michael halpern is london's newest and proudest american import
Inspired by the glamour of 70s New York, Michael Halpern is creating a glitter moment in London to rival Studio 54.
Chloe wears all clothing Halpern. Michael wears all clothing model's own.
It's July 2016 and London has relocated to Cornwall for its annual takeover of the Port Eliot Festival, the posh culture fair in Lady St Germans' back garden. Out of the grass a group of girls appear, Cher-haired and bedecked in disco-coloured sequins as if they just fell down from space in the middle of this countryside orgy of flip-flops and rosé-filled plastic cups. It's planet fashion's first introduction to the sparkly and subversive world of Michael Halpern: glamour in a normcore context, as he defines it. Some saw it on the communal runway of his Central Saint Martins graduation show where he completed his MA months before, but in the philosophy of Halpern - as the brand is called - the power of his sequined garments isn't activated until it's in conjunction with their surroundings. This is instant glamour—just add space. "You know in Coyote Ugly when they're all sitting at the counter late in the night counting their money?" Michael reminisces six months later in his small fluorescent studio in Hackney, lit up like a disco ball by the sequined collection lining the walls. "That's how my mum would describe what she and her friends would do after going to Studio 54. I like that something so wild and glamorous would end up in a weird diner at 1.30 in the morning."
After presenting his debut show at London Fashion Week in February - an intimately grand affair styled by fashion legend Patti Wilson, staged in a purposely cold and harshly lit office space off Regent Street - he's on a call from Mexico where he's celebrating said mother's birthday. "Mom!" he shouts, in a sedate American East Coast accent. "What was the other place you used to go?" Background rumblings ensue. "The St Regis… jazz… Everybody was there, she says... Diana Ross." Born in 1987 and raised between provincial Niskayuna in upstate New York and the city, Michael grew up with tales of his mother's fabulous youth in 70s disco New York. "Salvador Dalí was living in the St Regis at some point and she said he had a big cat that he would walk through the lobby on a leash," he recounts. "She was such a glamour puss. Her parents died when she was young so she made up a group of friends that became her family, and that family was super glamorous. Uptown girls in furs." That environment informed his graduation collection, spun into a full line for autumn/winter 17: "authentic glamour," as he calls it, "from an age when it wasn't referential to anything, but just reflective of its time."
It materialised in multi-coloured, all-sequined jumpsuits, flared trousers, corseted bustiers, and big cascading satin trains. True to the 70s spirit, Michael enjoys pairing the vulgarity of sequins with the luxury of duchess satin—but don't mistake his dazzle for cheap. Some pieces are made from thousands of sequins hand-stitched individually at haute couture level. (He consults for Atelier Versace - Donatella's artisanal line - on the side.) "I was always told I was a little bit tacky and a little bit too much," he says, referring to those sequins, "so the biggest thing I walked away with from Saint Martins was to really commit to it and not water it down. I had to go full throttle." If he sounds like the jazz-hands type by now, it couldn't be further from reality. Chronically bearded, capped and clad in black, Michael Halpern reserves his lustrous fantasies for the girl that fills his mind. "I'm the opposite of her. I think she loves to go to this fancy shit and she laps it up, and she loves a really fabulous Martini. I'm like, maybe I'll have a Pimm's and a cheeseburger," he laughs.
His roots were characterised by such contrasts. Michael's parents ("liberal New York Jews") grew up in the Bronx and worked their way out of it, his mother a banker, his father a chemical engineer. An awkward teenager with a penchant for hip-hop, Michael's adolescence was marked by his two lives in upstate New York and the city, where his mother worked part time. "My friends upstate were still sneaking out drinking beer at night, while my friends in the city were doing tonnes of drugs and vodka at nightclubs at, like, fifteen," he recalls. Michael, however, is no club kid. He earned his BA from Parsons in New York and arrived in London for his MA in 2014, a time that wasn't exactly characterised by its booming party scene. "A lot of designers pull research from the nightlife and that's part of it for me, but not necessarily modern night life. I look at it in almost a nostalgic way. Not that I'm stuck in the past or I don't think anything moves on, but I get off on the energy of what nightlife used to look like," he explains, "because it doesn't look like that anymore. People don't dress up as much—at least my friends don't."
Nostalgia is nothing, of course, if not rooted in romanticism. And you'd be blind not to draw the obvious parallel between current affairs and the politics of 70s America, a time of gender and equality debates, financial decline, and chilly Russian relations. The glamorous Studio 54 nightlife Michael now references was a natural reaction to it all: a speck of light and fantasy in a dreary reality. "A lot of people have said it and I guess it could be a subconscious way of reacting to it, but I didn't set out to make a political statement - even if it was a shit time already when I did it, when Trump was running. Now that he's the fucking president it's a different story." For Michael Halpern, London's newest and proudest American import - who has already sold his debut collection to stores around the world, including Matches in London - this is the social and political environment, which will frame his future collections and add context and meaning to the unapologetic glamour he puts his name to. All that glitters isn't gold, the proverb goes, but it's sure as hell better than the alternative.
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Tim Walker
Hair Teiji Utsumi at Bryant Artists using Bumble and Bumble. Make-up Lucy Burt at Bryant Artist using Chanel Rouge Coco Gloss and Les Beiges de Chanel. Model Chloe Nardin at Viva. Michael wears all clothing model's own.