A 1978 Balenciaga ad shot by Roland Bianchini at the boutique at 10, ave George-V
When Cristobal Balenciaga retired in 1968 he had already earned a reputation for being a bit stuffy and behind the times. While he dominated the 1950s the next decade saw a more spirited turn in fashion as ascending youth and street influences made his aristocratic posturing appear pompous and his stoic structures seem dowdy. A new generation of designers ventured where Balenciaga would not and the master lost his ground to the likes of Cardin, Saint Laurent and Courreges who were setting a new direction for fashion in the modern age. And when Balenciaga died in 1972 the house that beared his name, like many other great houses founded by brilliant dead designers, was chucked into fashion limbo.
Upon his death Balenciaga’s family sold the business to Hoescht AG, a German chemical company who presumably bought it for its fragrances. Under their management Balenciaga’s fashion prerogative diminished. Once a fashion leader it was licensed into an unremarkable purveyor of abutting double B monogrammed accessories and just-fashionable-enough bourgeois classics. By 1978 it was lost not only among new French names but formidable talents from Italy, The United States, and very quickly Japan. The glory days of Balenciaga were long past and wouldn’t return for another 20 years.
It would be very simple to dismiss the output of the house during this time as the runoff of a disinterested chemical company. You could very easily cite it as a classic case of fashion licensing gone awry. There is perhaps nothing here of value other than that the removal of Balenciaga from the fashion landscape as a major player enabled other talents to rise and fill the void. But then it would be a shame to overlook the curious anomaly that it presents. Balenciaga was a master tailor. His clothes were meticulous constructions built with the precision and consideration of a Corbusier. It was perhaps even his experimentation with structure and volume that launched the Space Age designers into their cosmic fantasies of form. But during the 1970s everything went soft, the line grew long and lean and here we see the codes of Balenciaga reinterpreted for a new time but, possibly because they had no such grand ambitions, without any overt affectation of its fashions. Balenciaga’s wide-cut a-line coats, an essential in his repertoire, is leaned out with long wide-leg pants. Present is his purist precision punctuated by a tasteful printed blouse and a conical Asian style bamboo hat — a nod to ’50s couture glamour. The modernist suggestion of a Balenciaga signature is given a truly modern ease revealing just how eternal his initial propositions could be provided they were adjusted appropriately. At the time such an update probably felt rehashed and probably like a chore, in hindsight it offers a rare and compelling interpretation of Balenciaga’s codes.
This 1978 update of course comes at the insistence of a new minimalist mood in the ’70s that was largely defined by Halston. That the Spanish legend and a good boy from the Midwest could at some point overlap is as much a fluke as it fate. Halston was a great admirer of Balenciaga and sought to instill the master’s purity and minimalist splendor into his own softer and more sensual designs sometimes seeing himself as Balenciaga’s spiritual heir. One could say that many of Halston’s innovations are indebted to Balenciaga, as much as Courreges’s or Ungaro’s in the ’60s. The implication here is powerful not because of what it meant for Halston but what it could mean for defining what a “modern” Balenciaga could be today, particularly now as designers like Pierpaolo Piccioli, Mara Grazia Chiuri, Christophe Lemaire, Veronique Branquinho and Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski set a new tone for fashionable luxury classics.
One wondered what the future had in store for Adam Lippes after he narrowly escaped fashion purgatory and bought back his name from Kellwood two years ago. Since then he’s retooled his design manifesto and company culture, abandoning corporate ambition and distancing his clothes from a cannibalizing contemporary market. Today he runs a smaller and more familial operation, the kind required nowadays if a designer is to truly engage luxury clothing in a sound and sustainable manner. It’s certainly no easy feat but going by the clothes Lippes’s efforts have certainly been worthwhile.
Over the last several seasons he has distilled a design vernacular built on the tenets of the best of American fashion: ease, sportswear, classicism, timelessness. For many designers working in New York these tenets can become tenuous, reduced to corrupted clichés haphazardly spat out to journalists, conflating the words “classic” and “uninspired.” Should you ever forget what it means for a garment to be timeless, for it to truly evoke that rare sensation of imperishability, Adam Lippes serves as a refreshing reminder. The new resort collection reads like a “best of” of American fashion in the 1970s when its designers, armed with a minimalist rigor, soft fabrics, sportswear separates and a fashionably fluid line, championed a new modern woman. That those ideas, updated with a thoughtful and utterly contemporary sensibility, that they can look so new and bold today as they surely did then is a testament to their infinite appeal and Lippes’s adept ability in handling them. The spirits of Zoran and Halston are present in the floor-length monastic dresses, coats and square cut tops. Fabricated in the most luxurious silks and cashmeres they are no less minimal or exquisite than what those minimalist masters managed in their prime. The flirty but pragmatic appeal of a paper bag-waist in a striped cotton pajama pant and in a leather skirt echo Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio’s seductively sensible efforts for Anne Klein. The trapunto stitching used on collars, waistbands, and belts throughout the collection, notable on a v-neck Korean do bok top (rendered in fine silk and chambray) brought to mind the worldly explorations of Bonnie Cashin, a designer who never shied away from adapting an idea from the other side of the globe if it could coax a modern innovation.
To mention that the clothes Adam Lippes designs are impeccably crafted and finished is redundant as quality workmanship is necessity when addressing simplicity and minimalism. But, from design to construction, Lippes’s clothes are beautifully thought out. Every line, stitch and fold is crafted and considered. And whether it be silk, cashmere coating or humble cotton poplin, each fabric represents the most refined of their genre. It stands to be reiterated: the clothes are impeccable. And they must be, the customer Lippes addresses is a discerning one. She is a woman who demands the best and is to willing to pay for it. She can’t be bothered with trends or fashion shenanigans, she is too sure of herself for those. She expects her clothes, like all the best clothes do, to enhance her own natural appeal, not obscure it, and to grant her ease and therefore elegance as she gets on with her life. One could say after such a bold move to relaunch his name and under such risky auspices that Adam Lippes has come out a winner. Working out of an enchanted townhouse in the West Village, a real modern maison, he has escaped fashion’s distracting din, enabled to toil on his beautiful clothes with integrity. Indeed, Lippes champions forward, but the real winners are the women who get to wear his clothes and live in them.
Halston having a fabulous holiday moment flanked by his infamous Halstonettes on a publicity tour for Braniff Airlines.
“I THINK FAME AND FORTUNE ARE REALLY A CURSE IN A WAY, BUT THEY’RE NECESSARY EVILS FOR SUCCESS. THE FAME PART IS UNATTRACTIVE BECAUSE PEOPLE MIGHT RECOGNIZE YOU, WILL EXPECT YOU TO BE SOMETHING OTHER THAN WHAT YOU ARE, AND YOU’RE REALLY JUST A PERSON LIKE ANYBODY ELSE.”
– Roy Halston Frowick
Wednesday’s WWD reporting on Halston’s investor struggle gave a glaring signal that the company’s owners, Harvey Weinstein and Hilco Investment Capital, have begun to run out of patience with the iconic American house. In 2007, Weinstein purchased the long troubled brand hoping they could reinvigorate it and replicate the success they enjoyed with their Project Runway television show — a bad start to say the least. Fashion is a strange creature and stranger still is the Halston brand, often misrepresented by Halston’s Studio 54 era, lost in fashion limbo. Roy Halston Frowick was infinitely more than disco dresses and all over sequins as his work is consistently characterized as. His radical and industry changing approach to modern aesthetics and lifestyle, his innovative engineering, and his extraordinarily egalitarian approach to dressing, though substantial DNA components that would easily lend itself to a powerhouse brand, often go overlooked in favor of the celebrity and fame. If any steward of the brand is to ever get it right, they are going to have to take a closer look and recognize Halston for what he really was.
Posted in Collections
While diffusion lines no longer erode the luster of fashion’s gilded enamel and are now a part of its culture, they were the beginning of the end for Halston. When the designer launched a mass market line for Texas retailer JC Penney his main collection was dropped by Bergdorf Goodman, the very store that initiated his career. From then on it would only be a downward spiral. The next year he was fired (largely attributed to his excessive drug use) and the company he founded in 1968 entered a bizarre purgatory, suffocating the designer’s immense creative and technical legacy. In 2010, despite countless attempts to escape, it is still so far from the paradise it once defined.