SUL­TAN OF SE­QUINS

Un­abashedbhd re­bel­lious­blli glam­ourl in hi­his dde­signsi andd al­lll ththe charmh off ththe boy b next door, there are so many rea­sons to love de­signer Michael Halpern

Harper's Bazaar (Arabia) - - Arabia Bazaar - Pho­tog­ra­phy by Ziga Mi­hel­cic

In a quiet cor­ner of Pen­nethorne’s Café in Lon­don’s Som­er­set House, de­signer Michael Halpern and I have cof­fee. He is wear­ing all black. The only hint of his fash­ion em­i­nence is the jacket he’s wear­ing by Bri­tish-Iraqi de­signer, Al Walid, and the only hint of colour I spy is in his eyes – at just 30 years old, he’s al­ready claim­ing the ti­tle of fash­ion’s blue-eyed boy. He seems the po­lar op­po­site of his de­signs, too. While they are de­fi­ant in their un­abashed glam­our, he is po­lite and re­strained in his de­meanor. But we’re not fooled, at a time when we’re putting min­imi­al­sim and moder­nity on a pedestal, he is still stag­ing fash­ion’s most glam­orous max­i­mal­ist re­bel­lion. While the world feels like it’s go­ing in one di­rec­tion, he prefers to go in the other. “I think the ’70s was a sim­i­lar time to what it is to­day – po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally. I think there were a lot of re­ally scary things hap­pen­ing,” he tells Bazaar. To coun­ter­act this pre­car­i­ous mood, through fash­ion Michael pro­vides a dif­fer­ent kind of es­capism where he lit­er­ally dresses women one mood­en­hanc­ing high-shine se­quin at a time.

As a de­signer, Michael earnt his stripes the tra­di­tional way – a Par­son’s grad­u­ate, he as­sisted at Os­car de la Renta and J. Men­del be­fore ap­ply­ing to do his mas­ters at Cen­tral Saint Martins. It was here at his MA De­gree show in 2015 that he caught the well-honed eye of fash­ion critic, Sarah Mower – she was said to be ‘knocked side­ways’ by the fear­less­ness of his ap­proach to glam­our. And after she made an in­stru­men­tal in­tro­duc­tion to Donatella Ver­sace, he was on a plane to Mi­lan. “The next day I was sit­ting on a plane with my port­fo­lio, and that day I had a job. It wasn’t even re­ally an of­fer it was just like an, ‘Okay, you’ll work for us now.’ You don’t say ‘no’ to Donatella,” he laughs.

Still now, Michael al­most can’t be­lieve his own luck. And that’s his charm – he’s sweet in a way that makes you want to be his friend, and grate­ful and grounded in a way that makes you re­spect him.

“At Ver­sace I was work­ing on the Ate­lier col­lec­tion which was just un­be­liev­able. I mean re­ally, for DV to give me ac­cess to that ate­lier and be so sup­port­ive was in­cred­i­ble. You go from be­ing a stu­dent at Saint Martins to just do­ing what you want to do, and things are on the cat­walk and things are on celebri­ties, and it’s just a crazy, crazy ex­pe­ri­ence. I’ve never met any­one like her, she knows in­stantly whether some­thing is, or is not, Ver­sace. It’s a com­plete gut re­ac­tion and that’s some­thing she re­ally taught me – to trust your­self, trust your vi­sion, and trust your team.”

While work­ing for Ver­sace, Michael si­mul­ta­ne­ously worked on the launch of his own brand. “I wanted to have my own brand at some point, not nec­es­sar­ily right out of univer­sity, though. But it just felt nat­u­ral and I was just do­ing what I wanted to do and I wasn’t think­ing about sea­sons, or mer­chan­dis­ing, or any­thing like that, I was just mak­ing clothes. And peo­ple kept ask­ing, and stores kept ask­ing and that was it,” he ex­plains. Halpern launched in Lon­don for au­tumn/win­ter 2017 and in De­cem­ber the same year, Michael won the Bri­tish Emerg­ing Tal­ent award for wom­enswear at the Bri­tish Fash­ion Awards. Just to drive the suc­cess home fur­ther, model of the mo­ment, Ad­woa Aboah, wore a sparkly Halpern jump­suit to col­lect her award for Model of the Year. “It’s been a lit­tle crazy,” he ad­mits smil­ing – and why wouldn’t he be, too. From a grad­u­ate to Ate­lier Ver­sace to award-win­ning name-sake la­bel. On the out­side his jour­ney to the top seems to have been rel­a­tively un­touched, but he laughs at the sug­ges­tion. Of course there have been hard­ships but for a de­signer he prides him­self on be­ing very or­gan­ised. “You have to be. There are so many things that peo­ple don’t talk about like HR and sales, dis­tri­bu­tion, and pro­duc­tion – we’re not just in the stu­dio drap­ing beau­ti­ful things.”

When he is in the stu­dio, though, Michael’s sur­rounded by a small but un­flap­pable team – 10 in to­tal. “I like be­ing very close with a few peo­ple rather than close to a lot of peo­ple. My friend­ship group and my work group is very close-knit, and that’s some­thing that’s im­por­tant to me. At 4am in the morn­ing when you’re all bust­ing your gut – you need that all-in ca­ma­raderie, oth­er­wise it won’t work. Ev­ery­one works re­ally hard but they have a life out­side of the stu­dio. That’s very im­por­tant, if you don’t, how are you get­ting in­spi­ra­tion, how do you have a view of modern women if you’re not get­ting out there and in­ter­act­ing with them.”

If Michael’s de­signs are in any way a re­flec­tion of his ‘get­ting out there’, then we’d like to get out there with him, danc­ing to Donna Sum­mer and re­liv­ing the Stu­dio 54 and pre- Dy­nasty glam­our of the Seven­ties that his de­signs so heav­ily ref­er­ence. “My mum was a Stu­dio 54 girl. She used to go a lot and re­ally en­joy her­self. She was an in­cred­i­ble woman with a fierce, fierce job in New York as one of the fore­most women at JP Mor­gan. Her story is in­cred­i­ble, and now she men­tors young women in

the in­dus­try. I started from lis­ten­ing to sto­ries of her and her friends talk­ing about go­ing to Stu­dio 54, and what the door was like, and what Steve was like, and see­ing Liza Min­nelli and watch­ing Diana Ross per­form, just in­cred­i­ble, in­cred­i­ble things. There aren’t so many pic­tures, as it wasn’t the cul­ture then that it is now,” he ex­plains. “But be­cause you don’t have a plethora of pic­tures to show ev­ery­one, it turns into these in­cred­i­ble de­tailed, colour­ful, sala­cious sto­ries from that time. I’m sure over time they got ex­ag­ger­ated, when she and her friends talk and I lis­ten – it didn’t all hap­pen, and they weren’t on a rock­et­ship by the end of the night, but that’s all part of the fan­tasy. And she has a lot of the clothes still, so I can look at them, and that’s re­ally where the com­pany be­gan and that’s what I still ref­er­ence.”

Michael also lis­tens to a lot of mu­sic, “Candice Stan­ton, Cher, Tina Turner, Diana Ross and Donna Sum­mer. All those women, we lis­ten to and look at them. I mean, take [Amer­i­can fash­ion de­signer] Bob Mackie and what he has done for all of those women for so many years, and it’s just mind-blow­ing. I’m sure he doesn’t like me talk­ing about him all the time but he’s a big in­spi­ra­tion for me.” Michael and Bob share the same dis­po­si­tion for gutsy glam­our and se­quins – a medium Michael vows never to get bored of. “Peo­ple al­ways ask me if I get tired of se­quins and I’m like, ‘No! Do you get bored of chif­fon or crêpe?’ There are so many dif­fer­ent ways to em­broi­der, types of em­broi­dery, and types of se­quins and bases, that give com­pletely dif­fer­ent looks on the body. I’m still ex­plor­ing how all of that works and how we do that in a way that feels ex­cit­ing and modern.”

But, while he’s vamp­ing up day­wear – he’s also giv­ing evening­wear a modern and fresh make-over too. The fas­ci­na­tion is all in the artistry that goes into big beau­ti­ful gowns – the drap­ing and ma­nip­u­la­tion of se­quins to en­sure the light bounces in the right way, the em­broi­dery – whilst bring­ing the de­signs to life in modern, more wear­able sil­hou­ettes. “I think to­day there are so many re­stric­tions on what is ap­pro­pri­ate and what is not. And when you’re al­lowed to wear some­thing or when you’d be looked at cock-eyed for wear­ing some­thing... I think if you want to wear a se­quin T-shirt and a pair of cropped se­quin trousers for a meet­ing then you should be do­ing that.”

Al­though it can feel re­bel­lious, it’s Michael’s au­then­tic­ity that’s en­abled his suc­cess. He’s not try­ing to strong-arm his way to the top, he’s just do­ing what he knows and loves, and do­ing it well. “I’m not in­ter­ested in hav­ing ev­ery­thing from her morn­ing cof­fee look to her af­ter­noon lunch look to her late evening look,” he says of his cus­tomer. “We’re not big enough and it’s not my fo­cus. So we’re do­ing one thing and we’re do­ing it re­ally well. I think if you’re authen­tic and you go through an authen­tic de­sign process then it res­onates with peo­ple be­cause it doesn’t seem forced.”

It was this laser-sharp fo­cus and the brand’s strong DNA that drew the at­ten­tion of Natalie King­ham, buy­ing di­rec­tor at Matches Fash­ion. “Halpern gives you an­other level of con­fi­dence. It’s about glam­our and em­pow­er­ment,” she tells Bazaar. The week after we meet both Natalie and Michael are trav­el­ling to Dubai and Kuwait to cel­e­brate his cur­rent col­lab­o­ra­tion with Matches, an ex­clu­sive five-piece col­lec­tion. The two have been friends since Natalie dis­cov­ered Halpern back in 2016. “She re­ally cares about young brands like mine,” he says. “Lots of peo­ple mis­un­der­stand buy­ing, it’s so much deeper than just go­ing to show­rooms and her knowl­edge of how peo­ple dress, and how peo­ple dress in a modern way is some­thing that has helped shape our busi­ness. She has a spe­cial way of be­ing able to see how the Halpern aes­thetic will work for the Matches cus­tomer in the Mid­dle East. When she gives you her time and her en­ergy and her love, it’s a very in­cred­i­ble thing.”

In the col­lec­tion are dresses with high splits – that he refers to as “the loud girl stuff ” – a ga­lac­tic emer­ald fab­ric and a leop­ard se­quin with a bright pink lamé fab­ric, but while the look is loud, longer hem­lines and clever drapes pro­vide an apt modesty. “I’m not the per­son who thinks it’s more evoca­tive if you show a lot of skin. I think hid­ing and cov­er­ing is more mys­te­ri­ous and a lot more pow­er­ful in a way.” An ideal that works for this re­gion and for Michael, even if not for the same rea­son.

Other pieces in the col­lec­tion are frac­tion­ally more sub­dued. “This is new for us,” he says, ges­tur­ing to a pale pearles­cent se­quin jump­suit. “I thought it was a nice thing to do for the Mid­dle East be­cause, of course, they like colour and bling, but they’re also into these beau­ti­ful creams, and a more sub­tle way of dress­ing.” He goes onto to ex­plain with child-like en­thu­si­asm how the se­quins on this par­tic­u­lar piece are heat-treated so they curl up at the edges like a mini cup, and re­fract the light in a re­ally soft, sub­tle, beau­ti­ful way. We’re also com­pletely in­vested in the style which he calls the “multi”. A red, black and gold one-piece with a sil­ver back­ground, which, ap­par­ently when you mush around it has that “re­ally in­tense tin­sely sound,” Michael says. What could be more fit for the fes­tive sea­son we’re amidst?

As well as any­thing with a hint of shine, drap­ing and fit are also sta­ples in the brand sig­na­tures. “There are so many ways of con­ceal­ing and ex­pos­ing the body, so drap­ing is an im­por­tant thing. And it’s what I do to de-stress, even if it’s not for the col­lec­tions, I get on the stands and lis­ten to mu­sic and I just drape.” Michael’s at­ten­tion to fit is also un­com­pro­mis­ing, his clothes are made for women who have a ‘body’. “This type of cloth­ing re­ally ac­cen­tu­ates the body, and I think what we do re­ally bases it­self in qual­ity and fit.” Some­thing he feels def­i­nitely res­onates with his “ed­u­cated and tech­ni­cally knowl­edge­able” Mid­dle Eastern cus­tomer.

Al­though this is his first time in the re­gion pub­licly, he’s been sev­eral times be­fore. “The [French-Le­banese] de­signer Mira Mikati has be­come a re­ally good friend, she buys the col­lec­tion for Plum bou­tique in Beirut. And it’s in­cred­i­ble how much we sell out of that beau­ti­ful lit­tle store,” Michael says. “Ev­ery­one tells me Beirut is Paris on the sea, that it’s beau­ti­ful and you party all night and go up to the moun­tains for an after party – I’d love to go.” His Ara­bian in­ner-cir­cle also in­cludes Deena Ab­du­laziz. “She’s opened me up to a lot of the women in the Mid­dle East,” he says. “Not nec­es­sar­ily meet­ing them but think­ing about them, his­tor­i­cally. The likes of Farida Khelfa... She was so ground-break­ing, be­ing Alaïa’s muse, and be­ing smart, ed­u­cated and provoca­tive. It is just beau­ti­ful. And Egyp­tian singer, Sher­i­han, with her fash­ion and the way she looks. Oh my god, she’s amaz­ing,” Michael en­thuses, adding that Nancy Ajram bought some­thing last week and wore it to a con­cert in Paris where she was per­form­ing. “She’s preg­nant and she wore this tiny lit­tle se­quin mini dress and it was the best thing ever to see.” Michael has also re­cently been awak­ened by the essence of Oud. “It’s some­thing that my friends in­tro­duced me to, the re­ally over­pow­er­ing scent of oud and oils. Even though it’s not some­thing you can see vis­ually, you can imag­ine this woman swathed in fab­ric and that trans­lates into drap­ing, and that in it­self be­comes some­thing.”

The day we meet his Halpern x Top­shop col­lec­tion hits stores, but ex­cite­ment sur­round­ing the col­lab­o­ra­tion is some­what marred by the al­le­ga­tions against Top­shop owner, Sir Philip Green. “All I can say is that my brand is about women and em­pow­er­ing women and that is not go­ing to change.” Hav­ing grown up with a fem­i­nist mother and sis­ter, Michael is a cham­pion of equal rights. “I think peo­ple who don’t know so much about fem­i­nism think that fem­i­nism is just stand­ing in a pick-up line, not car­ing what you look like. But fem­i­nism at the core is equal rights and that’s it. I think that it’s about be­ing heard equally and not be­ing skipped over, and be­ing pow­er­ful and smart, and I think that clothes play a big part of that. Peo­ple could say wear­ing re­ally sexy things is ob­jec­ti­fy­ing a woman and has noth­ing to do with fem­i­nism, but I think it’s the op­po­site. It’s about power, it’s about own­ing your­self, it’s about mak­ing your own rules and it’s about be­ing heard and that’s re­ally what my clothes stand for.”

“IT ’S A BOUT

POWER. IT ’S A BOUT

OWN­ING YOUR­SELF. IT ’S A BOUT

MAK­ING YOUR OWN

RULES”

Michael Halpern

Salma Abu Deif wears: Dress, Dhs10,700, Halpern. Yousra Zein wears: Dress, Dhs5,400; trousers, Dhs6,650, both Halpern. Ring, Dhs21,475, Lynn Ban, all at Matches Fash­ion

Salma wears: Top, Dhs12,885; trousers, Dhs9,245,both Halpern. Ring, Dhs25,050, Lynn Ban, all Matches Fash­ion. Bracelet, Salma’s own.Yousra wears: Jump­suit, Dhs12,155; cape, Dhs10,500, both Halpern. Ring, Dhs42,975,Lynn Ban, all at Matches Fash­ion

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