Pat Cleveland on the ‘Divinity’ of Fashion’s Halston Era

Pat Cleveland arrived in fashion at a time when American designers, then unremarkable, were preparing for their rise to fame. She arrived at a time when few knew who the now-renowned Halston even was. In fact, she arrived before Halston was Halston.

“I met him in 1968 at a party and I was with Stephen [Burrows] and Stephen was like, ‘You have to work for him,’ and nobody really knew who he was,” says Cleveland over Zoom from her home in New Jersey, ever-chic in her own House of VRC yogawear and, in keeping with the conversation, an Elsa Peretti bone cuff.

But the beloved model and muse would take Burrows’ advice and join Halston and what would become the Halstonettes, for the ride of their lives, a time she calls — if she had to distill it down to one word — divine.

“The catchphrases that we used, ‘Oh darling, you’re divine,’ that’s all that fashion talk,” she says, “[but] it was a good word. It’s a spiritual word, divine. Because it was divine. He was guided by his inner light and very protective of all of us and very generous with all of us, and that was kind of divine in its own way.”

Now, with the Netflix miniseries on the iconic American designer — known by his slicked hair and swagger, for his fluid frocks and career-ending J.C. Penney contract — dropping Friday, Cleveland talks about the real-life story, introducing Halston to Studio 54, and the one moment with the designer she’ll never forget.

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Halston and model Pat Cleveland in Halston Originals on stage during the international premiere of Halston’s U.S Olympic teams collection on Oct. 27, 1975, in Washington, D.C. Guy Delort/WWD

WWD: Let’s get this out of the way first since you’ve already seen it — what are we in store for with the Halston Netflix series?

Pat Cleveland: You know, the way people put the movies together for dramatic effect is very suchen [a German word for seeking, reaching almost] so they have to put as much emotional impact and the dark compared to the light….And if you look at how they put everything together so suchen-ly, things don’t happen like that in real life. Really. No. People have a personal life and they have a business life, and then they have their friends and it’s not all bad. There’s a lot of good. So, the goodness that he had and the dramatic turning points that they showed — everybody’s allowed to have their life and their life lessons and I think that film, because it came now, is just to teach people that terrible things can happen, but the person who Halston was, was a really good person that terrible things happened to.

It was very emotional seeing this heartfelt and tragic look at those lessons that we all have to learn watching that film.

WWD: Well, what was it really like working with Halston?

P.C.: In real life he really had it under control, he was taking care of hundreds of people daily…

Bringing things down to practicality was a lot of business that he had to deal with because our world, fashion, is not about the practical, it’s about dreaming and life and lifestyle. [But] he could see women as being beautiful and he tried to make everybody — all women — beautiful, and that was sort of out of the perimeter of where you could go as a high fashion designer.

When he said, “I want to dress every woman in America,” what he was saying was I want every woman to feel beautiful and that was his goal, really. Whether he was high fashion and dressing ladies in society, he saw a woman as someone precious because, basically, he was dressing his mother. Most of the time he was thinking about “How am I going to dress my mother?” His mother [Hallie Frowick] was a large lady and he had someone like Pat Ast [American actress] come in who was very flamboyant and a big lady and he dressed her and nobody was doing that. He saw all sizes of women as being beautiful…he had us and then Elsa Peretti, she looked a little bit like a man and a woman, her statuesque bigness.

I think what was so wonderful about him was that he listened very well to who you were and what it is that you needed to bring you up to the platform, kind of putting us on a pedestal, each one of us. Suddenly, he would be designing and he would look at you and he was like in awe and then the thing would come over him. “Bill [Dugan, Halston’s right-hand man], D.D. [Ryan, former Harper’s Bazaar editor and an associate of Halston] get over here.” And he would throw the fabric on the floor and get those 12-foot-long scissors and chop through the fabric while it was lying on the floor on the bias and then pick the fabric up and then throw it on you and it’s a dress. He was so excited about that.

He had to control everything and working with him, it would be very zen in a way because it would be quiet and everybody quiet and then things would come into the room, like the inspiration. And he had pretty wild people around him that were entertaining, like Liza [Minnelli]. He would have these parties up at Olympic Towers and Liza would sing live and some movie stars would be there in the night twinkle…he loved his smooth jazz so he always had some band, some music playing smooth jazz.

WWD: Something about smooth jazz and the fluidity of Halston’s fashion seem to go well together. What was it like to be dressed in Halston?

P.C.: Oh, he always saw me twirling in his chiffons and I always felt like a moth, I was like, I’m flying to the light, I’m flying to the light. But little did I know he was the moth flying to the light and he got burned.

But our whole life was about moving chiffon, cashmere and bugle-beaded dresses, that was our life. Moving those clothes, animating those clothes. And we had this game we used to play, pivot-turn. So he’d call me into the room when there was a person or client and he’d say, “This is what we’re going to do,” before the client came in, “I’ll say pivot-turn and you do it.” And then he would say pivot-turn but he’d do it like 10 times so I was like a little robot on the thing going pivot-turn, pivot-turn, pivot-turn and then he’d say, “You see that? She can turn on the dime,” to the client.

He always was inspired by how much good he could do for so many people…[he once said], “When I walk down the street, if I see women feeling beautiful in my clothes, then I’ve done my job.”

That’s what he was about, individual looks for the ladies. He wasn’t like one brush paints all, he really had someone in mind when he designed these clothes.

…That’s kind of how it was.

Cleveland poses in a one-shoulder godet-skirted dance dress from Halston’s spring 1977 made-to-order collection. Nick Machalaba/WWD

WWD: And that ethos fueled a meteoric rise to fame and helped put American fashion on the map — what about his role at the Battle of Versailles in 1973 and what that meant to the industry here?

P.C.: It was prepared as an adventure to go to a big party to save the roof from falling in at Versailles, that raggedy old building….So we get over there and it’s the middle of winter and boy did we have a good time on the plane partying. All the designers — Anne Klein, Halston, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows and all the models and the clothes in the belly of the plane, it was fabulous.

[Famously, there was tumult among the American designers and between them and their French counterparts — Marc Bohan of Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy and Emanuel Ungaro — and Halston has been credited with being a challenge to work with through it all. But it was a key moment that brought American fashion international recognition.]

He knew how to put his foot down and say no…so what he did was for everyone to be respected. Like here are the Americans, they’re not worth anything in fashion because couture is couture, France is couture, but he put his foot down and said, “No, we are valuable and we’re here to help you so you better treat us nicely thank you.” Without the thank you!

On weekends [after Versailles], we would go out to Montauk and Andy would be there. Andy Warhol and Victor [Hugo, French writer] Andy, me, Nancy [North, model and Halstonette] and Bill [Dugan] and I used to sleep in the room next to Halston’s, which was the Martha Graham [the American dancer] room. And so, in the mornings, Halston would get up to go out to the edge of the property where there was a flag pole and he’d hoist up the American flag every morning. Every morning. So that goes to show you how much he loved America. He was really one of our heroes in fashion. He really thought we’re as good as anybody.

WWD: Let us in on the inside story of the Halstonettes. Was it as glamorous as it seemed?

P.C.: Our whole little entourage — basically he started with five models and then he worked up to like nine, that’s including the boys…Pat [Anderson], Martin [Snaric] and Sterling [St. Jacques]…and Toni Spinelli, and then the girls were Karen [Bjornson], me, Alva [Chinn], Nancy North and Carla Araque. There were like five girls that traveled with him.

[Once] we went out to Hollywood to do the Loveboat — and nobody did that — but some of the good designers, Bob Mackie and Gloria Vanderbilt were there, and we went out to Hollywood and it was so wonderful because Halston called us the Halstonettes because we liked show business and we loved the Supremes and so we made our own. He chose ladies who could twirl and move the clothes and we were the Halstonettes, that was our job. Instead of singing we were moving.

WWD: But some of this was happening before the Battle of Versailles put Black models at the forefront — what was that like for you and what was Halston’s role in it all?

P.C.: You had Stephen Burrows, you had a whole bunch of other Black designers using Black models on Seventh Avenue, but the point is Halston actually had Naomi Sims before anybody was using Black models. And she was really beautifully colored, she was like chocolate, and she was so gorgeous and so regal and so elegant, so classy. And me, we were the first two that he had in the ‘60s — ’68-‘69, early ’70s — and then Alva came along.

Me being in the middle of the fence, I feel it from both sides, let me tell you — I don’t fit in anywhere. But I grew up in a Black culture so I have booty and music in my soul. And that’s something he really loved; he knew that you knew how to move to music because he loved jazz and he just loved that you had a reason, a goal. He knew that it was important for you to be there because you represented people that really needed to be represented and he knew that, he knew that so deeply because he didn’t want anybody to suffer. He wanted everybody to be beautiful and that’s why he had me and Naomi Sims because he wanted to show that everybody can dress in these clothes.

And that was the whole point of it, look at this beautiful girl, she deserves beautiful clothes.

WWD: OK, back to the Halstonette life…

P.C.: Everybody around Halston knew how to do almost everything, iron their clothes, be on time. There was a lot of integrity in those journeys that we took. We had very strict schedules with agendas that we had to keep to and it was a lot to travel and be together. But we had a great time on those airplanes going to China, because in those days those airplanes had sleeping bunks upstairs like beds, so Halston would sleep for like two hours and then he would say, “OK, now it’s your turn, you take over the bed.” So we’d all watch out for each other so we’d have enough energy on these long journeys and that was a really good time. He was very sweet.

But…it was different then [in the early ‘70s]. Fashion shows were not about thousands of people. It wasn’t an event like a ballgame or a circus. It was a private event where you walked the clothes into a silent room with a number — when I first began with Halston we all had a number we carried just like the houses in Paris when I worked for Madame Grès…Models were just people who were there wearing the clothes and no big deal about fame, and all the designers were making clothes for women that were private. It was a private event. And no two women were dressed alike, that was the whole idea of going to a designer is that you could look different and be your own personal person with your own look.

These girls that he used, everybody had their own look, like for instance Naomi Sims was cashmere, she had the cashmere body. And I was chiffon and Pat Ast was paillettes and matte jersey was Anjelica [Huston] and Karen Bjornson was ultrasuede. We all had our individual fabrics that he put on us.

And it was so much fun because he created this makeup — Halston makeup in the beginning when he was up at Olympic Towers — and he gave each of the girls a whole set of makeup, which was in these heart-shaped compacts and we traveled with them around the world. But the funny thing he did was he sat us down at the mirrors and he said, “Let’s see who does the best makeup.” Oh my god it was so competitive. If you look to the left or the right to the girl next to you, don’t do it because they had secret makeup things they do and nobody wants the other one to see how they do it, you know there’s makeup tricks. But we all had our own individual look.

That’s what he was about, individual looks for the ladies. He wasn’t like one brush paints all, he really had someone in mind when he designed these clothes.

They didn’t show a lot of stuff in the [Netflix series] because how could you show a trip to China when it was not even allowed? Because Halston’s brother [Robert Frowick] was a diplomat and he got us permission to go to the silk factories and we stayed in a place that was like the White House and I slept in [a bed Richard Nixon slept in] and I was like “oh my god,” it was like the White House of China. We were eating all those thousand-year-old eggs and we were on a world tour and Halston got so sick he turned green and by the time we got to Paris he was so sick. But we did go out dancing anyway.

Martin Snaric and Pat Cleveland attend Halston’s disco bash at Studio 54 in New York on Dec. 12, 1977. Guy Marineau/WWD

WWD: So, tell us about the Studio 54 days and all of the dancing and partying, which some have made almost synonymous with Halston.

P.C.: Don’t let this story get you wrong because I’m the one who took Halston to Studio 54 the very first time.

I was friends with Steve Rubell and he said to me, “I’m going to be opening and I want you to bring your friends.” So before he opened he said bring some friends over and I didn’t bring a lot of people. Halston said, “You want to come for dinner?” and I said, “No, we’re going to go dance.” He says “I can’t dance!” I said, “You’re coming anyway.” So we went over to Studio 54 and we started dancing under the lights because nobody was there. Just Halston, me and Steve Rubell because we were trying it out, you know, to see how it feels. And he loved it so much he said, “I’m bringing everybody I know.”

WWD: But despite always being surrounded by people, Halston was pretty private, right? As his friend, is there a moment that stands out in all those you spent together?

P.C.: When we were out west somewhere near Chicago, we were doing something for Neiman Marcus or one of the stores, he said, “I’m going to rent a car and you’re coming with me.” So he rented a car — and I’ve never seen him drive — not one time. So we get in that car and he took me out to the countryside and there was nothing but hay bales and land and sky and he said, “This is where I grew up.” And we stayed there in the car and we looked around at the space and then we went back to the city.

It was such a private moment because nobody knew things like that, really, about him. No one knew anything really about him privately. But that was a touching moment for me because nobody else was involved, it wasn’t about fashion. It was just about him having feelings about something that was not art, it wasn’t fashion, it wasn’t everybody else and it was so private and so beautiful. And just seeing him drive that was really…I was like, “I trust my life to you — do you know how to drive?!”

WWD: So there were the highs and the good times, but Halston also had his share of lows. You were around him after he signed what would become a catastrophic contract with J.C. Penney — what was the mood around him then?

P.C.: I remember when all of the stuff was happening with J.C. Penney and he was sort of stuck. I was living in Europe and I came back to do some shooting with him and I saw him so unhappy and I said, “Halston, you’ve got to get out of here, you’ve got to save your life, you have to come with me. I know what we can do, we can rent a boat in Monte Carlo and we can go for some months so you can get a break.” [He said], “I can’t leave, I have all of these people to take care of” and that’s when I realized he couldn’t leave. He wasn’t free like me. That made me so sad because he really wanted to do that. He really wanted to go and do those things.

But he had a lot of strength and he created a beautiful atmosphere for people to work in, he dressed everybody, all the workers, everybody, had full wardrobes at all times, new ones, and he really cared for everybody. He made beautiful lunches, always beautiful lunches for everyone. He had a cook that would come in and cook for everybody, so it was very nourishing to be around him.

[People] don’t know that. They just want to sometimes tear somebody down, look for the bad things…and sometimes you get lonely at the top. And if somebody’s passionate about you, you believe that that’s good. It happens to everyone. It can happen to anyone.

Halston and assistants fit models Cleveland (on the tabletop) Chris Royer, Kyle Trayl and Shirley Farro in “body dressing” from Halston’s fall 1977 advance. Fairchild Archive/Penske Media

WWD: How do you feel about the way the fashion world remembers Halston?

P.C.: All the artists, we’ll know what his true story is. They will know that he is someone who has been inspired by something greater than himself. No matter what life throws at you, that is what we will think about this human being who chose this path to express himself. That’s what we’re going to think about. The rest of it is just dirt and mud and then the flower grows, that’s all.

I can just say I’ve been blessed by knowing Halston. He kept me alive, he dressed me up.

WWD: Lastly, because people will want to know — what’s your most beloved Halston item still in your closet?

P.C.: It is an orange halter top bugle-beaded jumpsuit currently on loan to the “Studio 54: Night Magic” exhibit currently touring.

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