The new Netflix limited series Halston takes a closer look at the man, the myth, the fashion legend born Roy Halston Frowick. Of course, the world knows him better as Halston, the single-named American designer who changed fashion forever.
The five-episode series based on the 1991 book Simply Halston: The Untold Story by Steven Gaines focuses on the rise of the late designer (played by Ewan McGregor) known for dressing big-time celebrities — Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jackie O — who ended up becoming a celeb in his own right. But that fame came at a price and the series delves into his personal struggles.
It’s not the first time Halston’s glamorous and tortured life has been given the cinematic treatment. (See: the 2019 doc Halston.) But the stylish Ryan Murphy-produced take on his life doesn’t shy away from his queerness or loneliness. Some might not love this version of him; Halston’s family has called it “inaccurate” and “fictionalized” and McGregor's casting has been the subject of controversy. But what Halston does show is that it can be very lonely at the top.
Still, Halston was a man all his own; this guy didn’t just have a way with fabric, he also had a way with words. He is known for the deliciously snobby motto: “You are only as good as the people you dress.” To capture it all, we're recapping the Netflix take on his life — including all the best celebrity sightings in the series. Get ready because this show is going to be a fashionably bumpy ride.
Episode 1: “Becoming Halston”
Even when he was growing up, in 1933, on a farm in Evansville, Indiana, Halston was a snappy dresser. Also quite creative, taking the feathers from the chicken coop and making a cloche for his dear ol’ mom. By 1961, he had become first lady Jackie Kennedy’s hatmaker, designing her iconic pillbox. Unfortunately, seven years later, Haston went from saying “God bless Jackie Kennedy” to “Fuck Jackie Kennedy” after she decided to stop wearing hats so as not to crush her bouffant.
This intro offers a sense of how quick trends fade. It’s why Halston is so interested in re-branding himself to be more than the hat guy. He wants to be the guy who can do everything. To do that, Halston takes a page from Ralph Lifshitz (before he changed his surname to Lauren) and his Polo shirts and decides to play a little hardball. He wants to create a complete line of custom couture for Bergdorf Goodman. Unfortunately, the world isn’t that interested in his black and white mod dresses. “I was brilliant; they’re the dummies,” he says when he sells not one single dress.
Halston is all about that hustle, so he keeps trying to break the mold. But this isn’t a one-man operation, as the “putting together a team” montage shows us. He finds a muse in Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez, in a spot-on performance), who, like him, is trying to get out from behind the shadow of a powerful woman. She even compares his pillbox hat for Jackie O to her famous mom Judy Garland. They both need to break out on their own to be taken seriously as artists.
His other “merry misfits” include illustrator Joe Eula (David Pitta), model Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan), and junior partner and director-to-be Joel Schumacher (Rory Culkin). For Halston, Schumacher presents a new way of dying his fabric, which would become the thing that helped him do something no one else is doing — his ultimate goal as a designer. (Halston’s commitment to getting Schumacher to quit doing speed is an interesting counter to his Miranda Priestly throwing down the cerulean gauntlet vibe in the studio.)
In the blink of an eye, Halston goes from designing a “prom dress for a martian” to flowy dresses that are the definition of “modern sensual.” These looks are somehow both billowy and tailored; the kind of stylish caftans we all might want to live in post-pandemic. But this line isn’t met with the fanfare he hoped for. Still, he knows all he needs is for some New York socialite to say "yes" to his clothes and he’ll hit the big time.
Halston talks a big game of knowing what it’s like to be on the outside looking in, which is why it’s sort of disheartening to see him give up his loner status to become one of the beautiful people. He throws on his soon-to-be signature black turtleneck, the bug-eyed sunglasses, and a bit of bronzer. He slicks back his hair to become a new character that might be better received by the NYC elite. He even cattily mocks Liza behind her back for being a little cheesy.
But when he finally gets a "yes" from socialite Babe Paley (Regina Schneider) it’s not because of those things, it’s because he created a new kind of fabric, Ultrasuede, a suede that won’t get ruined in the rain. “It’s sexy. It’s comfort. It’s freedom,” he says of his Ultrasuede dresses, which she wants in every color.
“Orchids are part of my process.”
Jackie Kennedy is only seen in news footage from her husband John F. Kennedy’s inauguration day, but it’s clear the woman knew how to wear a hat.
Liza Minelli, who gets her Star Is Born moment when we see her perform “Liza With A Z” in her “Buster Brown getup,” as Halston calls it. But that moment she sees herself in that red Halston halter gown lets you see what a style icon she was poised to become with a little help from a friend. It might be why she has never said a bad word about him.
Joel Schumacher, the late director of Batman & Robin who helps Halston find his signature style. In 2019, he told The Hollywood Reporter, “If you look at photographs of Halston, of his life, it might seem to people that maybe he was arrogant and full of himself. Well, we all have a touch of that. What I remember was, he was kind. He was one of the most loving, kindest friends I’ve ever had.”
Barbara "Babe" Paley, a New York City socialite and style icon whose second husband was William S. Paley, the founder of CBS. In 1958, she made the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
Episode 2: “Versailles”
Are you ready to rumble? It’s time for the legendary Battle of Versailles. In one corner, it’s the French fashion establishment: Dior, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent. In the other corner, are the Americans: Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, and Halston.
Except, at first, Halston isn’t all that interested in competing in the 1973 fundraiser to repair Versailles, which also acted as a way for American designers to show the world what they’ve got. He doesn’t have time to raise money for Marie Antoinette’s former home because he’s broke. This is despite the fact that every woman in Central Park seems to be wearing his designs.
Halston is trying to balance art with commerce and realizing it’s not easy. It’s why fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert (played by Emily Gilmore herself, Kelly Bishop) steers him towards businessman David Mahoney (Bill Pullman). He wants to get into fashion and thinks he can help Halston’s money problems by helping with his manufacturing. He wants to put in a place an assembly line system to get every woman in his clothes. Halston believes “you’re only as good as the people you dress.” But David makes the case that he doesn’t have to just design for the stars, he’s “one dress away from being the star.”
It seems like his dream, but Halston seems scared to take that next step forward, terrified to really put himself out there. Afraid that consumerism will drain him of his creativity. When he asks Eleanor, “Am I a businessman or an artist?” She says, “Do you have to choose? Why not both?” (It should be noted that Eleanor’s best bon mot of the episode is, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and take a shit in it, Halston.”)
To be both, Halston has to go to Paris. He talks a big game but now he has to put his money where his mouth is. Of course, he asks his bestie Liza to come with him and perform in the show. Good thing too, since she is the one who gives Halston some tough love when his nerves start to get the best of him. Nothing seems to be going right at Versailles — costumes haven’t arrived, he needs to design more looks, and the backdrop is the wrong size — but she pushes him to keep going just as she did on Cabaret. She reveals that his costumes actually gave her the confidence to perform in the Bob Fosse film. He had her back. “And you’ve got me,” Liza says. “And now I have a fucking Oscar.”
He picks himself up and slays that runway with sequined ‘70s looks that includes a last minute royal purple disco skirt that he topped with a feathered fan. How would someone wear this in real life? Who knows, but it earns him a standing ovation.
In this episode, you begin to see how fragile Halston is. How that “magical childhood” of his was actually rough, scary, and isolating. All he wants now is some protection. It’s why he signs a contract with David, asking him to promise that he won’t “be made to feel underappreciated, underfunded, or unsafe.”
Not everyone agrees with his decision to sell his trademark, which is also his name. But all he sees are the possibilities that come with this new cash flow. His final words could be the sign of something great or foreshadow his downfall: “Just think of all the things I could do.”
“I must be a real artist because I’m a terrible businessman”
Eleanor Lambert, the fashion publicist and founder of the New York Fashion Week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and the Met Gala.
Josephine Baker gave the finale performance during the French portion of the Battle of Versailles. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see the legendary entertainer and activist do her thing.
Stephen Burrows, the Battle’s youngest and only Black designer, earned praise from Yves Saint Laurent for his jersey gowns. He was a fashion pioneer whose lettuce-hemmed dresses were staples in the dance clubs of the ‘70s.
Bill Blass, known for his relaxed, but elegant designs, came to the Battle looking to “prove himself worthy of Paris,” according to The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History author Robin Givhans.
Episode 3: “The Sweet Smell of Success”
To the sweet sounds of Italian pop, we watch Elsa design the most sensual glass perfume bottle Halston has ever seen, only to be told its off-center stopper makes it impossible to manufacture. Not to mention, takes away all the phallic symbolism of the stopper. “What kind of penetration can you get with that?” is a question Halston didn’t expect to hear in regards to perfume.
It’s 1974 and again he is arguing for creativity over commercialism. To prove his point he’s willing to put his own $50,000 on the line. “You business people always say the talent can’t pay, and yet we do, constantly, in ways you can never and will never understand,” he tells David. He knows what the people want, not Max Factor, a commercial brand that Halston shades by calling “tacky” and “cheap.” His snobbish attitude on the subject of Max Factor’s drug store accessibility is “If everybody can have something what’s the point of having it?” He’s interested in exclusivity at all costs and has yet to pay the price for being unwilling to compromise.
The act of creating his signature women’s scent with Adele (Vera Farmiga) forces him to dig into his past. He’s asked to think of three words from his childhood and ends up bawling over the acceptance he felt from the scent of shaving cream. It’s another clue of just how much Halston has been trying to outrun his early years.
He yearns for intimacy, but as his boy toy Victor Hugo (Gian Franco Rodriguez) points out, he’s interested only in loyalty on his own terms. He wants yes men and women and not everyone’s willing to give themselves over to his genius. Even Liza is going off to get married, which is part of the reason Halston seems to be having a bit of a breakdown. (That tantrum at the Max Factor office was quite a performance, I must say.)
Work life balance is not certainly not something Halston seems able to achieve right now, but he is a born perfumier, according to Adele. (The sight of Farmiga taking a big whiff of that jockstrap is begging to become a meme.) His perfume became a bestseller, exceeding expectations, which encouraged him to launch even more “Halston” products: carpets, luggage, sunglasses. He’s become more brand than man.
However, he’s not finding much love at Studio 54. That final shot of him taking a drag of his cigarettes as he watches his lover with someone else is heartbreaking. People may be buying up all the products that bear his name, but it doesn’t feel like he has much to call his own.
“Is this conversation over or do you want to talk some more about how I don’t know how to fuck?”
Liza Minelli marries Jack Haley Jr., the son of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy’s daughter marries the Tin Man’s son she wears a bright yellow Halston pantsuit.
Episode 4: “The Party’s Over”
We have entered the Studio 54 phase of Halston’t life. It’s sex, drugs, and disco. His coke habit has got him dropping the ball on his business duties —an assistant even remarks that he and his team of designers went through a two-week supply in a day. But his brand is still as popular as ever. “Halston, I’m wearing you!” a Studio 54 wannabe shouts at him from behind the velvet rope.
You'd think that after Liza fainted on the dancefloor due to her drug habit that Halston may take that as a sign that he’s partying a little too hard. Nope, he just spends his time cursing Calvin Klein and his jeans, who have become his biggest competitor. Halston believes jeans — or “dungarees” as he calls them — are a fad. But David believes they could be his next great creation — and he needs one fast.
David reveals to Joe that despite Halston putting his name on everything from luggage to wigs, his short attention span has caused the brand’s sales to plateau. He’s become concerned that he didn’t invest in a designer, but “orchids, and coke, and parties at Studio 54.” The Halston fragrance is keeping the business afloat, but for how much longer?
Halston’s enfant terrible act is starting to wear thin on everyone around him. Of course, he’s not interested in jeans, not even at the idea that he could revolutionize them. He’s pushing everyone away, belittling Elsa and Joe out of jealousy. The brand has stopped growing and so has he. He’s lost interest in designing and refuses to delegate. He doesn’t seem to see the writing on the wall. Instead he’s listening to those who don’t seem to understand what’s truly at stake. “When it’s the end, we’re going to know it’s the end,” Victor tells him.
But life doesn’t always give you a heads up. Halston learns this after his mother dies unexpectedly. However, it’s not realizing his own mortality that changes his mind about designing jeans, it’s seeing a Calvin Klein commercial. His ego always leads and it takes a beating when David tells him he’s too late. The jeans market is saturated. “Where were you six months ago?” David asks him. For the first time in a long while, Halston isn’t setting the trends, he’s following them.
Halston seems oblivious to everything happening around him. His denial about the coke in the phone incident shows that like Joe says, he’s out of control, but he seems unwilling to change. He’s pushing everyone away, left with nothing but his brand which affords him enough money to take solace in his excess.
By the end, he is left with no choice but to become the in-house designer for JCPenney, which is an “institution like the government,” David says. As if that’s a good thing. The Halston of just two episodes ago would have laughed at the idea of taking a job just for the money. He would have fought for creative control and forced their hand on his fabric choice, but he doesn’t have that kind of power anymore. He’s become the kind of consumer-driven designer he swore he hated. What makes him any better than that “hack” (his word) Calvin Klein?
“It’s business, Halston,” David tells him. It sure is. Halston preaches that artistry and creativity is what matters most to him, but it’s been awhile since we’ve actually seen him design anything.
“What is this? It’s like an old man’s dick.”
Bianca Jagger returns, this time riding a white horse at the 30th birthday party Halston threw her at Studio 54. A party that would go down as legend as would the photo of her inside the club on horseback. But, despite the rumors, she didn’t actually ride into that party on a white horse. “It is one thing to, on the spur of the moment, get on a horse in a night club, but it quite another to ride in on one,” she wrote in a letter to the editor of the Financial Times in 2015.
Liza Minnelli went to the Betty Ford Clinic in 1984 and it is believed to be at the urging of Elizabeth Taylor, who also spent time there. A friend of Minnelli’s told The New Republic in 1985 that “because of the publicity that Liz Taylor got, I think people felt it was nothing to be ashamed of, Elizabeth Taylor looked better when she came out and she told people she was feeling good for the first time in years. I think that it was Liza’s feeling that it was O.K. to do it. It was not fashionable when Taylor did it, and Liza’s a follower, not a leader.”
Divine, the legendary drag queen known for their performances in John Waters’ films and that fake Donald Trump meme pops up at Bianca’s Studio 54 birthday.
A 15-year-old Brooke Shields shows up in the legendary “What comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” commercial from 1980.
Episode 5: “Critics”
Halston’s JCPenney fashion show feels like Halston karaoke. He’s not having fun anymore, but he is getting paid. But he’s pushed so many of closest collaborators away (Joe and Elsa) that after this disastrous fashion show, he’s left only with his assistant, who he’s technically paying to hang out with him.
At least he’s still got his vanity. After he reads the less than stellar reviews, he says with such chutzpah, “They’re all jealous of me since I’ve become a big star.” And that right there is the problem, he’s no longer interested in putting in the real work of being creative, he just wants the accolades.
The reviews don’t matter to him, but if he did care to listen he might see that the critics aren’t out to get them, they’re disappointed in what he’s become. Once known for reinventing women’s fashion, he’s now making clothes that are nothing of note. Yet he’s still acting as if everyone around him should be fawning all over him. He doesn’t seem to understand that David, in his own way, took care of him, stroking his ego to keep him make money for him. The new company isn’t interested in Halston’s tortured artist routine, they want someone who helps their bottom line.
All Halston wants is a little credit for his genius, perhaps because he worries that his life is coming to an end after being diagnosed with HIV. (Though he would tell those he knew that it was liver cancer.) Funny thing is, that’s what most people around Halston want, too. His collaborators want him to admit that his namesake brand is not actually a one-man operation. That includes Victor, who blackmails Halston for the money that he believes he’s owed for being his lover and creative partner.
Even the company that now owes Halston wants a little credit for trying to compromise with the designer. His replacement John David Ridge (Jack Mikesell) even tries to let him know that, while it’s honor to work with him, he’s become an embarrassment. “How dare you be so irresponsible with the empire you spent your whole life working for?” Ridge says, the first to really lay it out so plainly. “How could you be so careless with your own brand, your own name?”
But still Halston can’t get out of his own way. When he’s offered a million dollars to essentially do nothing, he turns it down. “I have two things you don’t have. My talent and my name,” he tells his boss. But after signing a contract, he only retains one of those things. Halston can no longer design under the name “Halston.”
This forces him to get clean and to think about what he really desires. As he tells his friend, the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (Mary Beth Peil, a.k.a. Grams on Dawson’s Creek), “I know who I am, what I am, I’m an artist. I just care about the money at this point.” Previously, Halston questioned whether he can be an artist and a businessman. What he finds out is, he couldn’t. The money was too alluring, it became the sole reason for which he designed. He stopped thinking of it as an art but a cash grab.
It’s Graham’s Persephone that helps him rediscover his passion for fashion. The glowing reviews for his balletic spandex designs bring him to tears and offer him the acceptance he was searching for his whole life. He’s finally willing to admit he didn’t do it all alone, his band of merry misfits helped him make Halston a success.
Finally, he’s found peace and is willing to leave his past behind and try something new. The final shot shows him driving off into the sunset, free from his personal and creative demons. But Halston is a cautionary tale. He spent the last 18 months of his life driving the Pacific Coast until his death in 1990, but he never got his name back.
“For a company that makes adult diapers, they sure wet their pants a lot.”
Betty Ford, the former first lady and founder of the Betty Ford Clinic, one of the best known rehabilitation centers, is heard on the phone when Halston’s boss thinks he needs to get help.
Liza Minnelli is back one last time to help send Halston off on his west coast journey by carving the turkey.