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Sequins, shine and Barbra Streisand

On the eve of the launch of his label in India, London-based Michael Halpern speaks about his love for the 1970s and how to feel extraordinary

(above) Michael Halpern; and ensembles from his Spring/Summer 2020 collection.
(above) Michael Halpern; and ensembles from his Spring/Summer 2020 collection.

Ablack baseball cap, black sweatshirt, and some serious Cartier bling on the wrist—the London-based New Yorker Michael Halpern is dressed just as we had expected. He stands in stark contrast to the backdrop formed by a desi cotton block-print curtain for our interview at the jewellery lounge of Mumbai’s luxury fashion store Le Mill. The designer speaks about falling in love with the vibe of Mumbai in the three days that he’s been here. Halpern is currently in town for his retail debut in India, with his complete Spring/Summer 2020 collection available at Le Mill, which will be stocking him exclusively in the country henceforth.

“I was out walking (in Colaba) with my AirPods on at 2am and people thought that I was lost and offered to direct me. I love to walk and explore and the whole area was buzzing. It’s so much like New York," he says. This is his first visit to Mumbai and India (though a lot of his embroidery is done at ateliers in Mumbai). Halpern decided to go against the recommendations of friends to head to Udaipur and Jaipur, and has chalked out an itinerary to explore Mumbai’s Zaveri Bazaar, old cloth markets, the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue (“I am Jewish, and I was surprised to know that Mumbai has some synagogues") and Dadar Flower Market. “They have asked me to be ready by 7.30am or all the flowers will be gone—it’s too early for me," he grins.

Back to exploring SoBo, he says that Sabyasachi Mukherjee is his favourite Indian designer, which made a visit to his store a necessity. “It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The interiors, embroidery, it’s interesting how they make the traditional and old-fashioned modern, even with menswear."

It’s easy to understand why the 31-year-old connects with Mukherjee’s aesthetic, for he considers old-world glamour, especially from the Studio 54 (nightclub) days of the 1970s, his forever muse. His knowledge of the era comes from his incredibly glamourous mother and her friends, who would dress to the nines for parties with artist Andy Warhol and designer Donatella Versace. His Spring/Summer 2020 line is inspired by Barbra Streisand’s look in the 1968 movie Funny Girl. In addition to Streisand, Halpern says his constant muses include divas such as Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey.

“For the past few seasons, I have singled out women who I find inspirational and aspirational. I love Barbra Streisand, she was a huge part of my upbringing. Hers is the quintessential story of a girl from New York who became a superstar—the first time she performs at the Ziegfeld Follies, women coming down the stairs with headdresses, costumes, birds, it’s incredible. It was beautiful to see Barbra come out singing and pregnant, amid women in headdresses and birds and gorgeous costumes. The last bit, when she is singing and you can only really see her hands, face and décolletage is so glamorous."

Ensemble from Halpern's Spring/Summer 2020 collection.
Ensemble from Halpern's Spring/Summer 2020 collection.

He says he likes to look at history to understand where traditions of dressing come from and interpret them for the modern woman. Halpern’s signature element is the use of sequins in different forms, an aesthetic he says he developed while pursuing his postgraduation at Central Saint Martins, London. “I was looking for materials when I was doing fabric research and I started to go to these awful markets in London which offered sequins in horrible colours and quality. But mixing shine and glitter was new for me; it was reflecting the times, and times are tough. With sequins, I wanted to do my interpretation of escapism and fantasy. Just like old couture houses would use Dutch satin season after season and reinterpret it, I wanted to do that with sequins."

Fast forward to 2016, Halpern launched his label. Since then, his designs have been worn by model Adwoa Aboah, actors Marion Cotillard, Kangana Ranaut and Lupita Nyong’o, lawyer Amal Clooney and singer Katy Perry. He says his aesthetic is curated by merging the grittiness of New York with the calm elegance of London. And having a unique point of view is what he feels is crucial to running a label in times of economic slowdown and online shopping. “You have to be yourself and do things that are not fast. You have to grow slowly."

Halpern’s graduation collectiongarnered much acclaim and an instant opportunity to work with Donatella Versace. “It was the most formative part of my education. She taught me dedication, craftsmanship, and how she supports her team and young designers to make the most extraordinary clothing."

His love for shine and glam has already found takers among the bling-loving Indian audience. Fifteen women were dressed in his clothes at a private dinner held at Cecilia Morelli’s place in Mumbai, he tells us excitedly. Morelli is the co-founder of the eight-year-oldLe Mill. “Even though it’s my debut here, I met a lot of clients in India. They love colour and statement as much as I do. I have never met a customer base which is as excited about fashion and experimentation as Indian women. It’s more than just bling, it’s a bit more subversive. Colour, from what I have seen, is ingrained. You see a million different colours every day, and the way Indian women translate that to their fashion is incredible and inspiring. You can wear a Halpern piece to parties, and I have seen them being worn during the day too, mixed with a cool white shirt or a T-shirt and sneakers."

Ensemble from Halpern's Spring/Summer 2020 collection.
Ensemble from Halpern's Spring/Summer 2020 collection.

Morelli says they approached Halpern to come to India as it was a logical fit for clients who are always on the lookout for great evening wear. “Halpern is targeted at the woman who loves to dress up—she is passionate about fashion but is not a fashion victim. That’s both, a Halpern and Le Mill customer, someone who respects well-crafted clothes. People can pick Halpern to wear to cocktail parties, birthdays, and also to wear at the end of a reception when you want to get out of an uncomfortable lehnga....", adds Morelli.

An easy way to wear the dramatic pieces, Halpern says, is to balance them in a way that is closest to your style. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push yourself: You should feel extraordinary. But if you go too far, it can feel inauthentic and you won’t look confident."

Dhara Vora Sabhnani is a Mumbai-based fashion and lifestyle journalist.

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