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
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
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