvent minimalism: Raf Simons, the designer of über-clean Jil Sander, has shown that that aesthetic can evolve, even in the absence of a house’s founding designer. Something else seems to elude all would-be Halston resuscitators.

Marco Zanini, Donatella Versace’s longtime right-hand man (he was the chief designer for both Versace’s haute couture and ready-to-wear collections), needs to figure out what that is if he is to move past his lackluster debut as Halston’s new capo on Monday at the Gagosian Gallery. With the backing of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and former Jimmy Choo owner Tamara Mellon, Zanini is in a swell position to make magic where others have only made a mess. Nobody remembers Bradley Bayou’s Halston (2002-2005). And though retailers say that Randolph Duke, who had his crack at Halston’s slithery, one-shoulder dresses between 1997 and 1998, sold well, his clothes were oversexed for a label that once only suggested what went on behind closed doors.

Zanini’s clothes were pretty enough. But, frankly, who cares? The challenge in reviving the name of any designer who is dead is to think hard about what that designer might do if he were alive today. Halston had the double blessing of being talented and being a man utterly of his time. It is designers like these who change the way women dress. As the automobile was becoming commonplace, Gabrielle Chanel trained her chic eye on clothing that suggested a woman could move as quickly as a man, erasing Paul Poiret’s lampshade silhouette with her gamine little suits. Christian Dior practically drowned his models in meters of rich satin after the fabric rationing of World War II. We already know Halston designed pretty clothes. What Halston really did, however, was to assert that American fashion—simple, convenient, elegant—had a place on the world stage at a time when Yves Saint Laurent’s French extravagance ruled the day.

Which brings us to Halston’s models, the “Halstonettes.” These women—icy blond Karen Bjornson; regal, ebony-skinned Naomi Sims—represented a mix of American faces. His clients were the most stylish of that era: Anjelica Huston, Berry Berenson, Liza Minnelli. Where were these strong and varied women in Zanini’s lineup? His pinheaded, young, white models projected nothing of the strength of Halston’s famous castings. Who, exactly, is Zanini hoping to dress? Who are today’s Halstonettes? Ms. Mellon, long brown hair flowing, wearing bold black-and-gold sunglasses and a shimmy of a jersey dress, looked more relevant than anyone in Zanini’s show.

Perhaps the problem is that Zanini, like his predecessors, has reduced Halston to less than the sum of his parts. Halston was not all pure palette and one-shoulder dresses. You need only see pictures from the early shows held in his East Side townhouse, which was decorated with batik-draped walls, orchids, and East Indian furniture by Angelo Donghia *, to understand that. Where were the hand-painted stripes? The incredible floral prints? Deeper, and more stylish, thinking is needed to free this house from legacy.

Question of the Day(send yours to josh.patner@gmail.com):

Is it really necessary to have fashion weeks in four different cities? What are the differences between the locales?

Fashion weeks are filled with glamour and celebrities, but they are, essentially, trade shows, opportunities for manufacturers to present their wares to buyers. Each country that is a serious producer of fashion has its own fashion week. Today, in addition to New York, London, Milan, and Paris, fashion weeks are held in Tokyo, São Paulo, and Moscow.

For a long time, the four major fashion capitals had identifiable styles. Milan was known for streamlined clothes and industrial might. (Giorgio Armani is an example of the first; the now-defunct Genny Group, which produced Genny and Byblos, in addition to other labels, is an example of the latter.) Paris “owned” extravagant femininity (the applied decoration of Christian Lacroix or Valentino) and the experimental (Yohji Yamamoto, Commes des Garcons). London meant social commentary on the one hand (Vivienne Westwood’s punk) and ladylike fashion on the other (Jean Muir). And New York was known for sportswear (the interchangeable separates of Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan).

In the early ‘90s, though, designers began to be plucked from their home countries to design big-name collections abroad. (Oscar de la Renta, a New York designer, once also designed for Balmain, in Paris. Gianfranco Ferre, from Milan, once designed for the French Christian Dior. Marc Jacobs, whose own business is based in New York, now also designs Louis Vuitton, in Paris.) Today, when Brit Jonathan Saunders shows in New York and American Rick Owens shows in Paris, national distinctions are all but irrelevant, though I’d argue that, at their best, the collections do reflect those core aesthetics.

Correction, Feb. 8, 2008: The article originally referred to Angelo Donghia as Angela Donghia. (Return to the corrected sentence.)