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Halston's Penney's Serenade

While the disco-era great’s 1983 collaboration with the retailer is now seen as a case study in brand dilution, he sounded optimistic at the time.

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Halston in 1983.

Photo By WWD Archive

“Who needs cashmere?”

 

So said the legendary Halston on June 7, 1983, as he made his way through the racks of pieces he had designed for Halston III, his lower-price line for J.C. Penney. Looking back, the pact made Halston a pioneer in the world of high-low fashion, but it was ruinous for him personally. At the time, though, he sounded quite optimistic.


Though his dresses had appeared on Studio 54 regulars such as Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger, Halston now had his eye on the Everywoman. “When I think of these clothes, I think of my family,” the Iowa-born designer said. “I have a sister in Little Rock [Ark.] and a sister-in-law in Gainesville, Fla., and they’re dying for these clothes to come out.”

 

Prices ranged from $24 for a casual shirt to $200 for a coat, and included splashy items such as an ostrich-trimmed velvet jacket. In keeping with the venture’s populist spirit, Halston made appearances on “Phil Donahue” and “Good Morning America.” White- and chrome-fixtured Halston departments were built in the individual stores to house the line. “The idea is to display the merchandise to its best advantage, without things like Dynel wigs taking away from them,” the designer quipped.

 

But would selling at J.C. Penney hurt his cred with the Beautiful People? “I haven’t had that much flack from the stores,” Halston insisted. “I have a big public, which has been conditioned to buy my things for the past 30 years.”

 

In a separate story that day, several top retailers shared their reaction to Halston III. According to Bloomingdale’s Kal Ruttenstein, the line “is so much lower-priced [that it] will not hit the same customer.” Phillip Miller, then president of Neiman Marcus, agreed: “I don’t think this will have any adverse effect on Halston’s top line.…It’s a totally different market.”

 

In fact, the effect was disastrous. Bergdorf Goodman dropped Halston’s main line immediately, and a year later, he would lose the rights to his company and name. Still, in his vision of high-end design for the mass market, Halston anticipated the trend that Target, Kohl’s and other big-box retailers would mine two decades later.


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