On the evening of April 30, 2010, the fashion elite all trundled downtown en masse for the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, a new 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 Anne Dexter Jones, Pat Cleveland and 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 Ms. 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 Jaqueline 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, Ms. Parker and Mr. Weinstein would be gone, and with them designer Marios Schwab and board member Tamara Mellon, who had engineered the deal with Mr. 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 Sarah Jessica Parker wears, how she raises her three kids and how she feels about 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 Ms. 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 Mr. 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—in a loss of control that oddly mirrored Roy Halston’s own business missteps—after quibbling with the Mouse over distribution of Fahrenheit 911. But Mr. Weinstein’s forays onto Seventh Avenue, which included backing Ms. Chapman’s Marchesa line and producing the wildly popular reality series Project Runway, had been more successful.
However, Mr. 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, and also licenses the rights to the likeness of Bob Marley.
“I got jealous of Georgina and wanted my own fashion line,” Mr. Weinstein joked when buttonholed by vogue.com during a party at the Cannes Film Festival. Ms. Zoe, a stylist and reality TV star best known for creating the waif-y 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 Ms. 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, Ms. Zoe—who surprised colleagues by neglecting to turn up for the line’s first runway show—exited the board. (Her representative didn’t return calls seeking comment.) After presenting the Fall 2008 Halston collection to mixed reviews, Mr. Zanini was also gone, replaced by London ingénue Marios Schwab.
In early 2010, in a move to boost the brand’s visibility, Sarah Jessica 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 Ms. 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 hook-up 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 the actress 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.” Ms. 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 told The Observer that Ms. 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 Ms. 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, Ms. 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.”
“No way,” said the Hilco insider of the $25 million figure, adding, “Halston Heritage and Halston didn’t work. Not because of a lack of desire—Bonnie and Sarah and Hilco all wanted it to work—but they put more money into cream and cherries and not in the meat and potatoes. It took a lot a lot of money to start up that collection, most of which was spent on [Ms. Parker]. They should have licensed out handbags and shoes and all that! They didn’t.”
Still, as for Ms. Parker’s skills as a designer, the Hilco source praised her for having “a great sense of style and a great eye.”
In any case, even with the addition of Ms. Parker to the Halston team, the turmoil continued. Just six months after the actress joined the company, Ms. Takhar was unceremoniously dumped—pushed out, according to The New York Post, by a schizophrenic board. The decision reportedly left Ms. Parker in tears.
Ms. Parker and her representatives declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Whitney Sudler Smith, the 41-year-old son of socialite Patricia Altschul, had recently finished work on Ultrasuede, which is set to arrive in theaters in December. (The documentary is not to be confused with the long-planned biopic Simply Halston, with Alec Baldwin as Roy and Jane Krakowski as Liza, which seems to have fallen by the wayside.) Early on, Mr. Sudler Smith entered into negotiations with the design house about promotional tie-ins for the film. “At one point they wanted to work with me, to do some cross marketing, but it was difficult,” he said. “I don’t know if it was bad management, but there was a lot of turnover—everyone I was dealing with over there is now gone.”
After a year and a half, Ms. 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—abandoning, at least for the moment, her fashion industry ambitions. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Weinstein, Ms. Mellon and Mr. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Parker had been the first one out the door.
The same release quoted Mr. Weinstein as well, who explained that after flirting with a “diversified business model,” he had simply realized that he wanted to focus on entertainment.
A friend of Mr. Weinstein said of his departure, “He brought Sarah Jessica into the company, so it is only right that he would leave with her.” The friend added that Mr. Weinstein was “fed up” with the other board members. While Mr. Weinstein—whose one personal style has always been rumpled, to put it mildly—has taken some heat for dabbling in fashion, some say that if he had owned the company outright, things would have been different. “He and Georgina Chapman run Marchesa and it does very well,” the friend added.
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.
“Some of these iconic brands were not well maintained or cared for,” noted Paul Wilmot, the P.R. guru to fashion icons like Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein and Naeem Khan. “You need to invest. For women under the age of 30, these brands are irrelevant. In the meantime, the Alexander Wangs and the Proenza Schoulers loom up, and they’re relevant! How long can brand equity survive without having some successes?”
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,” Mr. Leone said. After designing the famed pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy sported during J.F.K.’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 (when she was the furthest thing from a sample size imaginable).
“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.