Ease may not be the first word that leaps to mind when perusing the countless contrived looks vying for attention during red carpet season, but it's that elusive "ease" that most women crave and what ultimately connotes great personal style. No one understood that better than the late American designer Roy Halston Frowick, whose streamlined take on modern glamour helped define an era that continues to influence the fashion zeitgeist. Halston's famous group of femme fatale models, including Pat Cleveland, Karen Bjornson, Beverly Johnson and Pat Ast, followed him everywhere and helped set the tone for the ultra-glam yet relaxed lifestyle that the designer advocated.
Halston died in 1990, but today, Los Angeles-born fashion historian Cameron Silver – a celebrated clothing collector and curator, whose famed shop in Los Angeles, Decades, is a must visit for vintage fans – is at the creative helm of the H Halston label, which offers moderately priced pieces inspired by the Halston sensibility. Silver was in Toronto recently for an appearance at Hudson's Bay. Over lunch, we talked about the legendary designer's legacy and accessible style, and lamented the fact that glamour today is so much more calculated than it was back in Halston's heyday.
It's almost not enough to just be a great visionary in fashion these days: You've also got to be a bit of a showman to be able to tell the story of the brand.
Yeah, you have to be a personality. When shoppers have a personal connection with the fashion director and the creative people behind the brand, it becomes more of an emotional purchase. There's so much stuff out there, so I like that it's not an anonymous purchase when you're buying H Halston. When I do an appearance, I get to interact with the customers. I love the right jacket with the right woman – that magical thing that happens. I mean, look at Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel. If he didn't have the ability to give good quotes, do we think the brand would succeed? Or look at the magic Alber [Elbaz] made at Lanvin. That was what really drove that brand. If we go back historically to the Halston brand, it was Halston who understood the cult of personality, who understood how to connect with the customer, the press, the socialites, the celebrities. I befriended most of the people who are still living who worked with Halston, like the Halstonettes, and they all say, "Oh my gosh you're so much like Halston!" because I'm a big practical joker, like Halston was. He took his job of being a personality very seriously. People always say, "Oh he loved going to Studio 54… he was such a party animal!" But that was just part of his work.
Sartorially speaking, there's a great similarity in the vibe of the seventies, when Halston was really hitting his stride, and what's going on now. And it goes beyond the mere retro look. It has to do with the values that women have towards our wardrobes: We want comfort, ease and glamour, but we don't want to look like we try too hard.
Even the idea of athleisure is something that Halston was into. He wasn't about confining clothes. It was about comfort, freedom of the body and movement. It's very parallel to how a woman wants to dress now.
What do you think of how glamour was defined in the seventies compared to what it means today?
I think glamour right now is very calculated. Hollywood red-carpet glamour is a huge machine. I've seen the changes in the 20 years of running Decades. At first, it wasn't so complicated. Now, it's really complicated and it's super studied. I think in Halston's day, glamour didn't require having minions to make your decision. You bought a one-shoulder dress, you put on a strappy sandal, you did your own hair and makeup and you went out and looked fabulous. Halston was really part of a social media world but it wasn't called social media. What The Halstonettes did…well, it was all about the idea of branding. It was selfies before there really were selfies. It was about the Ron Galella photos of these people being fabulous, being out in public. Now unfortunately it's like everything's a deal – a back-end deal – and choices aren't made necessarily because of an organic love of something. Choices are made because there's a monetary exchange. That's one of the beauties of dressing real women: Real women aren't getting paid to wear a dress. I think that's sort of a sad thing that's happened.
Vintage dressing has been a cool thing to do for a long time now, but you were really at the vanguard of the revival of the passion for vintage. I think Hollywood first glommed onto it when they saw that old Valentino dress that Julia Roberts wore to the Academy Awards.
Julia got that dress from the Valentino archives, but it was pivotal because it was an opportunity for the public to see that vintage doesn't mean costume. And that was when my Decades store opened – in May of 1997, almost 20 years ago. My philosophy was always to carry vintage that looks modern. And my philosophy with modern clothing is that modern has to look like the future. And by futuristic I'm not saying that you're going to wear it in a spaceship. I just want you to look current.
How do you think Halston would design had he still been working in this day and age?
He was such a proponent for fabric innovation. He was the man who made ultrasuede a luxury fabric. He was a man who said women deserve easy-care fabrics. He loved the idea of having a luxury fabric that was not high maintenance. Halston would have been so interested in these innovative technical fabrics. The other thing that's so fascinating is that our brand is very reactive to the customer. We're able recognize a customer's needs. We can give her newness based on what she's coming in for. If there's a trend that suddenly emerges from the street, we can really do a fast turn around within weeks, as opposed to most brands where you can't really do that – it's a year out or six months out. I think that's something that Halston would have been so interested in because his circle, his Halstonettes, constantly influenced him. The sarong skirt was inspired by Chris Royer coming out of the pool and wrapping a towel around herself. So imagine the idea of looking at the people around him and realizing, "I can put this into production and deliver it to the customer in a short period of time!"
I guess a lot of the magic now is in the mix – mixing your vintage with the newer stuff. Is this something that you think will continue to be important in the future?
I think the new category is neo vintage: things that aren't authentically or historically vintage – not 20 or 30 years old – but realizing that fashion is an investment. And if you're buying something, I hope that in at least three or four years it's a potential collectible. Neo vintage has a potential to be collectible. There's also that crazy turnover of designers now. So maybe wearing Valentino by Pierpaolo [Piccioli] and Maria Grazia [Chiuri] is kind of interesting or Dior by Raf [Simons]… or we have this renaissance with Galliano Dior that was neo vintage. I think that in between period, that grey area in fashion, is really the new collectability.
This interview has been condensed and edited.