‘Halston’: Almost Fabulous

The clothes, the pouting, the decadence, the clunky Ryan Murphy script

Today, people usually remember the fashion designer Halston in one of two ways: as the self-consciously cool couturier to disco set, wearing his trademark sunglasses at night while breezing past velvet ropes with his entourage of “Halstonettes,” or as the name stamped all over a progressively downmarket assortment of accessories, luggage, cosmetics, homewares, and other products—a cautionary tale of lucrative licensing run amok. In a new Netflix limited series, director Daniel Minahan gives us both Halstons and fills in the gaps between them, following the designer’s three-decade career as he progresses from dressing the stars to being the star—and, ultimately, flaming out. 

Sleek, sensual surfaces defined the 1970s; superficiality was a feature, not a bug. As the graffiti on the wall of Studio 54 reads: “I worship Satin.” More than dresses, Halston was a maker of worlds; he surrounds himself with mirrors, blood-red carpets, exotic draperies, gleaming glass, plush suedes, and sheer, shiny silks. “His whole allure is in materials,” an assistant says, in defense of Halston’s astronomical fabric bills. ‘Halston’ promises to take us behind the slick public persona to the “messy, miserable” person, and almost succeeds. 

The show neatly sums up Halston’s early stint as Bergdorf Goodman’s in-house milliner—the man responsible for the Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat—in a few hilariously profane minutes. A few minutes more, and he’s picked up a new boyfriend in a bar and, with the same lopsided ratio of bravado to effort, reinvented himself as a clothing designer. When his first collection flops, he rationalizes: “I was brilliant—they’re the dummies.” This breakneck pace and sometimes unearned confidence characterize ‘Halston’s’ five-episode run; the show zigzags between creative peaks and personal troughs, covering 1961 to 1990 in broad, soapy strokes.

Though straight Scotsman Ewan McGregor was a counterintuitive (and controversial) choice to play gay Midwesterner Roy Halston Frowick, he slips into the part like one of Halston’s ubiquitous Ultrasuede shirtdresses. (“It’s sexy. It’s comfort. It’s freedom.”) The cast is full of similarly pleasant surprises. The first episode introduces Halston’s dysfunctional found family: illustrator Joe Eula (Broadway veteran David Pittu), model-turned-jewelry-designer Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan), and Joel Schumacher, the film director, who was then fresh out of Parsons School of Design (played with sad-sack stoner charm by Rory Culkin). Bill Pullman dispenses tough love as David Mahoney, the fatherly Norton Simon CEO who propelled Halston to dizzying heights of fame and fortune but was ultimately the architect of his downfall. Kelly Bishop (Gilmore Girls) swears like a septuagenarian sailor as fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert. 

Best of all, Krysta Rodriguez (Smash) channels Liza Minnelli—“the woman I love,” as Halston calls her. Rodriguez’s Liza is the sunshine to Halston’s sneering black cloud, and the show kicks into high gear whenever they’re together. She’s the get-a-grip BFF the damaged, insecure designer needs, lecturing him after one tantrum: “You grab your smelling salts, you haul your cheeks off the fucking fainting couch, and you march that tight fabulous ass back in there!” ‘Halston’ could have used more of that warmth and charisma to offset the designer’s acerbic wit and explosive temper. 

If you know your fashion history—or you’ve seen the documentaries Halston (2019) or Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution (2016)—you’ll have an easier time recognizing the cast of characters, and a better appreciation for the loving attention paid to the details of Halston’s famously chic homes and workplaces, as well as his creative process. Many people have described Halston’s trick of turning a piece of fabric into a stunning gown with just one or two snips of the scissors, but it’s hard to picture until you see McGregor do it, repeatedly.

And the show does justice to the Battle of Versailles, the landmark 1973 fashion show that pitted Halston and other American designers against their French counterparts, in a way the grainy surviving film footage of the event can’t. Because this is a Ryan Murphy production, we don’t just get snippets but multiple expertly choreographed verses of “Liza with a Z” and “Bonjour, Paris!” 

But all the eye candy can’t distract from a clunky script. Necessary exposition veers into info-dumping. “I invented publicity in the fashion industry!” Lambert tells Halston, who already knows this. “I gave this world the Met Ball, the Coty Awards—of which you were a recipient, I might add!” There’s a lot of heavy-handed ironic foreshadowing. Halston proclaims that “jeans are a fad” and protests: “We can’t just go out all night any night of the week!” People keep telling Halston that he’s changed: his voice, his looks, his personality. But there’s little evidence of this; we meet him almost fully formed, his artistic temperament and affected mannerisms intact.

Whoever Roy Frowick once was, he’s long gone; Halston’s onscreen transformation consists of slightly different hair, a fake tan, and a few more turtlenecks. At some point, he stops being judgy about drugs and partying and starts enjoying them, but it’s not clear why. Is it his volatile relationship with rent boy Victor Hugo (Gian Franco Rodriguez)? The pressures of fame? The spoils of success? Halston’s only apparent motivation is his unhappy childhood, seen in a few sepia-toned flashbacks. A few additional episodes would have given the series space to explore these unanswered questions, and balance Halston’s dramatics with more quiet moments of inspiration and introspection.

McGregor clearly has fun with the Halston-ness of it all—the bitching, the flirting, the chain-smoking, the pouting, the peacocking, the coked-up meltdowns—and he’s got a long track record of making slimy behavior seductive. It probably was fun to be Halston—for a while, at least. “Do you ever feel like everything you have could disappear in an instant?” Halston asks Liza. Eventually, it does: the city raids and closes Studio 54, Halston’s business nosedives, and gay men start getting sick, Halston included. In reality, those things happened over the span of a decade, but the series compresses them into a tight downward spiral. Halston, the designer so cool and minimalist he only needed one name, loses the right to use it; emancipated from his corporate overlords, he belatedly rediscovers his joy in designing, and in living. 

Somewhere in ‘Halston’, there’s a timely critique of the fashion industry, where drugs and sex keep the ideas flowing while offering relief from the unbearable stress of producing multiple collections every year. But it’s hard to see behind all the smoke and mirrors. The whole allure is in the materials.

 

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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