Nassau County Museum of Art brings the glamour of the fashion world inside its walls, as it shines the spotlight on the life and work of iconic fashion designer Halston. The new exhibition, which opens March 25, is a significant look at his fabled career, occupying the museum’s two floors of exhibit space.
“The entire museum is being turned over to this celebration of Halston and his achievements in fashion. As the first-ever comprehensive retrospective about this important American designer, “Halston Style” is one of the most ambitious projects the museum has ever undertaken,” says Dr. Karl E. Willers, the museum’s director.
Organized by Halston’s niece and confidante Lesley Frowick, with support from H Halston at Lord & Taylor, this peek inside the celebrity couterier’s life includes many never-before-seen objects from his personal collection. Halston left these original materials to Frowick’s care, with the directive to use them to tell story of his career and lifestyle. Frowick spent eight years with her uncle, resulting in a book, published in 2014, “Halston: Inventing American Fashion.”
That book, which paved the way for a documentary project on the designer, currently in development, also resulted in Willers’ interest in bringing a Halston retrospective to the museum.
“The project came together quickly in a sense within year,” Willers says. “In another sense Frowick has been working on it for a decade.”
“This is a remarkable exhibition project. There are so many associations within fashion and the art world that connect to Halston. The exhibit makes interesting forays into the various worlds that Halson influenced.”
Halston, once an Eagle Scout, who, according to Frowick, proudly flew the U.S. flag outside his home, made American style the foundation for his design aesthetic. He redefined ordinary shapes — the shirtwaist dress and the caftan, among others — with luxe fabrics and modern lines, worn by the most beautiful people of his era: Bianca Jagger, Jackie Kennedy, Liza Minnelli.
“This is the first time that the Halston archive has been opened up in this way.,” says Willers. “Lesley has access to such a vast amount of material that has never been shown. Visitors will be amazed at the range of items on view. It is undeniable in looking at his career and accomplishments
that he was a seminal figure in the history of fashion in America.”
“Halston’s career also parallels with the development of fashion as an art form, which continues to grow steadily. Designers today owe a great debt to Halston.”
His minimalistic dresses, including his innovative shirtdress garment, are among the more than 60 fashions on display, along with the pillbox hats made famous by Jacqueline Kennedy and classic gown silhouettes. These designs are juxtaposed with Studio 54 snapshots, photographs of Olympic Tower parties, design sketches, and personal items from the designer’s life.
“Before he died, he gave me his archives and told ‘me you have everything you need to tell my story’,” says Frowick.
And it is quite a story indeed. Halston’s life and career unfolds in eight thematic rooms, representing his many career milestones. The exhibit begins with his first New York job as a hat designer at Bergdorf Goodman for Lilly Dache. “His early work as a milliner is what got him started,” says Willers. “From there he launched his career as a designer.”
Other sections are devoted to Halston’s collaborations with artistic contemporaries. Elsa Peretti designed the classic Halston fragrance bottle and the elegant jewelry chosen by the designer to accessorize and accompany his garments. The photographer Hiro produced much of the imagery employed to market, advertise and promote the Halston brand. Halston designed numerous costumes for dances choreographed by the legendary Martha Graham. Cosmetic ads, fabric designs and other surprises emerged from the designer’s close friendship and association with Andy Warhol.
Halston designed for many celebrated American women, among them First Ladies Jacqueline Kennedy and Betty Ford. He also was a favorite of several top actresses and performers, including Elizabeth Taylor and Lauren Bacall. But most notable was his close association with Liza Minnelli; having designed the gown she wore when accepting the Oscar for “Cabaret.” He went on to design her costumes for film and stage, finally becoming Minnelli’s exclusive designer.
“Ease of movement and elegant casualness are the hallmarks of Halston style,” says Willers. “His designs were pared down and effortless. There was nothing else quite like it in the history of fashion. He had an amazing career with many firsts.”
His personal appearances were captured by a generation of photographers, while his home and office surroundings conveyed discerning tastes in modern and contemporary art. Halston and his celebrity companions were regular visitors to the infamous Studio 54 during its heyday from 1977 to 1979, a scene that melded music, nightlife and fashion.
“Halston did it all and did it impeccably,” says Willers. “Fashion, art and the world of celebrity all coalesced with him.”
Designs that used innovative fabrics — such as hand-painted silks, comfortable cashmeres and the newly-developed Ultrasuede — are complemented by working sketches drawn by Halston himself or his design assistant Steven Sprouse (who went on to become a renowned designer himself) and the fashion illustrator Joe Eula.
A room is also given over to Halston’s many licensing efforts, including sketches of uniforms for the Girl Scouts and 1976 U.S. Olympic team uniforms, and creations for J.C. Penney, among other mass market endeavors.
“This is a retrospective of a rich and talented life,” notes Frowick. “The exhibit space is so elegant; it blends well with the Halston style. His minimalist, modern designs will really pop here.”
Once the exhibit closes on July 9, Frowick will turn her attention to taking it on the road to other major American cities and eventually to Europe. “I want to people to walk away from the exhibit understanding Halston the man and not just the designer,” she says. “I’d like to bring to this to major fashion cities, to cities that played a role in his history, and eventually to key cities in Europe.”
“I want people to see who he really was, a really hard worker, who put blood, sweat and tears into his métier. Through hard work he achieved great success. He was also a generous and loving person. He was generous to everyone, especially to his family.”
When: March 25 through July 9. $12, $8 seniors, $4 students and children.
Where: at Nassau County Museum of Art, One Museum Drive (off Northern Boulevard, Route 25A), Roslyn Harbor. (516) 484-9337 or www.nassaumuseum.org.