“You are only as good as the people you dress” – Halston.
To the world, he is better known as Halston: the first American fashion designer who changed fashion forever. The new Netflix limited series Halston tells the story of fashion legend Roy Halston Frowick.
Created by Ryan Murphy and directed by Daniel Minahan, the five-episode series is adapted from the 1991 book Simply Halston: The Untold Story by Steven Gaines. It focuses on the rise and fall of the late designer (played by Ewan McGregor) known for dressing socialites and celebrities–notably Babe Paley, Liza Minnelli, and Jackie O.
With being the designer that brought American fashion onto the grid, many have been interested in Halston’s life. It is not the first time that his glamorous and tortured story has been put in the spotlight (2019 documentary Halston). But Ryan Murphy takes Halston and produces a version of him that does not try to escape his queerness. Some might not agree with this version of him, but Halston definitely shows us that with fame and status, stardom can also be very lonely.
Episode 1: “Becoming Halston”
The opening shot brings us to Halston’s hometown in 1933: a farm in Evansville, Indiana. Quite creative since his early days, Episode 1 shows Halston taking feathers from the chicken coop and making a hat for his mom. By 1961, he is known for designing Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hats. Unfortunately, by 1968 Jackie O stops wearing them, and Halston’s hats become an afterthought.
The intro shows us how quick trends fade, and Halston sets out on his journey to rebrand himself. He tries to take a page from Ralph Lifshitz (now globally known as Ralph Lauren). Halston tries to create an exclusive American couture line for Bergdorf Goodman. However, the fashion world is not interested in his black and white dresses and not a single piece sells.
Unfazed, Halston meets up with illustrator Joe Eula (played by David Pittu), convincing him to join the Halston team. Eula tells Halston, “You want to be Balenciaga. There’s already a Balenciaga. What we need is to figure out your signature.” At the same time, Halston is introduced to Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez), who compares Halston’s pillbox hats to her famous mother Judy Garland: “You and me are living under the shadow of something, and we’re both trying to do the same thing.” Minnelli becomes Halston’s first muse, shaping her into a friend and collaborator over the course of the series.
Securing funding of $100,000, Halston gathers a small crew to set up shop: Joe Eula, model Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan), and junior partner Joel Schumacher (Rory Culkin). Halston takes Schumacher’s idea of a flowy, dyed fabric and makes dresses out of them. Though the show doesn’t lead to any sales, it gains American socialite Barbara “Babe” Paley’s interest. During the meeting with Paley (Regina Schneider), Halston shows her Ultrasuede synthetic trench coats, claiming “It’s sexy. It’s comfort. It’s freedom.” She takes one in every color.
Episode 2: “Versailles”
The star of this episode is the iconic Battle of Versailles, which pitted French designers against American designers. In the French establishment is Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Marc Bohan (Dior), and Hubert de Givenchy. The American establishment is composed of Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, and Halston.
Though at first, Halston was not interested in the 1973 fundraiser for the Versailles, which also doubled as a means to get the American fashion name out to the world. Despite every woman in Central Park wearing his Ultrasuede, Halston tells publicist Eleanor Lambert (Kelly Bishop) that he can’t do a fundraiser because he’s broke. Trying to balance art and commerce, Eleanor sets Halston up with David Mahoney who wants to buy Halston’s licensing, proposing mass production. However, Halston initially refuses, saying “you’re only as good as the people you dress.”
Norton Simon sponsors Halston’s team to go to the Versailles show, and Halston convinces Minnelli to tag along and perform for him. With his entourage, they travel to Paris with 24 designs in an attempt to show their worth to the fashion industry. While nothing seemed to be going right at first – the backdrop size is wrong, costumes have not arrived, looks need to be designed – Minnelli forces Halston to pick himself up as his nerves get the better of him. And Halston does, slaying the runway with a 70s purple sequin dress, topped with a feathered hand fan that gets him a standing ovation. Original designs can be seen here.
By the end of the episode, we see a glimpse of Halston wanting protection from his “magical” childhood that was actually lonely and scary. He signs the contract with David, “If I sign that contract, I must never, ever, be left to feel unappreciated, underfunded, unprotected, unsafe. Promise me that, David.” While not everyone agrees with him selling his name, Halston gets new cash flow at the expense of his trademark name, pushing him through to stardom.
Episode 3: “The Sweet Smell of Success”
Focusing on Halston’s first fragrance, the third episode reminds us of Halston’s roots and the scents that created him. In the opening scene, we watch Elsa design a sensual perfume bottle for Halston, though the gravity defying perfume stopper is not sold to Mahoney. In an interesting conversation about phallic symbolisms, Halston is told the stopper is impossible to manufacture.
Arguing that creativity wins commercialism, Halston writes a check for $50,000 to pay for his own manufacturer, unwilling to compromise the exclusivity of the design. To create his scent, we are met with Adele (Vera Farmiga), who forces Halston to dig into his past for scents that evoke emotions. Adele bends Halston to her demands, and we get to see Halston’s inner, broken child more than ever in this episode. They discuss different scents and the memories Halston has connected to them: his fascination with scentless orchids, spring grass, tobacco, and his lover’s jockstrap.
Liza is off getting married and Halston has a breakdown. His lover boy, Victor Hugo (Gian Franco Rodriguez), points out that Halston just wants yes men and loyalty, and not everyone can do that for him. While work-life balance is not something that Halston achieves, his perfume becomes one of America’s best-selling perfumes, achieving $85 million in sales within the first two years. This led Halston to launch a plethora of new products–including suitcases, sunglasses, and carpets.
Despite all his success, we see that Halston does not find much love at Studio 54. In the heartbreaking final scene, we watch Hugo witnessing his lover having sex with another partner. While people are lined up buying products by Halston, he does not seem to have anything for himself.
Episode 4: “The Party’s Over”
Studio 54-era of Halston’s life: This episode shows Halston’s spiral into drugs and partying. The surplus and gluttony in overwhelming success and his cocaine addiction has him dropping the ball on his business, Liza faints on the dancefloor due to her drug habit, and there is a vent death at Studio 54.
Calvin Klein takes reign as top designer, and Halston spends his time cursing his competitor out. David Mahoney believes that jeans could be Halston’s next best creation and proposes the idea to Halston, in which is declined. As he loses his self-control, Halston designs have stopped selling at a growing rate. On the other hand, Elsa starts to be successful at Tiffany’s as a jewelry designer. Halston’s ego takes a problem with this, as he thinks he is the only one with talent and that Elsa should be thankful for him and give him credit. Belittling everyone around him due to jealousy, Halston pushes everyone away, left with nothing but his own name.
Halston’s mother dies unexpectedly, and this changes his mind about designing jeans when he sees a Calvin Klein commercial (starring Brooke Shields, originally from the 1980s). His ego takes a beating when David tells him he is “six months too late,” and Halston is no longer setting the fashion trends.
Things don’t look up for Halston either, as Mahoney tries to take Norton private and fails, resulting in a change of management. The AIDS pandemic is seen through the lens of Victor who tests positive for HIV, and Liza checks into rehab. Unsurprisingly, Halston is left in isolation by the end of it. With no other choice, he becomes the inhouse designer for JCPenney for some petty cash, and we no longer see the Halston that believed in exclusivity and creative control.
Episode 5: “Critics”
With designing how JCPenney, Halston is no longer having any fun. With pushing everyone around him away, he is only left with his assistant by his side and that is only because she is “getting paid to do so.” Halston begins showing up to the office at dinner, pushing off his deadlines, all while snorting large amounts of cocaine.
The company replaces Halston with designer John David Ridge (Jack Mikesell), the first person that lets Halston know he is an embarrassment, “How dare you be so irresponsible with the empire you spent your whole life working for?”
After being diagnosed with HIV and forced to retire, Halston’s life is put into perspective, and he really thinks about what he wants out of this life. Perhaps afraid that he might die without a final design to call his own, he seeks out his friend Martha Graham, and designs a spandex collection for her show. The reviews for this design gives Halston the acceptance that he was searching for the entire life and he finally admits that “Halston” was not just him, it was his entire team.
The series ends with Halston leaving to the West Coast and spending the rest of his days along the Pacific Ocean, mixed with tearful snippets of him watching Graham’s Persephone.
“We’re given one name… just one. And that’s all we have when we’re on the earth. And that’s all we leave behind us when we’re gone. I wasn’t precious enough with mine.” – Halston to Joe Eula, Halston Episode 5.
While five episodes is not enough to talk about Halston’s magnificent life, we get to see the grandeur of Halston’s reign in Ryan Murphy’s rendition. Captivating and intoxication, we see his friendships and intimate scenes unfolding in the series. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, you cannot deny the legacy that is Halston.
“Halston” premiered May 14 on Netflix.