On the evening of April 30, 2010, the fashion elite all trundled to downtown Manhattan en masse for the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, a documentary that delves into the extraordinary life of the jet-set designer and the elegant tunics and billowing dresses for which he became famous. The after-party, sponsored by the Cinema Society and Vanity Fair, was held at the Trump Soho and drew the usual cadre of demi-celebs and socialites, along with a few of the near-relics, including Ann Dexter Jones, Pat Cleveland and Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes, who’d somehow emerged in one piece from the “decadent era of sex, drugs and disco,” as director Whitney Sudler Smith put it, during which Halston reigned.
Also mingling among white orchids in the dimly lit room was a small cabal of former Halston employees, including Bonnie Takhar, Halston’s former CEO, who’d been fired several months earlier, resplendent in a white fur coat, a white dress and four-inch heels; and celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe, a former board member, dressed in a vintage Halston ultrasuede coat.
Noticeably absent from the shindig were Halston’s creative director, Sarah Jessica Parker; Harvey Weinstein’s wife, Georgina Chapman; and Naeem Khan, Roy Halston’s former assistant and now a designer in his own right—all of whom had cheerfully appeared on the red carpet before the screening.
As it happens, there was trouble brewing in the house of the halter pantsuit. But only Zoe, who had unceremoniously quit her board position just months after signing on in 2007, offered a peek at the animosity that was building among the company’s principals, sniping to a reporter from Style.com, “I only own vintage Halston, because I want what he touched.”
Behind the scenes, things were getting rough for “the Harvey crowd,” as they had come to be known. They had arrived to great fanfare in 2007 with a plan to rejuvenate the legendary fashion company, which had, in its heyday, swathed everyone from Pat Buckley and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Bianca Jagger, Lauren Hutton and Elizabeth Taylor, in flowy, one-shoulder jersey gowns, pantsuits and ultrasuede trenches.
Indeed, just two months after the premiere, Parker and Weinstein would be gone, and with them designer Marios Schwab and board member Tamara Mellon, who had engineered the deal with Weinstein in the first place.
“We have been fortunate to have worked with an extraordinary group of individuals, including Bonnie Takhar, Sarah Jessica Parker and Harvey Weinstein, as part of the Halston management team and board of directors,” Jeffrey B. Hecktman, chairman and CEO of Hilco Trading, LLC, said in a statement to The Observer. “Under their leadership and tireless effort, the brand has grown, achieving record sales in over 700 doors. We thank them and wish them nothing but success in the future.”
Fittingly, the crack-up first came to light in a throwaway line in the August issue of Vogue, which threw Seventh Avenue into a frenzy.
Buried among the usual fripperies—what cover girl Parker wears, how she raises her three kids and how she feels about her latest film, I Don’t Know How She Does It—was a telling nugget: “When Sex and the City, to her own surprise, made her a fashion star, she launched her own design label and perfumes, as well as signing on to run the Halston Heritage label, a relationship that recently came to an end.”
Although none of the former Halston principals would speak about their departure, citing nondisclosure agreements, a friend of Parker’s insisted that the actress had nothing to be ashamed of. “Halston was not a healthy company when Sarah Jessica came in,” the source told The Observer. “It was a revolving door for staff. But she worked very hard, and sales were up 40 percent by the time she left. I don’t know how [the company] managed their books or what they leveraged, but now they say they need to raise cash and so are turning to licensing to do so.”
In 2007, when Weinstein stepped in to purchase a stake in Halston from Jim Ammeen, the founder of Neema Clothing, the indie-film mogul was faltering. On the film front, he was struggling to reclaim his place in the business, having sold Miramax to Disney only to be ousted after quibbling with the Mouse over distribution of Fahrenheit 911. But Weinstein’s forays onto Seventh Avenue, which included backing Chapman’s Marchesa line and producing the popular reality series Project Runway, had been more successful.
However, Weinstein’s stake in Halston amounted to just 15 percent, sources say. The rest was controlled by Hilco Consumer Capital, a venture capital firm that holds stakes in a number of more downmarket lines, such as Ellen Tracy, Caribbean Joe and Frederick’s of Hollywood.
“I got jealous of Georgina and wanted my own fashion line,” Weinstein joked when buttonholed by Vogue.com during a party at the Cannes Film Festival. Zoe, a stylist and reality TV star best known for creating the waify boho chic look favored by the Olsen twins, was added to the board after the sale was completed. And to add a touch of rag-trade business acumen, Halston hired Bonnie Takhar, chief commercial officer of Mellon’s Jimmy Choo Ltd., as its chief executive officer, and brought on Marco Zanini, the Versace-schooled couturier, as lead designer. It seemed like a winning combination, and expectations were high.
But behind the pretty facade, signs of strain soon began to emerge.
Within a year, Zoe—who surprised colleagues by neglecting to turn up for the line’s first runway show—exited the board. After presenting the Fall 2008 Halston collection to mixed reviews, Zanini also was gone, replaced by London ingénue Marios Schwab.
In early 2010, in a move to boost the brand’s visibility, Parker was brought on as a creative director and president of a less expensive, more commercially friendly new line called Halston Heritage. The four-year deal was worth a whopping $13 million in addition to giving Parker an equity stake in the company. The move was hailed by some industry observers, among them renowned stylist Mary Alice Stephenson, who told Today, “I know that she will do an incredible job and finally get the brand back to being a Halston that is respectful of Mr. Halston and his legacy but also move it forward to what women today want to wear.” Others, however, saw the hookup in more cynical terms, as yet another example of a narcissistic celebrity thinking a flair for dressing could translate into a lucrative sideline as a fashion designer.
“She wasn’t a newbie,” a friend of Parker’s pointed out. “Remember, her line for Steve & Barry’s, Bitten, was very successful.”
Bitten, which boasted fashionable frocks for under $20, was indeed one of the company’s most successful lines, though not successful enough to prevent Steve & Barry’s from declaring bankruptcy in 2008. “Steve & Barry’s used Sarah Jessica’s line to create value for their company,” the friend explained. “The clothing line went under not because it wasn’t doing well, but because the company overleveraged and took on too many stores without being able to sustain the business, and then the market crashed and the stores closed.” Parker “was not happy,” the friend added, “but when she signs onto something she is hands-on and doesn’t take her responsibilities lightly.”
A source close to Hilco said Parker “had genuine passion for her work, but you can’t do both things—be a president of a clothing company and be an actress. She needed to focus on it. She didn’t have the management skills or the understanding of keeping price-points where they needed to be.”
One person who worked with Parker bristled at the suggestion that the actress wasn’t fully committed. “She showed up to the millionth degree and worked until the wee hours of the morning and on weekends,” the former Halston employee told The Observer. “And her designs were successful!” According to the source, Parker’s line, which was carried in 500 Nordstrom outlets, or “doors” as they’re called, and 99 Hudson Bays, brought in $25 million in wholesale revenue. “On paper, the company was making money,” the source added. “I don’t know what the margins were, but the wholesales were valid.”
In any case, even with the addition of Parker to the Halston team, the turmoil continued. Just six months after the actress joined the company, Takhar was unceremoniously dumped—pushed out, according to The New York Post, by a schizophrenic board. The decision reportedly left Parker in tears. (Parker and her representatives declined to comment.)
After a year and a half, Parker too was on her way out. In July, she exercised an early-exit clause in her contract and ended her involvement with the company. Shortly thereafter, Weinstein, Mellon and Schwab followed suit.
Adding to the confusion was the appearance on July 15 of a carefully worded press release issued by Hilco. “Harvey brought me into Halston as creative director,” it quoted Parker as saying. “With Harvey exiting and in sync with the company’s new direction, this feels like the right time for me to part ways with Halston.” This, despite the fact that Parker had been the first one out the door.
In a sense, the label’s latest struggles are just one more chapter in a story that began way back in 1973, when Roy Halston himself sold the company to Norton Simon for $12 million in stock, becoming an employee, and eventually finding himself pushed out.
According to Christian Leone, who worked at Halston from 1999 to 2002, the revived brand has suffered a perception problem ever since Roy Halston was unceremoniously marched out of his Olympic Towers offices in 1984. “Halston created something sensational,” Leone said. After designing the famed pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy sported during JFK’s inauguration, as head milliner for Bergdorf Goodman, Halston had struck out on his own with a ready-to-wear line. After his first collection brought no less a style arbiter than Babe Paley to his garment district showroom the next morning, a stream of fashionable ladies followed in her wake: Betty Ford, Lauren Bacall, Princess Grace, Barbara Walters and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor.
“As a designer, he was something very special,” Leone said. “At the time, no one had seen anything like it, he was so original and authentic.”
Halston died of AIDS-related complications in 1990, and in 1997 Ammeen resurrected the brand, installing Randolph Duke as head designer, a relationship that lasted just one year. After Duke, in quick succession came Kevan Hall, Bradley Bayou, Piyawat Pattanapuckdee and Craig Natiello. All tried to honor the talent and legend of Halston and were slammed by the press for their efforts.
Leone, now the vice president of brand relations at Gilt Groupe, doesn’t have high hopes for the line’s future. “The brand itself invokes such unbelievable fondness,” he said, “but if Harvey Weinstein, Tamara Mellon, Rachel Zoe and Sarah Jessica Parker can’t do it, who can?”
Since the A-list exodus, Hilco has now placed its bets on a licensing guru. Last month it was announced that Ben Malka, the perma-tanned former president of BCBG Max Azria, would be taking over. Malka is expected to hire Herve Leger and Max Azria creative director Marie Mazelis, who breathed life into the famed “bandage dress” that Z-listers all over the world wear like a second skin.
“This guy coming in knows his shit,” the Hilco insider said. “I think he can do something. He’s a real operator who knows how to move a collection through the process.”
But with the addition of Malka, some are wondering if the once-celebrated label is again heading down the road it traveled in the ’80s—or worse, if rather than outfitting the new generation of beautiful people, it will dress the likes of the Kim Kardashian, Snookie, Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus set instead.