Michael Halpern is one of the most exciting, attention-commanding designers working in London right now. And we mean that very literally: His flashy, heavily embellished, color-happy pieces catch the eye and hold the gaze. He's also one of a handful of American designers building houses across the pond and making their mark on the U.K. fashion scene. At the end of the day, though, Halpern's a New Yorker, through and through: "I'm sure you can hear it in my voice," he tells me over the phone in February.
Halpern grew up between New York City, where his mom lived, and upstate New York, where his dad was, and spent his undergraduate years in Manhattan at Parsons. He didn't move to London until his mid-20s, when, after working in New York at J.Mendel and Oscar de la Renta, he decided he wasn't done developing as a designer. That, and he always wanted to live in Europe.
"I went abroad to Paris when I was at Parsons, and that was amazing," he says. "I always knew I wanted to come back to Europe. It was a combination of wanting to do the MA at Central Saint Martins, [which] so many incredible people had done — Christopher Kane, John Galliano, Roksanda Ilincic, Alexander McQueen — and, at the time, the mystery of living in another country and the excitement of living in a different culture. I really needed all of those things to feed my soul."
The rest is fashion history: Halpern's graduate collection was a massive hit when it walked at London Fashion Week in 2016, and even got him a job offer from Donatella Versace to work on the Atelier Versace haute couture collections in Milan. The following year, he won the Fashion Award for British Emerging Talent in Womenswear; he was recognized again in 2020, for his time as a volunteer making PPE and for his Spring 2021 lookbook honoring U.K.'s frontline workers amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Halpern first got to London, his designs looked very different from what we expect to see from him now: For one, he remembers how, for his first project at Central Saint Martins, he worked exclusively in black. Thinking back on it, he says that came from a place of fear. "I was scared to express myself in a way that didn't fit the mold of what should be in fashion at that moment," he explains. It was the MA program that really allowed him to break out from that — an experience that "was so freeing and so exciting, to be able to step out of my own self-conscience and experiment, play with color and texture and fill that in a way that I never have done before."
Halpern always knew he wanted to go out on his own as a designer, but he wasn't planning on doing it straight out of grad school. "It happened organically. [After I graduated from Central Saint Martins] it was just me, and I kept getting the messages from stores and buyers. I was like, 'Well, I don't even own a company. I'm working at another company right now,'" he remembers. "It felt like I needed to strike while the iron was hot, in a way. I stayed at Versace part-time and then started Halpern. I'd go back and forth from Milan to London. I started really, really small, with my MA collection — just fulfilled orders for a few stores. And then things grew very quickly."
Those three chapters of the designer's life — studying at Parsons, moving to London for Central Saint Martins and working for Versace in Milan — have ultimately, most consequently shaped the Halpern we see today.
"I graduated from Parsons in 2010 — 10 years ago now, which I can't believe — and at that time, [the program was] more technical. You had pattern-making classes, sewing classes, collection development classes. That's very different from the way that the masters worked at Central Saint Martins. It's much more self-driven, self-led practice," he explains. "Having both of them — the slightly more technical and more merchandising side of Parsons, and the much more creative and freely-led side of Central Saint Martins — was really, really helpful for me to run a business, to know how to make clothing in a really real way. Then I went to go work at Versace, and that was the tipping point for me into the type of clothing I do now."
Beyond learning the art of couture, many of Halpern's biggest takeaways from his time at Versace came from Donatella herself, he says: "Donatella has always been an inspiration for me. The way she approaches fashion and the way she is so inherently knowledgeable about her brand and her customer, the way she treats her team like a family — those are all things that I learned at Versace and that's how I endeavor to work with my team here in London. She's always been and also will be a huge inspiration and support for me."
That "super-glammy" energy that runs through his work — and that garnered him so much acclaim across the globe — goes back to his roots in New York City and his mom, who was a regular at Studio54. "From a design point of view, one thing that I always go back to about New York is the energy of the city. Just to be out and meet people and go to parties and go out to bars — that glamour of the evening is something that's really special and something that will always stay with me with my design aesthetic," he explains. "Being able to experience that as a college student and into my early working days, it's something that continually shaped my design language."
Still, when it came time to formally establish his company, London felt like the only place to do it: "I loved living here. I love the fashion scene here, and how the fashion press and buyers and stores were so enormously supportive of young talent. And I thought, 'I made my first mark here.' I couldn't see myself being a designer anywhere else at that time."
Pre-pandemic, Halpern would travel back to New York frequently. ("My family is still there. A lot of my friends are still there. We sell to stores there.") Though he "never says never," he's not sure if moving back is in the cards, at least at this point of his life. "I don't know if I ever thought of myself staying [in London] for almost forever, but I do feel that way now," he explains. "I truly feel I'm part of a community here. I'll be a citizen in 2021, which will be really exciting. It feels like home now."
Halpern the Brand's feet are firmly planted in the U.K., too: In addition to having a team based out of London, all of its production happens in Leicester — a decision that was made early on in the business.
"I thought that this country has given so much to me, through education and through support — it was a small way for me to be much more sustainably-minded and to give back to a country that has done so much for me," Halpern explains.
He has continued to give back in other ways, too. Last spring, he volunteered to make surgical gowns for medical professionals fighting Covid-19 in London alongside other members of the fashion community. Months later, when it came time to present Spring 2021, Halpern decided to honor those frontline workers by having women from various public service sectors, from the NHS to the TFL, model the collection.
"It was the amazing opportunity to help tell these people's stories and at the same time, to be able to say thank you in a really extraordinary way to all of these frontline workers," he says. "That was a really profound shift in being able to storytell like that, and something that I want to continue doing, because it's something that I felt really proud to be a part of. And it just felt so natural for us to show the collection on such different people and break down the idea of glamour."
That's not to say the runway is over for Halpern — just that the challenges of Covid-19 invited an exercise in reimagining how a designer presents their work that he hadn't previously engaged in. "There are so many ways to connect with people and tell stories," he argues. "There's no one formula anymore of how or when to show a collection. I think that's really freeing for a lot of designers, myself included."
The ongoing global pandemic necessitated a digital debut for Fall 2021, once again. But that doesn't dim the bright energy and ostentatiousness that have made us fall in love with his work in the first place.
"It's about giving people fantasy and a bit of a break from the hard shit that everyone's going through all the time," Halpern says of his approach to design. "A draped bustier with sequins — those are the things that will never go away because there are so many ways you can do it. You can constantly develop it and push it. It can mold into different things. And I think those types of super-glam pieces that are synonymous with Halpern now are things that people will want from us constantly. They want that over-the-top thing that's beautifully made and teeters the line between completely wild and ostentatious and really beautifully, classically-made clothing."
Lately, he's been reflecting on — and inspired by — what he describes as "the power of fashion… When you wear something that makes you feel great, that looks beautiful, that makes you feel confident — I don't think there are many things that can compete with that." That’s what he's always working towards with his namesake brand, he says. He's also been feeling optimistic, which helps: "We have a new President in the United States, things could get better — things will get better with COVID, eventually. I think having that optimism is really important for me now.”
Looking back on his time in London, Halpern says it's given him permission to be a "really authentic designer."
"It's not about fulfilling some quota or hitting some numbers. It's not about the bottom line here when it comes to fashion," he says. "It's about expression and creativity and being really free to design what you feel the most passionate about. If I were in any other situation, I don't know if I would have that opportunity. I'm so grateful to London for that. It can only get better. It's been a hard year for everyone, in all different walks of life, and I'm just excited to create and continue making beautiful things."