When Brands Die

A new Netflix series depicts the life of forgotten designer Roy "Halston" Frowick. The result is not just a cocaine-infused psychological profile, but also a lesson in brand strategy: Even the greatest brands can die.

Halston had come to compete with the greatest members of his profession - and to win. Of this, there could be no doubt, as the American fashion designer and his entourage entered the Palace of Versailles in 1973 for the high-profile "battle" with the icons of French fashion design - Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, and Pierre Cardin. Halston found himself at the zenith of his career, tailoring the fashions of American women, everything from haute couture to glamorous ready-to-wear clothing, and now he craved international fame. While the "French" relied on classical opulence, Halston sent his girlfriend Liza Minnelli to the runway. Hip, as yet unknown models - a novelty at the time - showed off his modern creations. The standing ovations received were his victory over his competition - and so it seemed that long-term stardom would logically follow.

Broken and Alone

Things turned out quite differently: When Halston died an early death in 1990, the star of his creative genius had fallen. Colleagues had turned their backs on him, his accumulated fortune was almost depleted. Those brands he had "conquered" just seventeen years prior were thriving. Both Halston and his brand fell into obscurity. And that would probably have remained the case if not for a new Netflix series starring Ewan McGregor as Halston himself. The series, dominated by excess and eccentricity, has quickly become a hit. Understandably so, as the series is not just a brilliant psychological profile, but also a lesson in brand strategy. If a brand that Tommy Hilfiger once described as the "greatest inspiration of his youth" could disappear in just a few short years, who then is immune to falling prey to a similar fate?

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Creative eccentric: designer Roy "Halston" Frowick (left), protrayed by Ewan McGregor (right).


Halston: Dramatis Personae

Before we enumerate the mistakes made on the way to brand death - and try to learn our lessons from them - let us say a bit more on the life of Roy Halston Frowick. Born in rural Iowa in 1932 from humble beginnings and trained as a window dresser, he first achieved notoriety at the age of 29 when Jackie Kennedy wore a hat of his make to the inauguration of her husband. This was followed a short while later by a women's fashion collection, highly sought-after and beloved by stars such as Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, and Elizabeth Taylor.

After haute couture came everyday fashion: Halston's style was seen as typically American and similar to his colleague, Calvin Klein, made use of elegant and minimalistic designs from fine materials that flattered the wearer's body. Long, slim dresses or airy pant suits made of silk, flowing shawls of chiffon or caftans made from ultra-thin suede became instant classics. The female clientele felt that their well-being meant something to Halston: Before his soirées, he would gladly toss out all his designs because he wanted his clothes to fit the silhouettes of his models - and not the other way around.

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The Name - Sold

In 1973, Halston sold his business for 12 million dollars to the conglomerate, Norton Simon. However, he remained as a managing director and chief designer at the company. Licenses were granted for the Halston portfolio which continued to diversify. After a few final successes such as Halston perfume, the decline began: Norton Simon was consumed by the conglomerate Esmark; Halston was forced to create a cheap fashion line for the retailer J.C. Penney. The "established" fashion world treated him with contempt.

The designer sank into depression which he tried to cure with sex, drugs, and parties at the legendary Studio 54. For the rest of his days, he was unable to rid himself of the deep regret that his own mistakes had led to the death of his brand. How could it have come to this?

Creativity Requires Attitude

Even the grandest visions require a consistent attitude. Without attitude, there can be no brand. In contrast, Halston firmly believed in being intuitively understood. He saw his individual creations as fragments of a greater oeuvre which could be explained through the genius of their creator. This should be sufficient, he thought, in creating brand identity. Especially in the fashion world with its changing trends and intense competition, only a few are able to successfully anchor themselves in the hearts of the public. This is because there is a fine line between the constant need for new creations and the common thread tying it all together which makes brand identity something tangible. Halston never managed to walk this fine line. What Hermès, Chanel, and even the popular Nike brand have in common is that they continually inspire their clientele, but at the same time - and this is the crucial point - they remain true to themselves. They leave it to others to ride the Zeitgeist wave. In the words of Ralph Lauren: "Fashion is over quickly. Style is forever."

Expanding the Brand: When and Where

While viewing the Halston Netflix series, you might notice a fictional commercial sequence in which Halston is multiplied against a white background and declares in many voices that he is now shaping everyday life with his products - "Halston for your every day! Halston for your world!". Luggage, home textiles, cosmetics - that is a far cry from the self-image with which Halston once took the fashion world by storm. Expanding the brand into new business areas while using a pre-established brand presence is one of the most demanding challenges of branding. Two questions must be kept in focus: the When and the Where.

First, the When: For a younger brand, exercising greater caution is advisable when expanding. Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, the two American challengers to Halston, concentrated on the core business of the fashion collection in their early years. Expansion into new business areas came many years later. The recent announcement from Ferrari that they're getting into the restaurant business is only conceivable because the premium brand has built up a clear image over time. Second, the Where: It is imperative that the expansion of the brand support the market positioning. The goal must be that the expansion further enhances the brand. In other words, the question of the Where always pursues two equally important goals: entering a new business field and strengthening the brand with new capabilities. The extensive expansion of the Halston brand neglects the latter in a criminal way. The result is a too early decline in profile until the brand has completely lost its elasticity.

Branding Requires Performance

The debate on what makes brands successful is long and heated. At present, abstract concepts such as "purpose" and the often-cited "why" are dominating the discussion. But I am convinced that brands must most especially impress with the "what" and the "how" in addition to the important "inner purpose". Roy Halston Frowick, who elevated America to the fashion Olympus, thought he owed his initial success to his own unique and signature style. His bias cut, which did not cut the fabric along the course of the thread but rather at a 45-degree angle made for uniquely light and natural creations. They reflected the fun-loving, emancipated self-image which characterized urban America of the 70s. His "ultrasuede shirtdress" launched in 1972 built upon this and ensured its success its the masses. But what came next?

Innovation remained absent. It was not an abrupt fall, but the new creations lacked inspiration, the novelty value of the early years. Neither the grandiose shows nor the targeted self-marketing could fill this void. The principle is incontrovertible: Brands must impress through their core performance in order to be successful in the long term. Lacking this skill, brand erosion becomes imminent. How telling it is then - both in the Netflix series as well as in reality - that Halston was only once praised by the industry press when, free from commercial interests and restrictions, he designed ballet costumes for a girlfriend. In this act, he did what he was really capable of, what he really loved.

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The Halston perfume in a manufactured bottle was one of the last great successes of the brand. Then came the decline.

Complexity Demands Collaboration

The Netflix series depicts the rise of Roy Halston Frowick as an inspiring personality with enormous creative ambition. However, he did not walk the path to success alone. He surrounded himself with confidants who complemented both himself and each other: Elsa Peretti, who later became a defining figure at Tiffany & Co.; illustrator Joe Eula and Liza Minelli, Halston's muse were also among the central figures. But after the "Battle of Versailles", the self-centered Halston had a falling out with his compatriots. Brand management is an interdisciplinary art, and success is always the result of collaboration. And this requires a seamless meshing of different skills, perspectives, and personalities.

The Netflix show will be a big hit for those of us who deal with brands professionally. It serves as a warning: Only those who are consistent and who pursue the expansion of their brands on a solid foundation, deliver performance, and also surround themselves with a good team will succeed. Or as the CEO of Norton Simon, one quite sympathetic to Halston, once put at a joint lunch: "Being a genius is not enough. Those who consider themselves geniuses stop growing."


Dr. Alexander Haldemann is Chairman of MetaDesign DACH.

Originally published in M&K, July 2021

Illustrations by Silvan Borer