“A return to glamour – That’s my whole ethos,” 28-year-old New York state born Michael Halpern explains of his collection and design aesthetic. “Everything is so serious now. It should be fun and exciting and colorful. Fashion is not this somber, serious thing. I think that’s what fashion is missing. I think you have to have a real social life in order to be a modern designer. You need to have fun and be young while you are. My friends and I like to go to parties where you need to dress up and look glamorous, and that’s in my clothing as well. People used to get dressed up for things and now everything is so casual.”
And that sense of over-the-top-glamour follows through to his 1970s disco-like designs. “The Art of Dressing has been lost,” Michael continues. “With this, you need someone to help you get dressed. You need to go a little slower. You’re in a corset. You might not be able to sit down. I want you to be aware of clothing. It lives with you. Breathes with you.”
Michael was inspired by a contrast between garish, cheap fabric that needs to be elevated to a luxurious level, mixed with traditional, beautiful Italian-made silk. “It’s that juxtaposition of having really shit, disgusting fabrics that smell when you get them – because they have been in a warehouse somewhere – to the epitome of glamour and luxury,” he says. “That’s something I really like to play with and that’s always in my work. Really intense glamour but kind of trampy.”
“With this, you need someone to help you get dressed. You need to go a little slower. You’re in a corset. You might not be able to sit down. I want you to be aware of clothing. It lives with you. Breathes with you.”
With this juxtaposition between the gritty and the glamorous, his couture technique became integral to his design process. As Michael explains, “even though it looks a bit trash, which is obviously what I’m going for, everything is made very much with a couture sensibility. All of the corsets are hand embroidered with canvas on the inside, so it’s a very classical way of making clothing.”
A technique he was able to grow upon thanks to mentoring from previous work experience he gained directly after graduating from Parsons School of Design in New York, with a BFA degree in fashion design. He credits his time with J. Mendel and Oscar de la Renta, both classic womenswear companies known for traditionally tasteful designs, for his technical foundation. Although the designs are not entirely his aesthetic now, the knowledge he gained from countless hours of draping organza and hand pleating silk chiffon with the fashion houses, gave him the ability to grow as a designer and take him to where he is today.
Of his inspiration, Michael notes a fascination with diving horses, a popular attraction created in the 1880’s in the United States, in which a horse stands atop a 60-foot ramp and ‘dives’ into a pool of water no deeper than 12 feet. It is this circus-like pastime, which saw its demise in 1978 for obvious reasons, that his graduate collection centred around. Although his interest is not with the horses, but rather the women who dived with them. “Those women were in these super restricting garments doing acrobats,” Michael explains. “So what better than just a classic corset? That’s where I started.”
“I kind of like that the sequins are falling apart. They look lived in. Like someone’s had sex in them.”
In his gathering of reference images, 100-year-old photos of diving horses sit next to images of a French boudoir sex club. Hours spent in the New York Public Library’s picture department resulted in an amalgamation of elegant images of horses mid-dive alongside glamorous, sexually-driven women in corsets and bondage. “In the end, it’s really just about glamour and sexuality,” says Michael. “I fought that for awhile, but it’s actually exactly what I should be doing, though in a modern way.”
Once compiled, the looks became less about grit, as they made their way down the runway, and became works of couture. After the show, Michael studied the clothes. They’ve been abused a bit. “I kind of like that the sequins are falling apart. They look lived in. Like someone’s had sex in them.”
Now that the show is over and the course has wrapped up, Michael can reflect on his time at Central Saint Martins. “An amazing thing about this course is that if you tried to do anything that is not you or what you’re about, it’s just not going to work. It has to be so personal. And that’s something I have come away from the course so happy with – that you have this vision, and they really help you to formulate what you want to say. But it has to all come from you.” And that is something course leader Fabio Piras drilled home.
As for Michael’s future, that is still unclear. As he vaguely hints, “nothing is fully fleshed out yet. There are things happening, which is really exciting. There has been a lot of interest in my collection.” Michael can assure you that, at least for now, his collections will be one of a kind, like his graduate collection. “When you buy it, or invest in it, I want it to be like you have a piece of something really special. I see it that way, and I hope other people will too.”
Words by Taryn Guzio