After months of retail tumbleweeds, Christmas came early for Michael Halpern. “Just before December, when the new collection went into stores, it picked up and sold out. I don’t know who’s wearing it or where they’re going, but it shows a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel,” the designer said on a video call from his Vauxhall studio. The hope it gave him fueled a fall collection uplifted by feelings of emergence: “what people are going to wear when they come out of lockdown.”
Last year, Halpern devoted himself and his brand to pandemic relief efforts. He spent the summer producing PPE in a makeshift factory, and dedicated September’s collection to the frontline, dressing its heroines in demi-couture for a digital docu-show that made more than a few viewers cry. Those clothes were high-octane social realist escapism—if that isn’t a total oxymoron—made not to wear but to inspire. Now, Halpern said, the time has come for realizing those dreams.
Imagining how we’ll want to dress in August, when a moderate dance party might be an option, he looked to the unconstricted clubwear of the 1970s and ’80s: catsuits, jumpsuits, and things that felt like something you might wear to a club night on a yacht, a real bathing suit with a matching leopard sarong very much included. “I watched an old interview with Meryl Streep, who said she liked to dance in a catsuit because ‘nothing gets in the way.’ She made it sound so… functional,” he smiled.
Halpern’s idea of the emergent wardrobe wasn’t without irony. The extravagant sequins, graphic intarsia patterns, diamanté braziers, and draped scarlet satin-silk trains that embodied this collection—and, generally, his mind— weren’t his proposal for a post-pandemic day look. But they weren’t follies, either. “You want to feel like you’re putting on clothing again. You want it to feel different than normal. It’s not some chiffon thing you waft around in at home, but something you go out in.”
Just don’t mention the C word. “I’m so sick of comfort-wear,” he said. “Everyone I’ve spoken to is so tired of what they’re wearing now: simple, comfortable…” Halpern said, tasting those adjectives. “That champagne is burned!” he laughed, quoting Dynasty’s Dominique Deveraux. “I wanted to do tailoring that’s not ‘luxe home tailoring’ but real tailoring, in sequins and duchesse. It’s about being ostentatious but not feeling cumbersome. It has to feel easy.”
Unlike last season’s emotional film, he presented the collection as a simple photoshoot. “It felt appropriate. In September we weren’t in lockdown. This time we are.” It was a fitting sentiment for Halpern’s approach to this moment in time. While he doesn’t deny that the glamour of what he does is far from our current reality, he’s put those sequins to work for a good cause. Now, as we cross our fingers for a gradual return to the life that Halpern sells clothes for, he tries to adapt his industrial output in a pragmatic way.
“You’re worried if your business is going to continue on the path that it was,” he said, reflecting on the past year. “After a time of not selling high glamour during lockdown, for people to be buying it again feels like all our work over this past year paid off. I wanted to keep making beautiful things, not in a trivial way, but in an earnest and sincere way. I didn’t think it would happen so quickly, but to see it moving again is beyond words for me.”