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The Designer Whose Maximalist Style Is a Respite From Troubling Times

By Terence Poh

The designer Michael Halpern.
 
Matchesfashion
The designer Michael Halpern.

On a day in early September, Michael Halpern is writing back to T Singapore. The American designer, 32, is also on set overseeing still photography and videography for his eponymous label’s Spring/Summer ’21 collection, slated to launch digitally at London Fashion Week. Unable to stage a show that season, his initial feelings of disappointment were replaced by a brilliant plan; he strategised to transplant the emotive qualities of shows he missed into an entirely different, pandemic-born project.

Shortly after our correspondence, on 18 September, the project unfolded on the British Fashion Council’s website. With the familiar touch of Halpern’s decadent glamour, women on the frontline — medical workers and care workers and cleaners — morphed into sequined, feathered goddesses. Embracing an atmosphere of glamour, the heroines of the moment shared their frontline experiences — and about feeling like a million bucks that day. “It’s about having fun — I didn’t want to do fantasy and ignore what’s happening in the world,” Halpern tells British Vogue. “Fashion should prop people up and give people a break, especially when they’ve been having such a terrible time.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Halpern (@halpernstudio)

Halpern had the sort of starry childhood you’d expect when considering his glitzy designs. He credits it to his mother, “a super powerful and inspiring woman, the reason I am a designer today,” says Halpern. She has great style, her formative years spent going out to clubs in the ’70s — a picture of casual club chic that defined the era in New York. “It was so amazing hearing stories from her and her group of friends about what New York City was like at that time; so this is always a great source of inspiration for me,” says Halpern. Quite naturally, a young Halpern looked to American-born designers such as Roy Halston, his cashmere and Ultrasuede gowns defining the disco culture of the ’70s, and Bob Mackie, his flamboyant Sonny and Cher fashion a lynchpin of late 20th century sartorial hedonism.

Before Halpern’s debut show in 2017, the fresh graduate of Parsons’s class of 2010 scored womenswear design jobs at J. Mendel and Oscar De La Renta, where he honed the classical techniques of draping and hand-pleating. He later moved to London to pursue a master’s degree at Central Saint Martins, and his MA collection propelled him to overnight fame — earning the young designer a couture consultant stint at Atelier Versace, the attention of Beyoncé and his very first stockist Matchesfashion.

When the first model emerged wearing his glittery dress with a reptile skin puff-sleeve bomber at his debut in 2017, Halpern was backstage sobbing. He reveals, “I know it might sound a bit silly, but being able to say exactly what you want through a collection that is something you have merely been dreaming about for years is a really powerful moment.”

Three years on, Halpern’s posse of celebrity collaborators include the stylist Patti Wilson and the hairstylist Sam McKnight, people who have believed in him since day one. “When I first started Halpern, it was just me and one assistant. Now, we are quite a bit bigger than that,” he says. “One thing that hasn’t changed is the way I develop the collections. I drape nearly every look before it goes onto a pattern maker; I still need to feel the fabric — it’s the part of the process I value the most, and it’s still so exciting.” Although his silhouettes and fabrications have evolved over collections — his MA collection remembered for what he called “horrific, disgusting” fabrics sourced from Shepherd’s Bush and Walthamstow markets juxtaposed against sumptuous paillettes, silks and satins — the ethos of fantasy and glamour remains.

Michael HalpernFrom within the Old Bailey in central London, the American designer showcased his idiosyncratic glamorous designs for Fall/Winter ’20.
From within the Old Bailey in central London, the American designer showcased his idiosyncratic glamorous designs for Fall/Winter ’20.

The designer has the top luxury e-tailer Matchesfashion’s unwavering support as well, being included in its Innovators programme this year. “Firstly, being called an innovator in any scenario is a great thing to hear about your work,” he says. “What I think is amazing is the breadth of designers that this group encompasses, and each one has a beautifully articulate and different point of view that will be highlighted in this way.”

From his Fall/Winter ’20 collection, an exclusive suit for Matchesfashion features a draped bow-front tailored jacket and matching stovepipe trousers in duchess satin. Entirely in black, the look fuses the idea of a classically tailored jacket with that of a couture gown — and “is a dream come true for me,” says Halpern, having shied away from using black up till then because of his palpable love for colour.

And the results held promise. The other pieces were evidence of his evolution toward higher luxury — billowy sequinned or satin print dresses that graze the floor, voluminous bubble skirts, and flowy velvet gowns — but all circling back to the ’70s glamour he’s become known for. They beg the question: Might a couture collection be imminent? He asserts that, “At Halpern, the idea of clothing allowing an element of escapism to happen is the whole reason we make clothes; for us, clothes should transport you to a place where anything and everything is possible.”

Michael HalpernBillowy, sequinned, velvety or voluminous bubble gowns are now recognisable signatures of the 32-year-old designer.
Billowy, sequinned, velvety or voluminous bubble gowns are now recognisable signatures of the 32-year-old designer.

There is an air of uncertainty as the budding label needs to weather the current social and political climate. But it is not insurmountable for an artist as exuberant as his work — Halpern writes to us in cheerful and optimistic prose laden with exclamation marks. At the intersection of fashion and commerce, he is first and foremost classically trained as a designer, “so understanding all the different elements of business and finance has been really exciting but also a tremendous learning curve for me,” he notes.

For the future of Halpern, the designer has no intention of paring down. “What I have loved season on season is refining and growing our offering to widen the Halpern family,” he says, “without compromising on quality, vision, or point of view.”