Earning fashion's spotlight

Designer: Halston's Kevan Hall makes a name for himself by blending artistry and practicality with his hard work and attention to detail.

June 13, 1999|By Holly Hanson | By Holly Hanson,Knight Ridder/Tribune

NEW YORK -- It should have been the best moment of Kevan Hall's life.

Instead, when he was named to the top design post at Halston last year, the response from fashion's elite was uniform and pointed: Who's he?

Never mind that Hall had survived 20 years in the fickle fashion industry, heading his own Los Angeles company for 11 years and working as a free-lance designer for many others. He had dressed celebrities, done movie costumes, received a Great American Designer award from the NAACP and created a dress for Absolut Vodka's long-running series of ads.

But he was virtually unknown, especially on New York's insular Seventh Avenue.

So he set out to change that in his usual way: hard work and attention to detail.

When he unveiled Halston's spring 1999 collection, his first for that label, it was the season's surprise hit. Retailers and fashion editors raved about the beautifully detailed gowns inspired by the colors and shapes of an ocean reef. Top stores bought the line, priced at $2,000 to $7,000.

Just like that, Hall was famous. "You work long hours and put your life's blood into it, and when they react in a positive light, it's thrilling," he says, sitting in a sleek, black leather chair in the white Halston showroom in New York. "The details, the quality, the right choice in fabric, it all came together."

That thoughtful response is typical of Hall, an unassuming man not given to raucous displays. He wears neutral colors, keeps his clothes fastidiously neat and is decorating his new apartment in a spare, austere style. It's those dreadlocks that are so intriguing. They come as a surprise, like the boisterous laugh that frequently bursts out in contrast to his carefully chosen words.

Hall is willing to take risks -- and certainly has, using his meager savings to start his own business, taking a series of free-lance design assignments after his company went under, even accepting the job at Halston, a company that had spectacular success in the 1960s but nose-dived to near-oblivion in the 1980s.

Now Hall is in a position to save it.

Show time

It is a week before the runway show for Hall's second Halston collection, the fall '99 line. Since the big splash of his first collection, the pressure is on.

You would hardly know that from Hall's demeanor, however.

He has approached this collection, the last of the 1900s, with a typical mix of artistry and practicality. The theme is architecture and Hall makes use of its precise lines and stony colors. At the same time, he knows the clothes must be festive. "When you talk about this collection, it's for the last great party of the century," he says. "These are the clothes women are going to wear for the last hurrah."

The pace steps up in the hours before the show. Two dozen models arrive, crowding into office cubicles to have their hair done and makeup applied.

Hall keeps an eye on everything, but outwardly remains calm. He is even composed enough to greet celebrity guests, actresses Tracy Pollan and Lynn Whitfield. Wife Debbie and daughter Asia, 9, sit in the front row too, but son Evan, nearly 4, goes backstage with Dad.

And then it's show time.

The spotlights come up, the music begins and the first model hits the runway in a winter white cashmere trench coat. There are slinky gowns, too, beaded in tiger's eye and quartz. A maroon velvet column trimmed in fox is the smashing finale.

After four months of preparation, it is over in less than 20 minutes.

Hall receives spirited cheers and a crowd pours backstage to congratulate him. At last, he says, he'll have time to relax with his family in the apartment he is renovating on Manhattan's Upper East Side. It's a short break. Soon, Debbie and the children will head back home to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Kevan is off to Paris to choose fabrics for his spring 2000 collection.

Fashion's spell

Hall grew up in Detroit, the youngest of three children. He loved to draw and at one point considered a career in architecture.

But fashion had a hold on him. He'd dream up outfits for the performers he saw on "The Ed Sullivan Show," divas like Diana Ross and Martha Reeves.

In 1975, Kevan Hall set off for the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. On the third day of class, he met his wife-to-be, a merchandising major. "We ate together, we took the bus together, we hung out together," says Debbie Hall, Kevan's wife since 1980. "We just knew that we clicked."

Even before he finished the three-year program, Kevan was hired as an assistant to Los Angeles sportswear designer Harriet Selwyn. In 1982, he decided to open his own business.

Using their savings and a loan from his parents -- less than $10,000 in all -- the Halls set up shop in their apartment.

They hit the road for San Francisco with 18 samples nestled in the trunk of their Oldsmobile. While Kevan explained the collection for the buyers at I. Magnin, Debbie modeled the dresses and made sales. In New York, they picked up Lord & Taylor and Saks.

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