As America's reigning snob designer, 41-year-old Roy Halston Frowick has created a fashion empire with retail sales of $28 million a year. His easy, sexy caftans, Ultrasuede pants and dresses, and long cashmere sweater dresses have become the understated American classics of the '70s, helping to earn him three of his four Coty Awards, American fashion's Academy Award. Last October, a few weeks before he won international acclaim at the Franco-American Fashion Show at Versailles, his firm was bought for an estimated $12 million by Norton Simon, the giant conglomerate. He will create a variety of fashion-related products for them.
Chain-smoking cigarettes amidst the mirrors and suede sofas of his three-story business headquarters in New York, Halston discussed his views with reporters Victor Bockris and Andrew Wylie.
Do your clients influence your design?
Fashion designers only suggest fashion. We try our very utmost, pursuing every creative endeavor we can pursue, but in the end fashion is made by fashionable people. You must have a fashionable public come and buy it, actually wear it, look attractive in it, so other people will want to look the same. And you must get people from a number of different walks of life, who create public attention, who are considered specially good-looking, who are somewhat experimental in their approach and are known. The general rule-of-thumb in the fashion business is that you're pretty much as good as the people you dress. That's what makes you famous, your clientele.
How many women do you personally design for?
I don't design for individuals. If someone comes in and says, "I want a red dress with a ruffle around the neck" and so on, she can't have it made unless I have it in the collection. There are very few people that I do a special thing for; it's too costly, it's too time-consuming, too complicated. It has to be amusing for me to go to that expense.
But there's the famous case when Liza Minnelli came to you, and three months later she was on the best-dressed list. You must have designed clothes for her.
Oh, whole wardrobes! Literally hundreds of things. But they came out of what we were doing. They weren't new silhouettes, new departures. Liza, I think, looks best in the daytime, quite simple. I always related her to the female Fred Astaire point of view, you know, a pleasant shirt and sweater, pair of pants, that kind of approach.
What is it about Jacqueline Onassis that accounted for the whole pillbox hat phenomenon?
She's a part of, and must be recognized as a part of, the atmosphere. I think more people know of Jackie Onassis than have ever known of the Empress Josephine or Cleopatra. In the middle of China, they even know somewhat who she is. So her influence reaches an enormously large public.
She's also had a very strong association with you, at least in the public mind. There must be some points of esthetics that you share with her.
We both like very simple clothes. She likes sweaters, and she likes pants, very simple kinds of things. She doesn't look especially well when she's very dressed up. She looks better if she's underplayed. The reason people want to look like her is because she generally looks pretty attractive.
What is constant in fashion?
Change. The only thing ever constant in the fashion business is change. It's always the next thing.
Has that always been true?
If you look at fashion history, you see a very, very slow evolution. The simple fact of getting a large public into pants literally took ten years before it was acceptable.
What do you suppose got people interested in fashion?
I think the basic reason has always been to protect yourself from the elements. That's one reason we dress—for warmth or shelter. And another is to enhance ourselves.
Everyone's talking so much about how beautiful bodies are. Does this mean more nudity in fashion?
Well, I don't think that's something that we're going to have to contend with quickly. Today it's true women do not wear underpinnings the way they used to; I mean, there isn't that modesty that they used to have. And I think that's probably healthy, but I think that as far as women baring their breasts, I just don't expect it in the foreseeable future. Today you can see breasts under almost any T-shirt or sweater or dress and especially in evening clothes, when women are with men and want to make themselves alluring.
When you design a dress, do you consider the reaction a man would have to taking it off? Some dresses look like they're meant to be taken off.
I think that sort of vulnerable thing in women is always attractive, where it looks as though it could be very easily taken off.
Do you have any fashion forecasts for the seventies?
I think more and more women will buy what they think they need. I don't think there's any designer who could come on the scene now and say, "Listen, this is what you wear in the daytime, Lady," or "You're going to wear six-inch platform ankle-strap shoes," because by damn they know what works for them. And those shoes don't work.
Won't it be nice to see them go?
We were one of the first people to do it—the platform—but it was meant for night. It's an amusing proportion; people want to look much taller, longer-legged, that sort of thing. Of course, women want to be attractive. If it's pants, they want them to be cut well, and if it's sweaters, they want them to be made well, with pretty colors but rather simple. When they walk down the street they don't stand out, yet people say, "Doesn't she look pretty or attractive?" I find that insecurity breeds extravagance. Insecure people dress extravagantly."
What do you think about blue jeans as an American uniform?
You know, there is now probably the largest public ever wearing one kind of clothing. And I think the protection they give is a terrific thing—they make you less vulnerable, they make clothes less important. But jeans are a status symbol now, a fashion for the Establishment but not for the avant-garde necessarily. There's a model I work with, a perfectly beautiful girl who has a lot of money and an enormous collection of clothes. But when she's running around the streets of New York she prefers to wear blue jeans. The construction men don't whistle at her quite as much and her bottom may not be pinched.
Suppose a young woman could ask you for advice, saying, "Look, I don't have a lot of money, but I want to dress well and don't really know what to do." What would you say?
First of all, I would ask her, "What do you do? What's your life? Where do you go? Do you have kids? Do you go to charity things? Are you a business girl? What is your social life? And what is your husband like?" Men have pretty much of a gray world. They generally like color at night, and something soft, speaking in generalities. I think women must consider the male point of view. And I think if women are going to turn men on, they must put forth a more gigantic effort today than ever. Because of more freedom in all the sexual departments—with the pill coming in as it has—women who are going to keep their husbands will have to make themselves attractive to them, or lose them.
If Halston ever deigned to advertise his clothes on TV, he would have a ready pool of famous clients to deliver testimonials. "I'm just crazy about him, "purrs Lauren Bacall, a sentiment echoed by Liza Minnelli, Babe Paley, Jackie Onassis and Candice Bergen.