Ben Malka Restyles the House of Halston
By Kathryn Drury Wagner
The story of the first great American house of fashion is a glittering and a harrowing one, a story of humble beginnings, precipitous ascents, and tragic downfalls. So goes the story of Roy Halston Frowick, a Midwestern boy who triumphed wildly in fashion, nearly lost it all, and died too young. But the story of Halston is no longer about one man; the company and the legend have diverged. Today, a very different personality is telling the story, and the fashion world listens eagerly to hear what the future may hold.
Meet Ben Malka, Halston’s new chairman and CEO. Where Halston was flashy—known for his tan, his lavish spending, those endless wild parties, and that entourage of Halstonettes—Malka is a respected CEO, a private person who rarely grants interviews and who prefers accolades accrue to his team, not to him.
The storied Halston brand has for decades churned through a rotation of owners, licensing deals, and private equity firms. The 2011 departures of once-owner Harvey Weinstein and Sarah Jessica Parker, who served as the creative director and president of Halston Heritage, might have been mistaken by some as a death knell. But 51-year-old Malka seems ready to right the ship, bringing more than $20 million of his own funding—and a clear, aggressive growth strategy—to the company, including the opening of multiple stores across the major markets in the US and internationally this spring. This former president of BCBGMaxAzria Group, Inc. has retail in his blood. His father, Charles Malka, is founder, president, and CEO of Charles David shoes. His mother, who raised Ben and his six siblings in Montreal, no doubt had some management wisdom of her own to impart.
And young Ben Malka was running a shoe company by the age of 24. “We had licensed Danskin footwear from International Playtex. One day [in the mid-’80s] Joel Smilow [former Playtex CEO] says to me, ‘We just bought a giant fashion company.’ I asked him which one, and he told me ‘Halston. Do you want to meet the designer?’” Malka, unfamiliar with the brand, replied, “Not really.”
Though Malka missed out on meeting the man whose legacy he is tasked with rebuilding, he is now “in awe of him. For me, his claim to fame wasn’t just inventing American sportswear and the importance [he placed on] simplicity of drape. He broke barriers. He understood how to brand a designer. He got close to the press and paved the way for celebrity endorsements in fashion—his best friends were Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, and Elizabeth Taylor. In 1983, he created an accessible line for JC Penney… and got crucified for it. Today, Missoni has been in Target and is seen as a hero. Halston was ahead of his time in so many ways.”
Halston was born in Des Moines and reared in Evansville, Illinois. As a young milliner, he famously designed the pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy chose to wear to the 1961 presidential inauguration. He founded Halston Limited in 1968, and by 1973 was such a powerful influence that an Esquire magazine headline asked, “Will Halston Take Over the World?”
At times it seemed he had. Certainly, he had conquered the American market, inspiring generations of designers who came after him, including Tom Ford. For as much as he admired European designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Cristóbal Balenciaga, Halston presented a truly American style. He turned to the everyday things women wore, such as halter tops, and reinterpreted them as luxurious garments rendered in chiffon and Ultrasuede. His signature was a minimalist chic with flawless attention to drape, making a woman feel comfortable in any position—sitting, standing, or dancing the night away at Studio 54. Yet his success and talent couldn’t shield Halston from a downfall: drug use, loss of control of his business, and death from complications of AIDS in 1990.
When Malka took over Halston, he swiftly relocated the company from New York to Los Angeles, where he has lived since the mid-’90s. He resides in Beverly Hills with his wife, Anita Jansons-Malka, who is Halston’s executive vice president and oversees the handbag, shoe, and accessory divisions of the company. (Ben has a 24-year-old son, Julian.) Malka hired 150 people; most work out of the Downtown headquarters, with about 15 remaining in New York. With chief creative officer Marie Mazelis and the rest of his team in place, Malka is focusing on the house’s secondary line, Halston Heritage.
This year, the company will begin to open multiple Halston Heritage stores. The first, located on Madison Avenue in NYC, will debut in early March, followed by a 3,000-foot store at the Beverly Center. “Remember, I didn’t create this.
Halston did,” says Malka, looking at sketches of the store. “It’s not as if I came in here and said, ‘Let me start a brand called Ben!’ We have an advantage because we can pull from the incredible things he created.” Malka demurs on naming the international locations, but mentions the emerging luxury markets of China, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. “India, their malls are being developed,” he says. “We just met with a large Indian group last week.”
The Halston Heritage line, which has price points of $395 to $895, is sold in stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. It features Halston’s signature minimalism and flattering silhouettes; the Spring 2013 collection floated on hues of lavender, lemonade, and guava. Ken Downing, senior vice president/fashion director for Neiman Marcus, calls the line “sexy and seasonless, with an effortless chic.” He says that Malka “appreciates the importance of the American style and modernity that Halston represented from the very beginning, and continues to infuse that message into the collection to ensure that it is as relevant to women of today as it was when launched by its founder.”
Says Malka, “Halston Heritage is about being on-trend for today. Halston is about the future, about technique, fabric, being the fashion innovator.” He’s saving the relaunch of the Halston (couture) side of the business for “when I think the time is right. Before I add more things to our plate, we have to be sure of what we are doing and that it captures the imagination.”
Few fashion companies can claim the history and influence of Halston, he points out. “Only handfuls. Tell me another five in this country that have this depth of heritage. It’s relevant now, what he has done. I don’t know the future, but I’m pretty sure [Halston] will stay relevant for a long, long time.”
photography by elisabeth caren; RICHARD CORKERY/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE VIA GETTY IMAGES (MINNELLI)
Cover shoot: September 2014 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.