When Michael Halpern made his London Fashion Week debut early last year, he left showgoers starry-eyed. That’s because every look from his Autumn/Winter 2017 collection — which consisted of high-neck tops, bell bottoms and other flamboyant eveningwear numbers — were entirely made with glittering sequins.
Imbued with a disco spirit, the creations of the New York-born, London-based designer still conjure the same effect several seasons later. Why wouldn’t they? Halpern’s designs are quite a feast for the eyes with their striking silhouettes and bold mix of colourful prints — a joyful distraction from the turbulent times we live in. It’s also impossible not to be captivated by those sparkling surfaces, which exude the same unabashed glamour that we’ve often seen at Versace.
It’s no wonder that Donatella herself hired Halpern as a consultant for Atelier Versace, shortly after he graduated with his master’s degree from Central Saint Martins. She isn’t his only fan: celebrities like Lupita Nyong’o, Marion Cotillard and Amal Clooney have all showed off the young designer’s extravagant dresses on the red carpet. Even Beyoncé donned one of his sequinned ensembles for her birthday party two years ago.
For a designer who has consistently been cast under the spotlight since his debut, Halpern himself is surprisingly low-key. You’ll find none of the in-your-face opulence synonymous with his label in his attire. Instead, he is usually decked in black garb, sometimes accompanied with a cap.
The asymmetry, funnily enough, mirrors Halpern’s work, especially in his Autumn/Winter 2018 collection. From the pieces’ clashing patterns and half-and-half forms, to the fact that their dazzling textures are meant to be paraded in the middle of the day, you’ll find jarring contrasts all throughout. “Inappropriate glamour” is what Halpern calls it, “a contemporary state of mind.”
Here, Michael tells us about his inspirations, that Versace gig and designing for his superstar fan, Beyoncé.
How did you get started in fashion? Was it something you always wanted to do?
No, actually. My mom is very fashionable. Listening to her friends and what her life was like when she started getting into fashion was really a big catalyst for me. My sister and I would watch her do her makeup and get dressed for the evening, which was a very big part of our childhood.
I thought I wanted to be a sculptor, actually. I went to Parsons, my undergraduate in New York. You do a foundation year there where you try everything. I really took a liking to sculpture and pottery, where I could use my hands, but then I needed more of a finished product at the end. Someone said, “Well you should just try fashion,” and I did and I fell in love with it.
How did you develop your design aesthetic? What drew you to work with sequins?
Of course, I love anything shiny and sparkling, that's a given. (laughs) But, more so, I love texture. For me, it was kind of taking something that is so effervescent and so bubbly — how do you make that feel special, feel new and fresh? And that’s through colour and texture. There's so much to discover and learn when it comes to sequin embroidery. We will move on and do other things, but for now sequins are still a very big part of the collections for me because it's something I'm not done with exploring.
Who are your biggest influences?
I look at a lot of women throughout history, like Nan Kempner who was my inspiration for my Fall/Winter 2018 collection. Diana Ross, Cher, Tina Turner, Bianca Jagger — those kind of really strong, powerful women. I also look at women today who love and live fashion. Also, women who work and are self-sufficient, who dress for themselves and for each other, not necessarily for a man.
Why do you think disco has not lost its appeal?
I think it's because it’s a time when things were simpler. People were more free, it was more open and more accepting. I think we all as people strive for that and I think visually, it's so exciting. Yes, it was 50 years ago, but it still feels very modern: that mentality, that sense of self, that confidence.
"I think the most glamorous and the chicest thing is when a woman is kind and respectful to people, and she’s open and progressive. That’s what glamour is to me." — Michael Halpern
You’ve previously worked with Donatella Versace, who gave a shout-out to you in her Vogue 73 Questions video. How would you describe your relationship with her?
She's a mentor. She's someone I look up to immensely and I think that she is that way for a lot of young brands. She has a history of supporting young designers from Christopher Kane to J.W. Anderson. She is an icon and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
What's the most important piece of advice she has given you?
I think the most important thing that she imparted to me was to trust your instinct. I’ve never met anyone who is so instinctual in the way that she works. Her biggest piece of advice was just to trust yourself and your gut feelings.
What made you decide to show in London instead of New York, where you're from?
London supports young brands so much. Whether you’re Halpern or Burberry, the press and the support is equal. It’s not about who advertises or who has more money or whatever; it's about the ideas. And London, historically, has been the place where young brands can flourish and grow. That's why I love to show and work in London. There are so many creatives, so many different people we work with, so many people in and out all the time. It's an amazing city.
Why would you say your personal style is so different from your designs?
Because I'm around my designs all the time. I love to be an outsider looking at it, but it's not what I would wear, mainly because I like comfort. I travel a lot and work a lot. But I do love to dress up at night. I love putting on a tuxedo or a fabulous silk suit.
How did you feel when you found out Beyoncé wanted to wear one of your designs?
That was great! It was very early on in my career, right when I graduated from my Master’s. It was amazing and it happened very quickly (laughs). I didn’t really have time to process it; we had to get to work and make it very quickly.
How do you stay focused on your vision for Halpern?
I think it’s about being able to slowly build a team who can help with that. Of course, I'm involved in everything, from PR to sales and merchandising. I can oversee everything, but it’s about having a really great team around you that you can trust so that you have more time to focus on the designs and the development of the collection. We’re growing slowly, season on season, and I think that’s the healthiest way of doing it.