New art exhibit captures life and work of famed fashion designer Halston

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Halston portrait, © Lesley Frowick, 1988

Plans for the new Nassau County Museum of Art exhibit on Roy Halston Frowick, iconic fashion designer and New York socialite, came about, fittingly, at a Manhattan cocktail party.

Artists and enthusiasts gathered for the launch of a documentary film project about the life of the designer, known as Halston.

In attendance was Halston’s niece and longtime confidante, Lesley Frowick, who was approached by Karl Emil Willers, the museum’s director.

“He came to me sheepishly saying would you do an exhibit, and I was coming to him with open arms saying this is my dream come true,” said Frowick, who inherited the Halston archive.

Eleven months later, that dream came to fruition when the museum opened an exhibit of clothing, artwork and photographs devoted entirely to Halston, for which Frowick served as a guest curator.

“Halston was one of the greatest designers of the latter half of the 20th century,” Willers said. “He revolutionized fashion and design in so many ways. His was the new ideal of the American woman — the way she dressed and worked and lived in the post-war era.”

A friend of and collaborator with Andy Warhol, Halston designed hats and dresses for the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli.

Halston began his career in the early 1950s as a hat designer in Chicago, where he opened his own shop. Soon after, he moved to New York and worked at the renowned Bergdorf Hat Salon.

In 1961, Halston designed a pillbox hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore at her husband’s presidential inauguration.

“We do not have the exact hat that Jackie wore to inauguration because few were produced,” Willers said of the exhibit. But “the hat on view is the same hat from the Halston studio. One of the very few examples of that design in existence.”

Halston expanded his work from hats to dresses and costumes, becoming a leading women’s clothing designer in the 1960s and ’70s.

Halston and his celebrity companions were regular visitors to Studio 54 during its heyday from 1977 to 1979, when it was ground zero for the disco scene’s melding of music, nightlife and fashion, according to a statement from the museum.

The exhibit is broken up into eight rooms, devoted to different milestones and artistic collaborations of Halston’s career.

One room is devoted to the licensing of Halston’s name and work.

“Halston was one of very first designers to license his name and produce many different products,” Willers said. 

Another room examines Halston’s collaboration with modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, for whose performers he designed costumes and even after-party cocktail dresses, Willers said.

Frowick, who began working for Halston as an assistant in 1983, said some of her favorite pieces in the exhibit are the dresses Halston designed for her.

“I have special memories of wearing them,” she said. “I was spoiled by him as he spoiled so many people,” she said.

Frowick published a book about Halston in 2014 titled “Halston: Inventing American Fashion,” and she continues her involvement with the documentary film about his life.

She said she will soon leave her full-time position in Maryland in the legal department of National Geographic magazine, and plans to “take the show on the road” when the exhibit ends its stay at the Nassau County Museum of Art on July 9.

“My biggest goal in life is to continue to share Halston’s legacy with the world to let people know, beyond a designer, what a great human and family man he was,” she said.

“You can’t help but feel good because the designs were so beautiful,” she added. “It was all about beauty in Halston’s world.”

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