Poor Halston. The successful mid-century milliner-turned-disco-dress-king has been on my mind lately. His Studio 54-era dresses have been fetching top dollar on the designer vintage scene for ages and in 2013 the label was re-branded, the name tweaked — it’s now Halston Heritage — and the first of what the company hopes to be many flagship retail stores opened. Halston Heritage is not the best name. “Heritage” to me means prairie dresses and pioneers in covered wagons. But maybe that’s just my western Canadian roots showing. Halston Heritage is anything but dowdy maxi dresses in calico cottons. Instead, it’s a line of clothing and accessories, moderately priced for designer gear (most dresses run $300-$500, for example) that touts the signature, slinky, drapey Halston look of yesteryear. You can even buy newly manufactured versions of classic Halston dresses and jumpsuits.

Still, poor Halston. While Halston Heritage has piqued my interest, it’s the recent woes of American retailer J.C. Penney that has had me thinking most about the late, great designer. The department store chain is struggling and closing stores, seemingly unable to find its place in today’s shopping cosmos.

This wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s, J.C. Penney was a popular stop for lower-priced clothing, and their juniors department in particular was always on-trend, with their knock-off Polo shirts in pastel colours and colour-blocked, low-heeled pumps. And in 1983, J.C. Penney became the exclusive home of Halston III, an inexpensive line produced eight times per year, that made the Halston label accessible for everyday women. It was this move that ultimately and irrevocably damaged the designer’s reputation and brand among the fashion elite.

Today, designing a low-priced line for a retailer like H&M or Target hardly hurts a brand. In fact, it enhances it, creates all sorts of buzz and press, long lineups and big profits. Thirty years ago this was shocking and inexcusable. One did not slum it at J.C. Penney, not if they hoped to keep their bigwig celebrity and socialite clients and not be dumped by upscale stores like Bergdorf Goodman. The idea that designer fashion could be for everyone had fashion’s upper echelons simply appalled, and Halston was punished for spreading himself too thin by being forced out of his own company in 1984.

Halston III lived on after Halston’s direct involvement and has become like all of Halston’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, much sought after (well, the jersey dresses and evening looks; not so much the plain, poly blouses and men’s neckties). If you’re lucky enough to snag a vintage piece on Etsy that was from the 1983 or 1984 collections, it was likely designed by the man himself, as he didn’t allow others to design pieces under his name, regardless of the retailer or price-point.

Halston’s work for J.C. Penney was the first democratic designer fashion and his risky foray into the mass market should be celebrated. Sure, in the later ’80s brands started to experiment with lower-priced labels, dubbed “diffusion lines,” but these were still priced too high for the average consumer. It wasn’t until Target launched its Go International designer collections in 2005 that the industry truly embraced and accepted the idea of high-end designers slumming with the rest of us.

Poor Halston. He was just ahead of his time.

Image: Halston III/JC Penney, Vogue, April 1985.

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