Michael Halpern, the New York designer who units requirements in London
He’s building a British fashion house with New York sensibility – and lots of glamor.
Michael Halpern is one of the most exciting and attention grabbing designers currently working in London. And we mean that quite literally: His eye-catching, heavily decorated, colorful pieces catch the eye and hold the eye. He is also one of the few American designers who build houses across the pond and shape the UK fashion scene. At the end of the day, however, Halpern is a New Yorker through and through: “I’m sure you can hear it in my voice,” he told me on the phone in February.
Halpern grew up between New York City, where his mother lived, and upstate New York, where his father was, and spent his student years in Manhattan with Parsons. He only moved to London in his mid-twenties when, after working for J. Mendel and Oscar de la Renta in New York, he realized that he wasn’t finished as a designer. That and he always wanted to live in Europe.
“I was abroad in Paris when I was with Parsons and that was amazing,” he says. “I always knew I wanted to return to Europe. It was a combination of wanting to do the MA in Central Saint Martins. [which] so many incredible people had done it – Christopher Kane, John Galliano, Roksanda Ilincic, Alexander McQueen – and at that time the secret of living in another country and the excitement of living in another culture. I really needed all of these things to feed my soul. “
A look from Michael Halpern’s Central Saint Martins MA collection, shown during the 2016 London Fashion Week fall season.
The rest is fashion history: Halpern’s graduate collection was a huge hit when it ran at London Fashion Week in 2016, and he even got a job offer from Donatella Versace to work on the haute couture collections at Atelier Versace in Milan. The following year he won the Fashion Award for British Emerging Talent in Womenswear; In 2020, he was recognized again for his time as a volunteer in the manufacture of PPE and for his spring 2021 lookbook honoring the UK frontline workers amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The story goes on
When Halpern first arrived in London, his designs looked very different from what we now expect from him: On the one hand, he remembers how he worked exclusively in black on his first project at Central Saint Martins. When he thinks back on it, he says it came from a place of fear. “I was afraid of expressing myself in a way that wasn’t the form that should be fashionable at the moment,” he explains. It was the MA program that really allowed him to break out of it – an experience that “was so liberating and exciting as to step out of my own self-awareness and experiment, play with color and texture and fill them in a path that I did I’ve never done it before. “
Halpern always knew he wanted to go out alone as a designer, but he wasn’t planning on doing it right after high school. “It happened organically. [After I graduated from Central Saint Martins] It was just me, and I kept getting messages from stores and buyers. I said, “Well, I don’t even own a company. I’m currently working in another company, “he recalls.” It felt like striking while the iron was hot. I stayed at Versace part-time and then started Halpern. I would go back and forth from Milan to London. I started out very, very small with my MA collection – only fulfilled orders for a few stores. And then things grew very quickly. “
A look from Halpern’s fall 2017 collection – the first one he presented at London Fashion Week.
These three chapters in the designer’s life – studying at Parsons, moving to London for Central Saint Martins and working for Versace in Milan – ultimately shaped the Halpern we see today most consistently.
“I graduated from Parsons in 2010 – 10 years ago, which I can’t believe. [the program was] technical. They had pattern education courses, sewing courses, and collection development courses. This is very different from the way the masters at Central Saint Martins worked. It’s a lot more self-directed, self-guided practice, “he explains.” Having both – the slightly more technical and merchandising side of Parsons and the much more creative and free-running side of Central Saint Martins – has been really, really helpful to me running a business and knowing how to dress in really real ways manufactures. Then I went to work at Versace and that was the turning point for me in the types of clothes I make now. “
A detailed shot of a look from Halpern’s fall 2019 collection.
Besides learning the art of couture, many of Halpern’s greatest takeaways from his time at Versace were from Donatella himself. He says, “Donatella has always been an inspiration to me. The way she approaches fashion and how she does it is naturally familiar with her brand and her client, how she treats her team like family – I’ve learned all of that at Versace and so I strive to work with my team here in London. She was and is a great inspiration and Support for me. “
This “super-glowing” energy that flows through his work – and which has earned him so much recognition worldwide – goes back to his roots in New York City and his mother, who was a regular at Studio54. “From a design point of view, one thing I keep coming back to about New York is the energy of the city. Just to be outside and meet people and go to parties and bars – that glamor of the night is something. It really is something Special and something that I always keep with my design aesthetic, “he explains. “Being able to experience that as a student and in my early working days has shaped my design language again and again.”
Models behind the scenes at Halpern’s Fall 2020 show during London Fashion Week.
However, when it came time to officially start his business, London felt like the only place this was possible: “I loved living here. I love the fashion scene here and like the fashion press, buyers and Business supported young people so enormously talent, and I thought, “I made my first mark here.” I couldn’t see myself as a designer anywhere else back then.
Before the pandemic, Halpern traveled back to New York frequently. (“My family is still there. A lot of my friends are still there. We sell to stores there.”) Although he “never says never,” he’s not sure if a retreat is in sight, at least at this point his life. “I don’t know if I ever thought about staying [in London] for almost forever, but now I feel like this, “he explains.” I really feel like part of a community here. I will become a citizen in 2021, which will be very exciting. It feels like home now. “
A closer look at Halpern’s Fall 2019 fabrics.
Halpern the Brand’s feet are firmly anchored in Great Britain: In addition to a team based in London, all production takes place in Leicester – a decision that was made early on in the business.
“I thought that this country gave me so much through education and support – it was a small opportunity for me to be much more sustainable and to give something back to a country that did so much for me,” Halpern explains.
He also gave back in other ways. Last spring, he volunteered to make surgical gowns for medical professionals who, along with other members of the fashion community in London, are fighting Covid-19. Months later, when it was time to unveil spring 2021, Halpern decided to honor these frontline workers by having women from various sectors of the public service, from the NHS to the TFL, model the collection.
Halpern Spring 2021 as seen on UK frontline workers.
“It was a great opportunity to tell the stories of these people while also being able to thank all of these front line workers in an extraordinary way,” he says. “It was a profound shift in the ability to tell stories like this, and something I want to keep doing because I was very proud to be a part of it. And it just felt so natural to us, the collection to point to such different people and break the idea of glamor. “
That’s not to say the runway is over for Halpern – just that the challenges of Covid-19 invited an exercise to redesign the presentation of a designer’s work that he hadn’t previously looked at. “There are so many ways to connect with people and tell stories,” he argues. “There is no longer a formula for how or when a collection should be shown. I think that for many designers, including me, that’s really liberating.”
The detail of a Halpern Fall 2020 dress.
The ongoing global pandemic required another digital debut for the fall of 2021. But that doesn’t diminish the bright energy and boasting that made us fall in love with his work in the first place.
“It’s about giving people imagination and a little break from the hard shit that everyone goes through all the time,” Halpern says of his approach to design. “A draped sequin bustier – these are the things that will never go away because there are so many ways to do it. You can keep evolving and pushing it. It can shape into different things. And I think those kinds of things Super glam pieces that are now synonymous with halpers are things that people want from us all the time, they want the over the top thing that is beautifully done and the line between completely wild and ostentatious and really beautiful classically made clothes fluctuates. “
Lately he’s been pondering – and drawing inspiration from – what he calls “the power of fashion”. When you’re wearing something that makes you feel great, that looks beautiful, and that makes you feel confident, there aren’t many things that can rival it. “He’s always working towards that with his brand of the same name, he says. He was also optimistic, which helps:” We have a new president in the United States, things could get better – with COVID it will get better after all. I think that optimism is really important to me now. “
Looking back on his time in London, Halpern says it gave him permission to be a “truly authentic designer”.
“It’s not about meeting a quota or getting numbers. This is not about the bottom line when it comes to fashion,” he says. “It’s about expression and creativity and about being really free to do what you are most passionate about. If I were in a different situation, I don’t know if I would have this opportunity. I’m so grateful to London for that. It can only be better It’s been a tough year for everyone, in all walks of life, and I’m just looking forward to creating beautiful things and moving on. “
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