After a day of supervising fittings for the debut of his fall collection, Randolph Duke, Halston International's design and creative director, is huddled around a TV with some of his executives. The previous night actress Minnie Driver had appeared on The Tonight Show in one of Duke's glamorous creations, and the designer, who missed the telecast, wants to revel in his handiwork. "She looks great," says Duke as Driver is introduced. Throughout the interview a captivated Jay Leno asks about the gown—a gray silk creation with a sheer back—but for some reason, Driver never invokes Duke's name. "I can't figure out why she didn't mention Randolph," says a puzzled Carmine Porcelli, Halston managing director, after the viewing. "She had a perfect opportunity."

Perhaps Driver—who turned up in a body-hugging, blood-red, low-cut Halston that became a highlight of the Oscars some two weeks later—had figured out what fashion mavens already knew: Duke's designs speak for themselves. Since taking over the Halston label in October 1996, six years after its eponymous founder died of AIDS, Duke, 40, has made the company—and himself—a top name in American fashion. Just don't measure him against his legendary predecessor.

"There will be the purists who will say Halston is irreplaceable, which he is," says Duke about the comparisons he endures. "But I'm not Halston. I never will be. My designs have a shared aesthetic, but they have their own point of view. I didn't realize how big the shoes were to fill in the minds of people."

To couture cognoscenti, though, Duke is a perfect fit. "I don't mean to make Halston sound as if he weren't modern," says Liz Tilberis, editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar, "but you do have to update things. With Randolph's approach we've got the simplicity of Halston, but we also have a modern collection." Indeed, his evening-wear line, Halston Signature, with styles ranging from an $800 cocktail dress to a $3,000 hand-beaded gown and available at such upscale stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman, became an instant hit with critics and starlets alike. "His clothes are a happy marriage between body and design," says Driver, who attended his fall show last month during Fashion Week in New York City. "I've never worn clothes that beautiful. I'll keep going back to him." Adds model Rebecca Romijn: "Randolph's gowns are very sexy because they have that illusion of just barely staying on."

Still, Duke is convinced that his absolutely fabulous designs play second fiddle to the supermannequins who wear them. "Models," he says, "command the attention of the industry more than any other player in the picture today. Designers have become the schmucks on the bottom of the totem pole." Or, in some instances, the moral minority. "I had a few girls who appeared to be so drunk they needed coffee to get on the runway," says Duke, recalling his spring show last November. (Still, champagne was served backstage at his last show.) "Who knows what else is going on in the bathroom?" he adds. "I close my eyes to that part because I can't control it. It's a shame that a lot of these girls get caught up in the fame because it takes away from the values that are important."

Duke's own living standards were forged as a boy growing up in Las Vegas, where his mother, Dagny Garner, worked as a showgirl at the Tropicana. When Randolph, an only child, was 2, his parents (his father, George Duke, was an Air Force sergeant) divorced. Three years later his mother married John Garner, a casino card dealer and floor manager. "He never bonded with my second husband, not even to this day," says Dee, 58, now retired and still married to Garner. "I think he felt his mother was being taken away."

At 17, Duke, a gifted classical pianist who was attending the University of Nevada at Las Vegas on a music scholarship, decided to make some extra money that summer by becoming a dancer in his mother's Folies-Bergère revue. Years of watching her perform made picking up the dance steps easy. "It was your typical Vegas show," recalls Duke, laughing. "Feathers, rhinestones, top hats and G-strings." Not surprisingly, being surrounded by those near-naked bodies and wildly dramatic costumes had a powerful impact. Vegas va-voom, he says, "did affect my aesthetic as a designer, in that I design for the body. There's a sense of drama to what I do, and that's an element of show business."

When he returned to college in the fall, Duke joined the theater department and began creating costumes for school productions. After dropping out in 1978, he moved to L.A. and attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. He graduated in 1980 with honors and quickly landed a job designing swimwear for Anne Cole. For the next decade, Duke remained in Los Angeles, gathering experience and confidence. Then in 1987 he moved to New York City, launched his own line, Randolph Duke, and opened a Manhattan boutique. By 1993 he was out of business. "It was a hard period," says Duke, who lacked sufficient backing for the venture. "I saw how difficult it was to build a brand."

Undaunted, he began peddling his clothes on QVC, which led to a job at Henri Bendel, the Fifth Avenue department store, where he was creative and design director for their own line. Then last summer, Duke saw a newspaper story about the relaunch of Halston, a dynasty that had crumbled after the high-living fashion king decided to sell his name to a string of companies, including JC Penney in 1983. "[Right after he sold it], Bergdorf Goodman announced they would no longer carry his line," recalls Porcelli. "Within five years the empire had collapsed." Last year the badly slumping Halston International was bought by Tropic Tex International. Duke wrote them, asking for a meeting. One month later he was offered the job of his life.

Unlike Halston, who routinely showed up at work after noon following a night of partying with Bianca, Andy and Liza at Studio 54, Duke arrives early and leaves late. Free time is spent with his actor boyfriend of two years, with whom he shares a New York City triplex apartment. In an image-obsessed industry where some gay designers marry women to avoid controversy, Duke is an anomaly. "I don't think anyone's going to string me up in the town square because I admit I'm gay," says Duke. In fact, he adds, "I don't understand designers that are so adamant about [being closeted], particularly when everybody knows."

If Duke's candor is refreshing, so is his perspective about being one of fashion's current boy wonders. "I think designers go in and out of vogue depending on the current craze," he says. "Listen, fashion is the medium of contradiction. I could say black to you and the next moment do white. It drives me crazy, because you never know what to take seriously," he adds. "But maybe that's the key. Don't take any of it too seriously."

  • Contributors:
  • Juliette Dominguez.