“As a designer, he was something very special,” Mr. Leone said. “At the time, no one had seen anything like it, he was so original and authentic.”
Still, even as the designer—clad in his usual uniform of a black turtleneck and dark sunglasses—was palling around with Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger and other Studio 54 habitues and developing a serious drug habit, his company was inking a deal with downmarket J.C. Penney that quickly sent the designer’s luxury outlets running the other way.
Halston died of AIDS-related complications in 1990, and in 1997 Mr. Ammeen resurrected the brand, installing Randolph Duke as head designer, a relationship that lasted just one year. After Mr. 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.
“It was a tough situation,” Mr. Leone said. “A lot of [Halston] designers would take elements from the original designs, but when you did something different the press would attack. Meanwhile, Michael Kors can do a Halston-inspired line and the press will say, ‘Brava!’ A Halston designer would do it and press would say it was not inspired.”
Mr. 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?”
So what went wrong? Many place the blame squarely on the pinstriped shoulders of the suits at Hilco.
“The hiring of Sarah Jessica Parker was a move to amp up awareness, but when bankers run fashion companies it always ends up in disaster,” Mr. Wilmot said. “They talk to their wives, who shop at Bergdorf’s, and think they know how to run a fashion company. It’s like, just because you go to a restaurant doesn’t mean you should open one.”
The Hilco insider admitted that the company “might have had stars in their eyes when they hired [Ms. Parker]—they did. They’re not bad guys, they were just naive.”
“Everyone thinks they can do fashion,” the former Halston employee noted. “But working with pattern makers, fabrics and the nuts and bolts of a company is not easy. We had people who were micromanaging on stuff they knew nothing about. There were too many cooks in the kitchen.”
The source added, “The company had a huge board with huge egos and every little thing went through everyone. The designs were second-, third- or fourth-guessed by people who never worked in fashion.”
Since the A-list exodus, Hilco has now placed its bets on a licensing guru. Last week it was announced that Ben Malka, the perma-tanned former president of BCBG Max Azria, would be taking over. Mr. 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 promised. “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 Mr. 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.