Ahead of a new monograph by Halston’s niece, Ralph Rucci recalls the designer’s larger-than-life glamour!
I discovered Halston in the ’70s when I was at NYU. I found myself wandering Madison Avenue, where Halston had a boutique on 68th Street. It was the chicest thing in the world. No one at the time had boutiques that far uptown; he took an old brassiere store, cut away the front of the building, and made a trapezoidal glass door. He was a revolutionary. I knew I wanted to work for him, so I concocted a plan: I took my sister, Rosina, to Halston’s made-to-order department, and I said to her, “We are going to order something.” She tried on a sample-size white cashmere jumpsuit, backless. The woman who helped us was named Sassy Johnson; she still comes to my shows. My sister was young and working, and she had a charge card, but I believe the jumpsuit was $1,500, and the cardigan that came out after was another $1,500—which today would be, like, $10,000! And I said, “We’ll take them.” As Sassy was writing everything up, I said, “I would like to ask you for a favor. I’m a young fashion designer, and I would like an audience with Halston.”
An appointment was set for a June day. Halston was in the process of moving his studio into the Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue, and when you walked into his office there, his red lacquer desk was in front of the spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. So you saw that view behind his head and he had those weird sunglasses on and he was holding his cigarette, and he said, “Please sit down.” I was a nervous wreck; he was very intimidating. My teeth were chattering. He was going through my book, and he asked, “What do you want to do?” I told him, “I would greatly love to work for you and to work under Mr. Salvatore Cardello and to learn.” But I knew I’d nailed the interview when he got to the design of a gown that was made out of red silk faille. It had two crisscross straps, very simple and sleeveless, with a bateau neckline. He asked me, “What does the pattern look like?” And I said, “An upside-down tulip in Palm Beach.” He adored that answer. I got a phone call soon after, and they offered a salary that was basically nothing, but it was my first job in New York and fashion.
There was a whole world around his desk. I was in the atelier, and I wanted to be because Mr. Cardello ran the workroom and he’d trained as a young boy at Balenciaga in Paris. Halston adored Balenciaga and the techniques and subtleties that Cardello knew; I wanted to learn them. Same with the great Bill Dugan, who was Halston’s right hand for 15 years.
The clothes were haute couture, but Halston never used those words because he always believed in being American, and so he called them “made-to-order.” What he did with chiffon, fur, and hammered satin—he took the idea of simplicity and gave it a grander and more modern point of view. I once witnessed him cut a dress in purple chiffon on the floor with no seams, just one half circle that wrapped around the body. I have it in our archives.
He was very disciplined. He wore the same thing every day: a black cashmere turtleneck, thin gauge; black well-cut trousers; Italian shoes; and a petrol silk raincoat if it was raining or a black double-face cashmere topcoat. He carried a black Hermès briefcase, and he always wore aviator sunglasses. Those sunglasses broadcast a message: They said, “You may come this far.”
When I worked for him I was terribly shy. I didn’t really speak unless I was spoken to. I was always in the workroom; I wasn’t in the front saying, “Halston! That’s divine!” That was my decision—I actually felt that was a little distasteful. He would want to know from the boys in the inner circle, “Who did you sleep with last night? Who did you pick up at Studio 54?” But I wasn’t part of that circle, and I didn’t know the gossip because it was none of my business.
Halston brought into fashion the idea of dressing both social ladies as well as the pretty young things. There were the ladies from Park and Fifth Avenue, fun people like Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley and Babe Paley and the divine Betsy Theodoracopulos. His number one was Elsa Peretti—they were attached at the hip—and she is still beyond chic. But he was also connected with the Warhol crowd, especially through Victor Hugo, his boyfriend. It was that wonderful mixture that was happening in the late ’70s, early ’80s. Sometimes it was really shocking.
Halston loved working one-on-one with a client. He sketched prolifically, and he adored planning a wardrobe. He would ask, “Where are you going?,” and then design clothes that would be useful. He would sit down with Liza Minnelli and prepare her suitcases until she had everything she needed. Gloria Guinness had this huge property in Bermuda, I think, and one year she went in to Halston for all new clothes for the summer. He did all washable caftans and tunics in rayon and polyester; everything was so modern and chic. He was the first one to use rayon in high-level ready-to-wear. He cut everything on the bias, like flying saucers, and the clothes walked: Air filled the room, and they just floated by. His women never looked overdressed—they were ravishing, sexy, and, at the same time, cool.
As told to Charlotte Cowles.