He was the designer who put Jackie Kennedy in the pillbox hat, who created an entire wardrobe around Elizabeth Taylor's fabled jewels and who swathed the likes of Liza and Bianca, Babe Paley and Barbara Walters in his signature black cashmeres, Ultrasuedes and strapless gowns. Then in 1973 he went public, selling to the Norton Simon conglomerate the right to market Halston products. By 1977, when those products pulled in more than $100 million, everyone on Seventh Avenue was watching the Iowa-born Roy Halston Frowick.

The same people are watching Halston again, but for another reason: For 16 months the 53-year-old designer has been uncharacteristically, unhappily inactive. And though he denies rumors that he fell victim to cocaine use, the reality is almost as distressing: Halston is an incongruous victim of the current corporate merger mania. His Halston Enterprises has changed hands four times since the 1973 Simon acquisition. In August 1984 Beatrice Companies, the current owner, all but shut down his Olympic Tower showplace in New York (Halston hasn't been there in almost a year) and dismantled his historic ready-to-wear division. Beatrice, he says, isn't asking him to design any new products, which has made the man who once designed 14 collections a year a veritable stranger to his sketch pad. Now Beatrice has agreed to be bought by Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., a merchant banking firm, plunging Halston even deeper into the corporate quagmire. "I think what's happened to us is one of the maddest things," says the designer, who ruefully calls his plight, "the curse of the living trademark." Notes New York fashion writer John Duka, "Every designer in the world is looking at him and learning from it."

These days the trailblazer is in constant touch with his attorneys, who have attempted to buy back his business from Beatrice. "I'd like to design cars. I'd like to do architecture, interiors. I'd like to do a new fragrance," says Halston, who is optimistic that he will regain the right to work. He observes, "It just involves millions and millions of dollars and a lot of people's lives."

Halston hasn't been completely unoccupied. He has been renovating his ultramodern Upper East Side town house (where he lives with his niece Leslie Frowick, 26). But his designing is limited to only a few small projects, including a line of dance and rehearsal costumes for Martha Graham. Says Steve Rubell, who in his Studio 54 days was a constant Halston companion, "Since he's really a workaholic, it must be very frustrating. But he has kept very much to himself about the whole thing. Most people don't realize how strong he is." For Halston, what's most upsetting is that his look—spare, classic and lean—is back. "It's my style," he says, "and I'm not in there doing it. It's crazy."