How it Came to Be and What it Smells Like ~ 1001 Past Tales

How it Came to Be and What it Smells Like ~ 1001 Past Tales

No introduction for Halston is better than Fashion Institute and Technology’s Museum’s own in their spring 2015 exhibition Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the ’70s.

“The 1970s was a time of momentous change in fashion, not only in the look of clothes but also in the way they were designed, made, distributed, and consumed. This dichotomous decade—sandwiched between the counterculture 1960s and the opulent 1980s—witnessed the demise of haute couture’s majestic reign and the simultaneous ascension of designer-led conglomerates. The shifting sands of style during the 1970s accelerated the relaxation of fashion codes. Eclectic individuality blended with a somber modernity that mirrored the dour economic mood of the decades’ early years. Perhaps because the 1970s was a period of such transition and uncertainty, its fashions are among the most challenging in modern fashion history to assess. No two designers defined and dominated the decade more than Yves Saint Laurent and Halston. They were the era’s most influential and celebrated clothing creators, becoming celebrities in their own right. Both have been the subject of countless books, articles, films, and exhibitions.”

But whereas Yves Saint Laurent has earned eternal repute and awe, Halston remained somewhat obscured, at least to non-USA audiences, who rarely if ever see his designs and buy his perfumes, even though a host of women in the spotlight was once upon a time called The Halstonettes—famous women wearing his designs and mirroring his image, notably Liza Minnelli and Lauren Bacall. Most of them were young, beautiful, aloof, vibrant, and glamorous, immortalised in Francesco Scavullo magazine covers dripping with glam and poise. Sometimes, too much poise, as recreational drugs were a standard. As noted by Andy Warhol, in a 1978 diary entry, he recalled Minnelli arriving at Halston’s house and imploring the host to “Give me every drug you’ve got.”

Studio 54 logo design

A TV show recently changed this injustice, rekindling an interest in the prolific designer who changed fashion and embodied the Studio 54 fashion momentum like no other. And his perfumes, of course. One Youtube commenter had it right: “Halston walked, so Tom Ford could run.”
 

Adapted from the 1991 book Simply Halston by Steven Gaines, a TV mini-series of five episodes was ordered by Netflix in September 2019, and it premiered on May 14, 2021, starring Ewan McGregor in the eponymous role of Roy Halston Frowick.

The man who invented himself came from a dreadful Midwestern background, a childhood spent in a farmhouse with an abusive father who yelled, and a mother who was cheered up by the boy’s own handicraft, a feathered hat. So he started as a milliner. Much like Chanel, for that matter.

As exhibition curator Patricia Mears notes on Halston’s style, “One of the great aspects of his success was his ability to balance beauty and modernity.” Nowhere is this more evident than in his eponymous fragrance, Halston for Women, also referred to nowadays as Halston Classic.

Photo of Halston Classic bottle by KateD on Fragrantica.com
photo by KateD, via Fragrantica.com
 

There is a great scene in episode three, Sweet Smell of Success, in which Halston sits down with a respected woman perfumer, called Adèle, played by Vera Farmiga, to talk about developing his first fragrance, Halston. He is asked to select things which are meaningful to him. In the script, the designer selects orchids, because they’re beautiful; tobacco, because he’s constantly drawing from a cigarette; and his lover’s jockstrap, because he’s a semi-closeted gay man. (We’re even shown the alleged perfumer sniff the used jockstrap deeply at some point…) At the time, the lover referred to was Victor Hugo, a Venezuelan student who arrived at Halston’s studio to work as an assistant, and who became his lover for a decade. 

But great as the perfume-making scene might be dramatically, giving a glimpse into the consulting process with a client—replete with tiny bottles of essences and blotters being dipped into them and sniffed—it fails to convey the true spirit of the fragrance in question. It was a tall order no doubt, as a passing mention of three things that seem to serve as symbols, rather than tales in themselves, is no more revealing than the fragrance industry’s recent tendency to drop three notes to consumers and expect them to get crazy over their newest launch. There was definitely ground for exploration and tense dramatic antithesis, serving as a psychological outlet for the hero, letting us glimpse his repressed emotions, but it’s mainly that. There is no really controversial element in the actual perfume, as I recall. It’s actually one of the starchiest and loveliest of the classic chypres of the 1970s. (As for his men’s Halston Z-14 and Halston 1-12, issued in the same year, more fragrances to discover if you haven’t yet, they’re great! Please note these have been re-orchestrated in the silver bottles of Halston Woman and Halston Man in the late 2000s.)

The actual Halston fragrance is not about orchids, which have no smell of their own in perfumery (although the natural blossoms do have various scents); not about tobacco; and certainly not about jockstraps, however beloved the wearer was. But it did rely on newly minted (no pun) oils which helped it sell 1.5 million bottles in the first two weeks. It’s all historical inaccuracy for the sake of pushing specific fantasies onto the viewer and serving the psychological display of his personality.

So, what is it like? What does the Halston perfume really smell like, you ask.

I first became interested in Halston Classic sometime in the late 1990s, while reading a magazine clipping citing the favorite fragrances of famous people. Oddly enough, there were candid snippets of Greek socialites and celebrities. One of them, Agapi Vardinoyanni, one of the female members of a famous local tycoon family, always presented as a lovely, expansive personality with innate brunette beauty and brilliant blue eyes, revealed her favorite as Halston for women. I had heard of the designer, voracious Vogue eater that I was, but had never heard of a Greek woman owning a bottle of his fragrances; they were the loot ransomed by relatives travelling abroad. I was intrigued.

The design of the bottle was brought into focus in that article I read too, the well known Elsa Peretti design with the curvaceous shape leaning to one side, which was originally met with distrust during the Max Factor boardroom talks, when they objected to its organic shape. Maybe they viewed it as phallic? The mind plays dirty tricks, after all, and the famous Guerlain quatrilobe flacon is also somewhat…humanoid in shape. Halston, according to the vice president of Max Factor at the time, Paul Wilmot, backed the difficult design with his own money, finding a technical way to fill it and redesigning the nozzle. Elsa Peretti was one of the original Halstonettes at the time, a very close friend of Halston himself, and best known for her work for Tiffany’s. She was paid for her design. She recalled in a 2014 interview in Vanity Fair, before her death, that he proposed “$25,000 or a sable coat?” She said she opted for the sable, only for it to be burned in the fireplace during a heated argument later on, when she left New York for Spain. At any rate, thankfully her design prevailed, and thus we have a hallmark to commemorate all these years later. For more on 1970s perfume bottles design refer to our collective article.

Cindy Crawford posing for Halston Classic perfume for women

At the time there was mostly Spray Cologne stock, which seemed an odd concentration for youngsters accustomed to Eau de Parfum, and there was Parfum. There were also the American ads depicting a naked Cindy Crawford, citing “Cindy in her Halston.” This was a very Monroesque allusion, which also referenced a legendary ad from the 1970s I was aware of, the one with Brooke Shields in her Calvin Klein jeans… It was therefore a deal that I simply had to investigate. The design perfectly matched the scent, as I soon found out for myself, hunting down my bottle. Minty on top, floral chypre in the heart, very much like the perfumes I recall older glamorous relatives wearing, a hint of aldehydes in the process (my formidable grandma was a devotee of Rive Gauche and Madame Rochas to the end of her days), and finally a woody-soapy backdrop which was deliciously sexy in an unassuming way.

The formula was developed with one of the truly greats, but not by a woman—by a man. Bernard Chant is a legendary perfumer at IFF, who is revered for the majority of Aramis men’s fragrances and most Estee Lauder women’s fragrances, from the starchy aldehydic Estee to the big floral Beautiful, as well as seminal chypre fragrances such as Cabochard Gres, Clinique Aromatics Elixir, Imprevu Coty, and Lauren Ralph Lauren. Halston Classic was one that cemented his good taste and excellence of execution.

There is something creamy, warm, and intimate about Halston Classic, although one would never in a million years classify it as animalic. But it’s definitely a product of its time, still relevant after all these years because it’s streamlined, feels high class, and exudes good taste. One can never offend in Halston, but it’s much more memorable than innocuous “office friendly fragrances.” The oakmoss, while there, is never in your face, much like the case with Caleche, making it an easy-to-adopt woody chypre, even for chypre-phobics.
 

Halston Classic

Edition 1975
Perfumer: Bernard Chant

Top notes: Green Leaves, Mint, Melon, Bergamot, and Peach
Middle notes: Marigold, Carnation, Cedar, Orris Root, Rose, Jasmine, and Ylang-Ylang
Base notes: Oakmoss, Amber, Vetiver, Incense, Patchouli, Sandalwood, and Musk

 

 

Nevertheless, there was tragedy in the Halston plot, too. Keen to expand the Halston name onto everything and become a legend, he lost sight of the need to retain his name a bit more closely to his heart. In that regard, his plight was similar, albeit worse, to that of Pierre Cardin.

The licensing of the Halston brand is a mingled affair. Halston signed a six-year licensing deal worth a reported $1 billion with retail chain J.C. Penney in 1983, a novel move at the time. The line, called Halston III, consisted of affordable clothing, accessories, cosmetics and perfumes ranging from $24 to $200. But his cachet was mangled; high-end fashion retailers felt the brand lost part of is exclusivity, getting into a mid-range department store, and the Halston Limited was dropped from luxe Bergdorf Goodman. The later brand, Halston Limited, was acquired by  Esmark Inc the same year, only to change ownership four more times, to the point that the designer lost all claims to his name. Halston Enterprises was eventually bought by Revlon Inc. in 1986, with Halston himself a salaried employee.

Revlon was not keen to keep him for long, and after catching HIV and later being diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, he moved to San Francisco where he was taken care of by his family. By 1990, when Halston died, the proprietors had stopped the fashion line, and only kept the production of perfumes under the Revlon aegis. Many more owners and relaunch efforts were made in the coming decades, with the latest being Halston Heritage signing a deal with the Majid Al Futtaim Group for distribution of its products in the United Arab Emirates, while that company sold H by Halston and H Halston to the company Xcel that specializes in bringing fairly known brands to mass market outlets a couple of years later.

Thirty-one years after Halston’s death, we’re again exploring his formidable course in fashion and perfumery. Goodnight, sweet prince. May your fragrances live long enough for people to appreciate their timeless glamour.


Top splash photo credit: Titanlis via Fragram.ru

Ref. Gaines, Steven S. (1991). Simply Halston: The Untold Story. Putnam. ISBN 0-399-13612-6.

Read and browse all our historical articles in 1001 Past Tales.

 

News Comments

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Carpe Noctem

Jasmin Angélique

Carpe Noctem

When I was in my mid teens, a woman moved to town who went to our church. She was an Engineer for Douglas and wore Halston perfume. I remember her as she was then and how I thought of her: powerful, suit-wearing, whip-smart and a math wizard. And she smelled gorgeous.

I had my own style of perfumes then and I never thought I could wear “her” Halston anyway, but now I want it so badly because it smelled heavenly and is a smell of the 80’s to me. I couldn’t be more different than her but I can wear her perfume now! If only I would not end up only buying Halston perfumes-gone-bad on ebay. I have had no success smelling one that I could wear, but I don’t give up that easily!

RkrChk

Myths Woman

RkrChk

I thoroughly enjoyed the documentary on Amazon *and* the Netflix series on Halston…

I have a couple of the fragrances … I think they’ve faded somewhat because of age and storage prior to my purchasing them, but I remember how beautifully memorable that fragrance was that is pictured above…

He’ll always be a legend no matter what…

~♥~

shenamedel

Allure

shenamedel

I Love Halston Classic Fragrance. It’s Brings All The Chypre Goodness & It’s Very Comforting As Well! Last Year During Lockdown, I Also Discovered & Fell In Love With Halston’s Amber Woman & Halston’s Catalyst & Are Beautiful & Amazing As Well! & They Are Affordable, Long Lasting & Have Depth & Beauty, Even Today. I Am Very Grateful To Have & Enjoy Halston’s Fragrances! & As Always, Thank You Elena For Your Informative & Inviting Articles!
Scent_Insensibility

Aire Loewe

Scent_Insensibility

As a teen, growing up in the 70’s, I was obsessed with the whole Studio 54 mythology, and the larger-than-life characters that frequented it and the man that dressed them ( as a 50-something still am ! )
I could only dream of the fashions and Halston fragrance was equally elusive. I was already familiar with the EL frags ( also by the great maestro, Mr Chant, though I wouldn’t have known that at the time ) that so evoke that period and place ( the US seemed so different to UK of the 70’s). I finally Halston years later, around the time Cindy was baring all – it was worth the wait !
Having greatly enjoyed the first two eps., I’m about the watch “The Sweet Smell if Success”, I won’t sweat the detail – as John Ford ( might have) wrote: When you have to choose between legend and history, print the legend.
I’ll be wearing Halston when I do.
Latitude-29

Latitude-29

Yes, episode 7 in the Netflix series.

Should be watched by every fraghead.

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