Michael Halpern: The King Of Glamour 2.0
The world was ready for some hedonism, and Halpern’s happily obliged. Ahead of his rebellious AW19 collection, we chatted with the king of new glamour.
"I don’t think I’m very interesting," Michael Halpern tells me in his studio ahead of his AW19 show at London Fashion Week. He’s referring to the fact that, while his design aesthetic is all high-octane glamour and dramatic draping, he wears head-to-toe black and sports a cap that rarely leaves his head. "I’m not interested in what I’m wearing – it’s nice to look at someone else."
Someone else is Marion Cotillard at Cannes, a vision in one of Halpern’s signature sequin-laden designs; or Lupita Nyong’o at a Star Wars premiere in his aquamarine draped dress, or perhaps Adwoa Aboah in a cutaway mini with an asymmetric fluted sleeve. Despite the designer's modesty, as the women he's dressed prove, his trajectory has been anything but ordinary.
Within a year of showing his debut collection at London Fashion Week in 2017, Halpern had won the Emerging Talent Womenswear category at the prestigious Fashion Awards, his eponymous label was stocked everywhere from Browns to Bergdorf Goodman, and the most in-demand actresses and models were wearing his pieces at every turn. The world was ready for some hedonism, and Halpern’s razzle-dazzle gave us just that.
Two years on from that first show, he’s become synonymous with glitz and glimmer, but his vision wasn’t always that way inclined. "Glamour wasn’t a forever thing for me, actually," he says. The native New Yorker started his career at the Parsons School of Design, where his collections were more in line with his personal style: all black. "I was obsessed with the whole Rick Owens aesthetic, working with black feathers and crepe. I wasn’t feeling any glamour in New York because fashion felt like a business there, like a fashion company. It all happened when I came to London, really."
After Parsons, Halpern was snapped up by American retailer J.Mendel, before working as an assistant in the fur department at Oscar de la Renta. "It wasn’t for me, which is what led me to go back and do a master's. It’s a really indulgent, luxurious thing to be able to go back and study after working – I’m very grateful." He moved to London to enrol in the master's programme at Central Saint Martins, in the first year group after legendary professor Louise Wilson passed away. While he says he "wasn’t so rated at Parsons" and "wasn’t the type of designer that they were breeding at the time," he attributes a large part of his success to the teaching at CSM.
Taught by giants of the industry – "Fabio Piras was our leader, we had the artist Julie Verhoeven, Jane Shepherd, Fleet Bigwood for prints and textiles" – he took to the rigour of the course immediately. "It makes you question and doubt yourself, which I think is the only way you can grow. That’s the biggest difference between the UK and the US – it’s not hearts and flowers, it’s real and very intense and deep in self-reflection and self-criticism. That’s the most important thing you can do as a designer. If you stop questioning yourself, then what are you doing? What is the point?"
It was this self-analysis that led him to the Halpern we know today, the one that has captured the international fashion industry’s imagination. "I was trying to find my voice and I started talking to my mum about her time in the '70s – her friends, what they did and wore. I became fascinated with how in times of strife and confusion and sadness in the world, people constantly gravitate towards glamour as escape." His resulting MA collection – think swirling patterns, satin corsets with dramatic trains, and sequinned flares – received critical acclaim and the attention of the house most associated with all-out glamour: Versace.
Sarah Mower, the renowned journalist with a knack for sourcing emerging talent, introduced Halpern to Donatella, and within 24 hours the fresh-out-of-school graduate was on a flight to Milan. "She told me I’d be working on the couture collection. That was probably the craziest day of my life." Seeing the way the house operated gave Halpern the push he needed to start his own business. "Meeting the people who had been there through both Gianni and Donatella’s time was incredible. They were incredibly supportive but constantly critiquing and it made me want to model my company after that way of working."
Halpern has recreated this close-knit family within his business, but it’s no small-fry gang. He’s had the same big hitters on his A-team since his inaugural collection, with the prolific Patti Wilson styling, Sam McKnight on hair, Isamaya Ffrench on makeup, Michel Gaubert on music and Shona Heath on set design. This season, for AW19, the team took a new direction, creating light and shadow play within the art deco ballroom of the Sheraton Grand Hotel. Models moved in and out of the sculptural set in '70s patchwork sequin dresses, stovepipe silhouetted trousers and thigh-high mini dresses.
"We’ve been going for two years now and each season I try to ask what rebellion is, what it means to go against the norm, what it means to go against what people tell you should or should not be. This season it happened to land with Erté." Halpern looked to the fantastical Russian illustrator, who designed around 200 Harper’s Bazaar magazine covers during the 1920s and '30s, and drew parallels between the tensions of the interwar period and those of today.
"Whether it was between the wars, in the '70s, or now, there have been so many times that history has shown us that the way to get through something is with decadence. Through giving yourself a break and not living with the weight of the world on your shoulders. It’s about being able to let loose a little bit." So what will he be doing after today’s show to let loose and celebrate this season’s feat? "Usually we do a big after-party with our sponsors and partners, and that has been amazing. But this season it’s just me and my friends going out for Chinese food, which is my favourite thing to do."
Despite his shimmer and sparkle making magpies of us all, it turns out Michael Halpern is pretty low key after all.