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Halston muse discusses working with the renowned designer of the Studio 54 era

By Jackie Mallon


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Halston and his Halstonettes: From Left Pat Cleveland, Chris Royer, Alva Chinn and Karen Bjornsen photographed by Dustin Pittman, WWD 1980.

Chris Royer was a “Halstonette,” one of the glossy squad of glamorous creatures who encircled the designer as he flitted through starry press events and Studio 54. But she also significantly contributed to his creativity behind the scenes. As the bingeworthy Netflix biopic continues to pique interest in the late designer, Royer shared her experiences during an Instagram Live with founder of VERYNewYork PR agency, R Scott French, and fashion historian Vivian Kelly.

“He liked me because I had a creative background,” said the former Pratt design student. “I knew what draping and pinning meant and I could stand for a long time.” The workroom often created patterns right from the draped fabric gently removed Royer’s form, or sometimes Halston cut right into fabric, achieving the fluid lines he became known for, thanks to what Royer describes as his “sculptor’s hands.” Hardworking, disciplined, and strict when it came to his work, he conducted fittings at night because meetings consumed his days. He might work until 3am but expected models to return at 8 the following morning.

Chris Royer at Studio 54

When Halston met his Halstonette

Royer recounts how she stepped out of the third floor elevator into an ultrasuede salon with flickering candles, Brazilian music, fine crystalware and ivory walls containing just the right touch of pink to accentuate the beauty of all skin tones. She chatted easily with the man who greeted her, assuming him to be an assistant as she knew you didn’t usually meet the designer until you’d been vetted. She broached the idea of contributing creatively to the collections, inquired if Halston had a sense of humor. Only when a member of staff approached the man to advise, “Halston, Jackie O is ready for her fitting,” and he fell about laughing on the couch, did she realize her mistake. But she got the job and became one of Halston’s two house models.

Halston at the Battle of Versailles

“The Americans were not treated equally,” said Royer of the famous 1973 fashion faceoff between five French designers––Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emmanuel Ungaro, Marc Bohan and Givenchy––and the five Americans––Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows and Halston. While the setting of the Palace of Versailles was as beautiful as a fairytale, it was freezing cold, with peeling walls and floors, missing doorhandles, no heat, not even toilet paper. The Americans arrived to find their quarters farthest from the stage while the French designers were well set up with huge sets, orchestras, gigantic floats––“Cardin had a spaceship!” The Americans had brought along taped music and Liza Minnelli. But history records a victory for the Americans that night and Royer explains why: “It was fresher, part of it was the diversity of the models.” An unprecedented 11 Black models including Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison were among those who twirled onstage to a party atmosphere of tracks by Al Green, Cole Porter, and Barry White, while Liza Minnelli brought the French audience to their feet with her high-energy performance of “Bonjour Paris.”

Halston with Chris Royer on left, photographer John Bright 1978.

Halston’s inspiration

Royer inspired many of Halston’s designs, one of which was the “Sarong” dress conceived during a 1974 vacation on Fire Island. She stepped out of the pool and wrapped herself in a towel. Halston jumped up and began to twist and pull the towel this way and that. When he was happy with the effect it was cut on bias silk charmeuse, fitted with an ingenious bra construction, and soon seen on society figures such as Barbara Walters, Lee Radziwill and Marisa Berenson. The designer found inspiration all around and often named his pieces. The “Slink” came about when the designer noticed one of the silver window blinds which were ubiquitous throughout his Olympic Towers offices had been left hitched up at one side. Halston started sketching and the idea became a ruched toga-style evening gown. Ease of wear was always important despite the glamor associated with Halston’s creations and he is credited with having created the elastic waist pant. Possessing an eye for detail, he also had a macro vision, and on a high profile PR tour of Japan and China, Halston outfitted his entire 30-person entourage with color-coordinated daywear, cocktail pajamas complete with obi belts, and beaded evening looks for every moment of the tour.

Halston Netflix biopic and legacy

“It has missing pieces and is not a documentary,” warned Royer of the successful five-part biopic produced by Ryan Murphy inspired by the book by author Stephen Gaines. But she awards high praise for Ewan McGregor in the role of the designer and acknowledges the cultural importance of the biopic. “It brings an awareness to the younger generation and brought the name into the public eye again. Also everyone wants to know about Studio 54. It was all that, a legendary place, it was a great time.” Royer has kept all the dresses Halston made for her over the years and has loaned them to museums such as the Met and FIT among others. She says Halston insisted she preserve his legacy through an archived collection. “It’s something he always wanted. Through the garments you get a true understanding of his DNA, his philosophy.” Of the designer who broke the ground for the licensing revolution of the following decades, but who lost his name in the process, she reminds us, “They’re the only thing that remains of him.”

Photos provided by Chris Royer

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry

70s fashion
Chris Royer
Studio 54